Since it was founded in May 2004 by Mark Smith and Wayne Davis, Quercus Publishing has become one of the largest independent book publishers in the U.K., and as the next step in its growth, the company has aggressive plans to expand in the U.S. At last fall’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the publisher announced that it had signed with Random House Publisher Services to handle distribution of its print and digital titles in the U.S. and Canada when it launches with 40 titles this September. Smith hopes to scale up quickly, with a total of about 80 titles set for release in Quercus’s first year, with that count going to 120 in 2015. To complement the first list, Quercus will also release 150 e-books from its U.K. backlist “to give the launch some backbone,” Smith said, while also helping drive extra revenue. Titles that sell well will then be published in print.
Quercus has been actively thinking about an American launch for more than two years, and its editors have been acquiring titles for the last 18 months with an eye on what will work in the U.S. The debut list will reflect the publishing program Quercus has established in the U.K.—one that includes a broad range of commercial fiction and narrative nonfiction, as well as children’s books. A key part of Quercus’s U.K. success had been translated crime, a category that will be featured in the U.S. as well. In fact, the lead title for the U.S. launch will be Alex, a bestseller in France written by Pierre Lemaitre. The house will kick off 2014 with The Deliverance of Evil, by Italian bestselling author Roberto Costantini. Alex will be published under the MacLehose Press imprint, whose founder, Christopher MacLehose, acquired world English rights to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. While both the Italians and French have a number of top-rated crime and thriller authors, MacLehose predicted that the next “international crime wave will be French.”
The success of Larsson helped to lay the groundwork for the Quercus U.S. expansion in a few ways; in addition to providing cash, it also showed Smith what is possible in America. “We did well in the U.S. but would have done much better if we published Larsson ourselves,” Smith remarked. (Quercus sold U.S. rights to Knopf.)
Although Smith has high hopes for the U.S., he realizes that hits like Larsson are rare and is keeping the Quercus U.S. staff lean at launch. Nathaniel Marunas, whose background includes being executive-editor-at-large at Sterling, has been hired as associate publisher, and Smith expects to hire two more employees for Quercus’s New York office by the spring.
While the emphasis in New York will be on marketing and publicity, Smith said Quercus is committed to publishing American authors. He is convinced that industry consolidation will spur authors to look for new homes. One such author is Richard North Patterson, whose next two books in the U.S., Loss of Innocence and Winter in Eden, will be released by Quercus. Plans call for Quercus’s American subsidiary to initially publish between six and 12 American authors and to eventually get to a 50-50 balance of U.S. and international authors.
Smith said expansion into the U.S. will not only generate additional sales, but will help Quercus’s publishing program in the U.K. “We lost a few deals because we couldn’t offer U.S. publication,” he said. And while there are numerous questions about the health of the U.S. market, it is doing much better than the U.K., Smith observed.
All books will be released simultaneously in print and digital in the U.S., and Smith explained that the development of the e-book market has made expansion in the U.S. more feasible. With e-books accounting for a significant portion of sales in a number of categories, “you don’t need to print 100,000 copies of a book to sit in inventory,” Smith said. Quercus had sales of just under £25 million in 2011, with e-books accounting for about 25% of revenue. Smith’s goal is to see the U.S. business become profitable in 2014 and to generate about 20% of the company’s total sales in five years.