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Lessons for start-ups

A year on from its launch, September Publishing has published four non-fiction titles, sold nearly 10,000 books and commissioned new titles well into 2018. Founder Hannah MacDonald offers eight essential learnings from its first year

Sometimes it’s hard to tell a good instinct from a personal obsession.


Te instincts that were the clearest and simplest have worked the best.

We started out with a mantra of quality, change and collaboration, and key to this was a desire to draw up a new contract that reflected reality. I became obsessed with this. Law outfit Maier Blackburn was hired for its experience with authors and estates (there is nothing like death to highlight the financial complications in life). Early on, as I waxed lyrical about a contract only two pages long that broke with history and cut to the chase, firm partner Cathleen Blackburn asked whether I would like to spend my time publishing good books or trying to persuade people to accept a weird-looking contract. So we compromised. A traditional-looking

format, its terms constructed with the Soci- ety of Authors’ input, but with clauses and language that emphasised author involve- ment. We have pushed further on expecta- tions of our authors to sell, market and self- publicise. In exchange, we have raised the upper royalty escalations. Our authors work hard, so success should be better shared.

We wanted a stable of authors with whom we could actually work collaboratively to sell books continuously. Hence our authors tend to have a voice outside of the pages—and aren’t afraid to use it. Social media only works for certain authors and readers. For us it has been about commissioning people who can teach, talk or reach into known communities. For one of our authors (Mark Tomas) it is about gigs and tweets; for others it’s about Etsy; for another it’s about art workshops; for some- one else it’s about an international network of geologists. But for some it is still about the impactful review or author endorsement.

Ruthless prioritisation early on during a project saves time and money.


Before making decisions I now ask myself: “Is it any more likely to result in an engaged reader?” If not, I have learnt to shelve it.


Just because something extra can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be. It takes a huge number of man-hours to genuinely deliver something new within the technical restrictions of e-books and where we have tinkered, it hasn’t always helped. Yet we wanted to innovate digitally, to find new ways to take beautifully published digital material to market. However, I have found that apps cost more and are harder to sell than they were four years ago, and the limitations of e-books still make it complicated to render some of our illus- trated books even pleasant to read. We are in discussions about working out of the book—and the box. For us, when technical innovation comes, it will be about finding a new channel, i.e. a different container and platform, through which to market and sell long-form writing. For instance, I still want to find a way to use NFC (near field communication) technol- ogy better. However, at September we are just as interested in innovating in the way we communicate with readers and in reconsid- ering when we do it (author Charlotte Cole’s post on our Facebook page about her


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