Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, has been among the leaders when it comes to full-service publishing houses acquiring content by self-published authors. In August 2012, the house scored back-to-back deals with self-published authors Colleen Hoover and Tina Reber, for instance. Atria also now publishes among others Katja Millay and Jamie McGuire, also both originally self-publishing authors.
It’s a new way of doing business for the 10-year-old imprint and that’s just fine for its publisher and founder, Judith Curr, who has an unconventional background for a New York-based publishing executive and seems unafraid of the rapid pace of change in today’s book industry.
Curr was raised on a sheep farm in Australia. As a teenager, she started her career in an internship in retail. She moved to a cosmetics company where she was in sales. Later, she became a manger of publicity and promotions for Christian Dior cosmetics. It wasn’t until after her time at Dior that she went into publishing. She was one of the first three employees of Transworld, now a division of Random House Australia. Although Curr always loved books, that wasn’t her reason for entering the industry (read more below).
Some 17 years later, she left Transworld as the publisher and director of the company. In 1999 she joined Simon & Schuster and in 2002 founded Atria, an imprint she could make her own.
We talked with Curr about acquiring the work of self-published authors, the new role of the editor, and why it’s important to take risks and try new things in digital book publishing — for both publishers and their employees.
Related: Q&A With Atria Editor Amy Tannenbaum
Jeremy Greenfield: You have an unconventional background for a New York publisher. Why did you initially get into publishing?
Judith Curr: I have a very superficial reason. I had a crush on someone who worked in publishing. I had also run out of things to say about the color red (in lipsticks). And I loved to read. I used the bridge of publicity and PR to move from cosmetics to publishing.
What I had to do in publishing was to sell people an ethereal idea without them being able to try it beforehand — the same way people buy cosmetics. You’re buying a dream when you buy cosmetics. My cosmetics background was also very helpful as far as packaging was concerned.
JG: For those unfamiliar, can you tell me a bit about Atria and what makes it unique?
JC: I started Atria with the idea that I wanted to have a name that embodied our intentions. I wanted to create an environment where my authors and my staff could grow and flourish. I wanted to be a bridge between the reader and the writer and I wanted to have books that added purpose to people’s lives.
And I had to start up a new business inside of a very well-established one. So it was a very good idea to be on top of everyone’s memo and everything is in alphabetical order at a publisher.
So, what could we do that wasn’t already being done here? I had to look at where the gaps were in what we were publishing and what the market opportunities were and what myself and my staff were good at developing.
JG: How many people work there?
JC: There are roughly 28 people at Atria and that doesn’t include the Howard group that I’ve just taken over. Total, we have about 40-to-45 people.
JG: Simon & Schuster recently went through a reorganization. Atria absorbed Howard. How have things changed?
JC: Howard is a religious publisher based in Nashville. I published The Secret and I have always published in the spirituality area and I believe that there’s a corridor developing between where religious publishing ends and new age publishing begins and I want to develop that corridor.
JG: How have things changed at Atria since 2007 when the Kindle was introduced?
JC: Do you remember the beginning of the Vook? Which was the idea that you could have a video embedded into an ebook. I created the first four for them [Atria was the first publisher to partner with Vook – this was in 2009]. The reason I volunteered to do that is because I wanted my editorial group to integrate digital practices into what they were doing right from the beginning. I was convinced that digital traditional publishing would go hand in glove and we’ve kept that with us ever since.
I introduced disruptive technology into my own shop. I felt nobody else knew what they were doing but I thought [these digital skills] would be a very good discipline for [my employees] to have. And I wanted them to have those skills because they wouldn’t have jobs if they didn’t learn it because they wouldn’t be able to keep up.
We’re very stable with our staff. That’s largely because they’ve been able to keep pace with things – and they’ve picked very good books. I have a responsibility to make sure their skill-set keeps pace with what’s happening in the world of publishing so they’re employable for me and elsewhere as well.
It also gave me an understanding of what the opportunities were going to be and the challenges.
JG: What are the biggest opportunities and challenges?
JC: One of the challenges for me was how do we use digital to change our content? As a result of doing the Vook and therefore working with video and text, we’ve created something now called the Atria Smartbook and it’s a physical piece of paper with QR codes throughout the text and it has enhanced content.
We just published a new one: Nick Faldo’s A Swing for Life. He made 26 pieces of video that relate to the text and to the page. When he’s giving a lesson for bunker play you can access a video demonstrating it that you get with the QR code.
The good thing about that, the unique thing about that is that every week I get a report that tell me how many people have interacted with those pieces of content. And now I’ve got this whole idea of how to turn the book itself into a store.
What form is the new book going to be after we’re all said and done with this transition? How does this change the reading experience and how does it change the writer’s craft? Unless you start playing around with these things in a real, practical way and start organizing your content differently, you’re never going to be there.
Learn more about the next evolution of the ebook at Digital Book World 2013 — Jan. 15-17 in New York City.
JG: What percentage of Atria’s revenues came from ebooks in 2011 and 2012? What levels do you expect next year?
JC: It’s very healthy.
JG: Fair enough. Can you at least tell me if it will be more next year?
We’re in a public company: Everything is expected to be more next year.
JG: Atria has developed somewhat of a reputation for acquiring the work of self-published authors. Can you talk about how that works?
JC: The biggest difference today is that anybody can self-publish. We [traditional publishers] picked up self-published books in the past, like The Celestine Prophecy and it sold 4 million books.
In the past, people had to make an investment and now the investment cost is very little.
The self-published authors put stuff out there and it’s already pre-market-tested for us. The question is, what projects out there have a larger potential than what they’ve already realized and can we add anything to the process that will make it more valuable? And my last question is what does the author want? Do they want to self-publish or work with an editor and focus their attention on developing their skills? They’re the ones we’re looking at amongst the smorgasbord we’re looking at here.
Learn more about this emerging trend at DBW 2013 as self-published best-selling author Hugh Howey (Wool) takes the stage with his agent Kristin Nelson and DBW 2013 conference chairman Mike Shatzkin to discuss Howey’s recent and unique deal with Simon & Schuster. Don’t miss out: Jan. 15-17 in New York City.
JG: What do you look for in a self-published author or work?
JC: Without giving away too many trade secrets, I always look for somebody that has a great ability for telling a story and who tells a story fast. With a lot of the self-published authors I’ve been working with, what I’d call the indie author in the new adult area, they tell a story in a different fashion. It’s really fast paced and there aren’t a lot of characters. I see how good they are at telling the story and how well they maintain my level of interest.
I also look at what reviews say about the book. Not so much the description, but the passion in which the reviews are written.
JG: Do you see Atria picking up more titles and authors this way in 2013?
JC: Maybe. If I find as many talented people as I’ve been able to find this year, then yes [this interview was conducted in late 2012].
Next year I’m publishing second and third books by people I bought this year, which is really interesting, because we’re publishing their sequels or next books, which have never been published before.
It’s a very good area and there are tons of really talented people out there and if I think I can add something to it and they want to be published by me, definitely.
JG: Simon & Schuster just launched its own self-publishing imprint, Archway Publishing. Do you see it as a place where you might find new talent?
JC: We’re looking everywhere.
JG: How has the role of the editor changed in the ebook revolution? How do you see it changing further?
JC: I do see it evolving further. Before, there were a lot of internal processes that the editor would go through that would be only used internally and it would be written in a different kind of way. Now, everything they write about their book is going to be published. Now, every description that they use will be picked up by retailers. They’re going to be copywriters for their authors’ works.
They have to work much more closely with the digital marketing people. They have to be there to help guide the author through their social media interactions but being able to balance it so they have time to write their next books.
They play a larger role in presenting the book to the reader and to bloggers than before. Editors will have a larger relationship with book bloggers than before.
Before, anything they did in the service of the book was to encourage the salespeople to go out and they became a spokesperson for the book. But now the editor becomes a conduit for a relationship with the reader in the world.
JG: Do you think editors should have more of a brand presence?
JC: That’s why we’ve just made Emily Bestler into Emily Bestler Books. She was my executive editor and she now has her own imprint and she has her name on it. That’s exactly to that point. And readers and writers and agents will come to it because it tells you what she stands for. I’m big on brands.
JG: What are your thoughts on publisher branding?
JC: I think it’s very important. I used to work for Christian Dior and it was all about the name – all about the brand. In publishing, it’s been perceived as not that important but the brand was important to retailers. Now we go directly to the reader, our brand should stand for something.
We publish a lot of African American books and so our name means a lot in that market. So, you don’t need to mean one thing to everyone but you do have to stand for quality.
If you look at all of our ebooks – we call them Atria Unbound – and the e-editions all have the Atria Unbound logo on the front of them.
JG: What about a masthead where you list inside the title all the people who were responsible for bringing it to market, like in magazines?
JC: Well, not yet, no. But now that you put the idea in my head….
JG: What’s the No. 1 thing authors can do to help their book sales, whether with you, another publisher or doing it themselves?
JC: They need to make a decision about how involved in social media they want to be. And in which parts — you don’t have to chase every new thing but if you are involved you should be deeply involved. It’s better to be deeply involved in one thing rather than superficially involved.
If they prefer to stay at home and get deeply involved in their next book, that’s what they should do.
JG: What are you reading and on what platform?
JC: I’m reading a lot of manuscripts at the moment. I just finished a book this week, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore [by Robin Sloan, Macmillan]. It’s excellent. I bought it as a physical book because I was visiting the bookstore and I like to support them. The cover glows in the dark. It’s a very interesting book and I would recommend it.