Oliver Rhodes has grand ambitions for Bookouture, the digital publishing company he founded in 2012 and hopes to build into “the best digital publisher in the world.”
He is off to a good start. In July, three titles on Amazon’s Top 20 Kindle E-books List—which reflects the bestselling e-books in the first half of the year—were published by Bookouture. One of those was Robert Bryndza’s The Girl in the Ice, the #1 e-book for Amazon in the U.S. in the first half of 2016
Rhodes founded Bookouture in 2012 and treated it as a startup. At the time, Rhodes had recently married, and he and his spouse sold one of the properties they owned in order to self-fund the business. “As is often the story with startups, we started out with minimal costs,” Rhodes said. “I worked for free in a small bedroom in our house and built out from there.”
Since then, a number of e-book successes have led to a growing staff and a more professional operation, including an office in King’s Cross, London. Currently with a staff of 10, most of whom have traditional publishing backgrounds, Bookouture will see “at least a couple more” join the ranks by year’s end, Rhodes said—enough to force the publisher to expand to a larger building in the same London neighborhood later this year.
Before heading out on his own, Rhodes served a 10-year stint at Harlequin U.K., where he was head of marketing. Rhodes sees going into digital publishing as a strategic move. He believes his model—copious attention to detail on every book he publishes, consumer-oriented content, and a global reach—gives him an advantage over competitors.
“Whilst [at Harlequin] I was very excited about the option of digital publishing, particularly the global reach and the focus on the consumer,” Rhodes said. “Often, for traditional publishers in the U.K., the focus is business to business, so that consumer focus very much appealed to me. I thought there was an opportunity in terms of authors who weren’t having a great deal of value added to them by traditional houses.”
The publisher’s first big hit was in February of 2014, with Angela Marsons’s Silent Scream, a crime thriller featuring detective Kim Stone. Silent Scream has sold more than 800,000 copies to date—and a month after its release, the author signed a deal with the publisher for four more books in the series.
Marsons was thrilled with her experience. “A year ago today... my first novel, Silent Scream, was published by the fabulous publisher Bookouture, and wow, what a year it has been,” she wrote in a blog post in 2015. The fifth book in the Kim Stone series will be published in November.
Marsons and Bryndza have sold more than one million copies each with Bookouture, according to Rhodes, who noted that 15 of the publisher’s titles have had sales of more than 100,000 copies. Authors receive 45% of net receipts on both e-book and audio sales.
The bulk of Bookouture’s publicity is drummed up via digital marketing campaigns for each book, which also include email marketing to author-focused lists. Its primary market, the U.S., accounts for more than 40% of its revenue, Rhodes said, with the U.K. not far behind.
“If I wanted the titles we published digitally to be bestsellers, then I needed to treat them like bestsellers,” Rhodes said. “That means lavish attention to editorial detail, spot-on marketing, and competitive pricing.
“Our aim in terms of pricing is always to maximize the revenue and royalties to the author,” he continued. “If we think we can make an author more money at a higher price point, we’ll do that, but we also have to bear in mind long-term earnings as well.”
Bookouture’s roster currently boasts 52 authors, and roughly 120 commercial fiction titles—mostly romance and thrillers, along with other genres, including both women’s fiction and paranormal romance—the bulk of which are priced between $2.99 and $3.99 as e-book editions. But Bryndza’s The Girl in the Ice, a current bestseller, is priced at 99¢.
“The game is to kind of create a funnel,” Rhodes said about his pricing strategy. He explained that keeping prices low on the bestselling first title of a series allowed Bookouture to hook readers and bring them back to spend more on the next titles in the series. It therefore behooved the publisher, he continued, to publish those sequels quickly.
“In terms of e-books, you want to strike when the iron’s hot,” Rhodes said. “The best time to sell someone a book is when they’ve just finished your last one. For the majority of the time The Girl in the Ice has been out, its first sequel, The Night Stalker, has also.”
In addition to e-books, the publisher sells POD paperbacks for most of its titles, and audio versions for some of its most popular books. Though the e-books have the highest sales numbers, the other formats are growing. “The focus for us at the moment is the challenge of both expanding the team and heading into the new office, with a view to expanding the publishing program next year,” Rhodes said. “At the same time, we’re working pretty hard to improve our systems and processes, so we can continue to have the same level of value to authors.”