Interview with Joel Naoum of Critical Mass

 Version 2Today, I’m very pleased to be bringing readers an interview with Joel Naoum. Joel is a Sydney-based book publisher, editor and consultant. He currently runs Critical Mass, a consultancy for authors and publishers, and previously ran Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital-first imprint Momentum. In 2011 he completed the Unwin Fellowship researching digital publishing experimentation in the United Kingdom.
I met Joel when he was at Momentum and published two adult novels of mine, the Trinity duology. It was a really fantastic experience to work with Joel and the rest of the Momentum team, and it was with great regret that I heard last year about the closure of Momentum as a stand-alone imprint, and the subsequent departure of Joel and his team. So it’s been excellent to catch up with him and chat about his very interesting new business, Critical Mass.
First of all, Joel, congratulations on launching Critical Mass! Can you tell readers about how you came up with the idea for the business, and what you see as its main objective?
Well, the name is a bit of a joke from my previous job at Momentum. We used to bend over backwards to avoid using the word “momentum” in conversation (which used to come up quite a bit in a fast-moving digital publishing imprint). One of the phrases we used to use was “building critical mass”. 
 
In a lot of ways Critical Mass is a logical follow-up to Momentum. When we conceived of Momentum six years ago we were trying to compete as a traditional publisher with the growing self-publishing trend. When digital sales began to plateau for traditional publishers, however, and I knew I was going to be leaving Momentum, I thought “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Self-publishing is still growing at a healthy rate, and authors have access to a massive range of services to help them. One thing I felt was missing, though, was the personal touch of a publisher or agent. Someone who can advise an author strategically, for their own benefit, about what steps to take next – whether you’re just starting out or you’re an established author. So I thought I could use the skills I’ve built up over the years to become a publisher-for-hire.
What have been the challenges and discoveries in setting up such a unique enterprise? 
It’s been difficult to find a way of framing the services I offer and pointing out the value in them. If an author has never been published before (or represented by a good agent) then they likely don’t know the advantages. For a lot of indie authors, publishers are the enemy – someone who has stopped them from publishing; not someone who helps them make better decisions or finds them better services to improve the quality of their publishing. It’s also been challenging to wear two hats – Critical Mass is a consultancy both for authors and for publishers, so finding a way to do both without compromising either service is a juggling act.
 How do you think your experience as founding director of Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint, Momentum, as well as the rest of your experience in the publishing has influenced and informed the direction and focus of Critical Mass?
I think Momentum in particular helped me make a transition from the slow-moving but high-quality world of traditional publishing to the lightning fast world of indie publishing. I understand what compromises need to take place to self-publish, but I also understand where not to cut corners in order to not compromise the book.
Critical Mass is aimed at three groups: authors, publishers, and content producers. With authors, you are offering a range of services to improve and streamline a self-publishing experience, which can be quite an undertaking for people attempting it alone. Can you explain the kinds of things you can do for authors going down the indie publishing route? In your opinion, when is self-publication a viable option for authors?
My first port of call is always to have a chat to authors who aren’t sure what they want to do to see if the type of project they’re working on suits self-publishing, or if they should attempt to pitch to a traditional publisher. If they’re better off attempting traditional publishing, I can help them polish their work and their pitch. If the project they’re working on suits self-publishing then I can help them decide on a publishing strategy, and then connect them to the various freelance editors, proofreaders, designers, marketers and other services to help them publish their book.
The biggest indicators for me that an author should self-publish is that they’re writing something that suits the market (books in series, genre fiction), they’re prolific (writing a book or two a year at least), they’re self-motivated and that they’re willing to experiment.
You are offering publishers a focus on technology solutions and possibilities for their business. Can you describe what’s involved? 
There are a lot of advantages to introducing digital technologies to all aspects of a publishing workflow that a lot of publishers, particularly the smaller ones, haven’t yet considered. End-to-end digital workflows save money and time, and automate work as much as possible so that the human beings inside an organisation can make intelligent decisions where needed instead of wasting their time on repetitive tasks that don’t sell more books or make them any better.
Moving to content producers, such as bloggers, you are looking at an earlier stage of writing than is implied in the services you offer to authors, with advice, for instance, on whether their content might be suitable to produce as a book. What kinds of things would you be looking at, in such content?
“Content producer” was a difficult category to come up with, and I’m still not 100% happy with the phrase. Basically I’m talking about businesses or individuals who have content, but they’re not sure if it’s a book and if so what they could do with it. This includes anyone from advertising agencies looking into book publishing for their brands, or an individual blogger who has built a platform but isn’t sure whether their content would suit book publishing. Given the breadth of what “content” is, it’s hard to make general observations, but the idea is that I’ve spent most of my career making commercial decisions about whether digital content is a book or not, and I figure other businesses and individuals might find that experience useful.
What are your views on the publishing industry, both nationally and globally? What do you see as the trends? 
 Publishing of all stripes is in a pretty good place right now. Traditional publishers are making money from both print books and digital, all the while authors have more access than ever before to top notch services and platforms to get their books out there – whether they go with a traditional publisher or do their own thing. 
 
I think things seem fairly stable right now, but the next five to ten years will likely see some more big shifts in the way audiences consume books, especially as the core audience for print books begins to age, and the people who grew up with iPads start to have kids of their own. I suspect the biggest areas for disruption are the health and wellness / lifestyle books and children’s books. I think this likely something to look for in the medium to long term, though, not in the next couple of years.
 
As always it’s also worth considering Amazon. They’re looking into launching more bricks and mortar bookstores in the US, and their in-house publishing imprints are becoming ever more powerful. If this end-to-end strategy pays big dividends you could see an even bigger juggernaut in the industry, which will likely cause more of the big traditional publishers to merge together in order to stay competitive.
Visit Critical Mass here.
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