Caleb Mason thinks he’s got something different. His company, Publerati, founded in June of this year, publishes exclusively original literary fiction, exclusively in ebook format.
With five books already published and five more slated to come out in the next few months, Mason is currently crowing about an author he’s just signed: “I’m really excited that Ellen Cooney wants to come with us. She’s the first author I’ve signed who’s been published by a big publisher. The book she submitted is so wonderful, I can’t understand why anyone would pass it up!” Cooney, who has been represented by Sterling Lord Literistic and published by Random House and others, has signed on with Publerati for her next novel titled Thanksgiving.
Mason’s company is based not on a traditional book publisher’s financial model but is instead structured like an agency. “I'm representing authors with a traditional literary agency contract. With ebooks, when I publish, I’m only taking 10% of proceeds.” Mason keeps the book prices low ($2.99 for most), but “even with a $5 book they make the same amount of money they make with a traditional print contract.” Then, like a literary agency, he will seek to sell other rights to other publishers, for example, for the print edition.
In addition to this original set-up, he has added a component that he feels is essential not only to doing things differently, but to staying true to his vision. “I wanted the brand to be more than just a book publisher.” When he learned about literacy organization Worldreader, he knew he had found the right match. The organization provides free ereaders to children and teachers across Sub-saharan Africa, and Publerati donates a portion of their proceeds to the group. Mason hopes to one day write Worldreader “a really big check.”
In the 80s, Mason held several traditional publishing jobs at Little Brown and then at Salem House Publishers, helping to build this start-up publisher. When it was acquired by Murdoch and folded into HarperCollins, Mason was “mergered out of a job.” At that point, he decided to leave the industry behind. “With a young family, I decided to do something different, so I crossed over into technology, which I’m glad I did. I caught the heyday of software publishing in the 90s. It’s similar to book publishing, but different.”
He learned many lessons from his years at Konica Minolta and DeLorme, lessons that are now informing his publishing decisions, and he experienced the era of disruption in the photography industry. “I understand what it’s like to be within an industry and looking around wondering what’s going to happen.” Mason comments on how this disruption can often come from unexpected sources: “It wasn’t the digital camera that had the biggest impact on traditional photography—it was the [mobile] phone.”
It was the arrival of yet another new piece of technology, the iPad, that spurred Mason’s decision to come back to book publishing. “I saw my first iPad a few years ago and read a book on it, and thought this is going to be amazing for books. I gotta to figure out how to do something with this.”
Throughout his career in the photography and the mapping software industries, his passion for good fiction never waned. “I love fiction. I’m an English major! It’s really what I’m most passionate about.” This passion is what ultimately brought him to the point where he decided he was ready to jump back into the book business. That and what he saw going on in the book publishing world, with its mergers and decreasing traditional options for authors. Often, he says, “consolidation is a sign of rapid decline coming soon.” In this case, he hopes it’s a time of openness to change and new business models.
“The first thing I did was I needed to see if my premises were right—if there were good writers who wanted to do something different. I opened the business and started looking.” One book he found, Journey of the North Star by Douglas Penick, was an Amazon contest finalist. Another came from a Colby professor Susan Sterling, author of Dancing in the Kitchen, who was “willing to try something different with me.” Mason sticks to his vision for high-quality fiction. “I said no to most everything unless I really, really believed in it.”
Next came the challenge of distribution across a wide array of options. “I needed to figure out how to deliver through every platform, even those we don’t know about yet. I discovered BookBaby and that was the answer to my problem.” BookBaby, which calls itself “the world's largest ebook distribution network for indie authors,” enables Mason to have the reach he desires.
With Cooney now on his roster, Caleb is prepared to keep working at slowly growing the company, hoping to publish about twelve books a year. His outreach focuses on social marketing, but also included a New Yorker ad. Feedback is positive, including a Richard Russo endorsement for Dancing in the Kitchen and five-star reviews on sites from “real readers.”
Mason definitely thinks he’s in the right place at the right time with his all “e” model. “The number of tablets that will be sold this year at Christmas is going to be astonishing.”
In sum, he’s cautiously optimistic. “I have a great feeling in my gut about what we are doing, and so does Ellen and our other authors, which is very encouraging. Nobody knows where any of this stuff is going, and that's what so much fun about it: the chance to do things differently.”
As for the personal satisfaction of the work, “It feels really right to me. I can align my passions with what I do everyday. It’s been a long time coming.” And who wouldn’t want that?
And as to the company name, I asked Mason what it meant. Since he said I was the first person to ask (!), here’s his reply in toto:
“I wanted a unique global-sounding name that was slightly upmarket. So after looking at many options I came up with Publerati while sitting in front of my woodstove one cold winter morning. It is Pub from publishing, ler from literary/publisher and ati from literati or gliterati. The US calls it Pub as in a place to go drink beer and overseas says poob, which is what I was looking for. But the key emotional attributes if tested in a Focus Group would hopefully be ‘something new involving high-quality publishing.’