Interview with Archna Sharma, founder of Neem Tree Press
What led you to decide to set up your own publishing house?
I love books, had been an investment banker before having children and felt that publishing would allow me to marry the two worlds. Also, as I hunted for books for my two boys, I found gaps in the market that I felt should be filled. I also thought I could publish books in the UK whilst living in Dubai, a lesson learnt! Although much of getting a book out into the world can be done online, connecting with people face-to-face, attending book fairs and industry gatherings and getting a deep understanding of the publishing world cannot be underestimated. Although the company has been around for a while, having very recently relocated back to the UK, it is really in 2019 that I have been fully committed to it and feel this is almost the official launch year for Neem Tree Press.
Would you say Neem Tree Press is trying to fill a space that is currently under-published in the publishing world?
Yes. However, I think some of those gaps exist because of the economic reality of the publishing world and the larger, or smaller, successful publishing houses realize this. I came into this industry with no prior market knowledge and so was willing to tackle ‘difficult’ spaces without realizing they would be so.
The paucity of literature in translation was one of my major drivers into publishing. Approximately 4% of literature in the UK is translated. One could ask why we should care about this as we have so many superb writers in the English-speaking world with such varied literary styles anyway? I think it’s really about how well we want to understand other cultures and histories. There are some books I believe could only have been written by someone living in a particular locale and experiencing a specific social or political reality. Our source languages are Arabic, Spanish, German and Turkish to date. It’s been a steep but exhilarating learning curve and I have learnt lots about eras and milieus I knew little about before.
I also look for books that question accepted norms. The Umbrella Men, out on April 4th, is a witty contemporary fiction that looks at a company buffeted by the 2008 financial crisis as well as introducing us to the rare-earths industry. Rare-earth metals are necessary to manufacture all kinds of renewable energy products and yet to extract them from the earth is a very polluting process…
With the aim of introducing children to underexposed non-western arts and music in literature, we are publishing a madcap adventure series called The Three Hares Series which will take you on a ride through the Song Dynasty in Book 1 (The Jade Dragonball), Byzantium in Book 2 (The Gold Skull Key) and the Viking era in Book 3. Book 1 and 2 will be published this year, Book 3 and onwards next year. We would love to find other Middle Grade or YA adventures that have a global bent.
We are also venturing into the non-fiction world with a book on a particular trend in the fashion industry. Although completely unfashionable myself I felt this was an economically and socially important expanding market that triggered a lot of questions in my mind. We’ll start publicizing the book in April. I’m looking for non-fiction books with off-the-beat slants in healthcare, technology/science and finance. In a previous life I did medicine and the vast majority of my investment banking career dealt with the healthcare industry. And as a luddite, I’m being dragged into the world of tech through watching my two very tech savvy boys.
You’ve come into publishing from outside the industry: what has surprised you about the way publishing works?
Perhaps this should not have been surprising but people have been incredibly helpful and friendly and willing to provide introductions to anyone that they feel might be useful. The Independent Publishers Guild has been incredibly helpful at every step of the way. I’ve learnt that size really does matter. To be taken seriously and have access to key distribution or marketing channels requires at a minimum six to ten titles a year – I’m just about getting there this year! As an extremely small independent publisher how important it is to use every cost-effective avenue for publicity and marketing, and to research each and every niche market that may have an interest in your book.
I’ve been very surprised and intrigued by the lack of diversity in the business of publishing. It’s clearly not a conscious bias but I can’t see any obvious barriers to entry that have maintained this status quo.
What are the biggest challenges you face, and how do you plan to take them on?
Meeting our sales and profitability goals by using effective marketing! I am just getting a handle on social media and publicity in general. I am a reluctant marketer and self-promoter but realize this is not a business for shrinking violets. My publicist team have been awesome to work with and have set me on the right path, and they really educated me about marketing on social media. I’ve also become adept at cold calling or cold-emailing potential reviewers!
Choosing books that are truly commercial and narrowing our focus is another challenge, although I am loving working on a diverse list! I am much clearer now about assessing the profitability potential of a book whilst acknowledging it is somewhat of a dark art. Obviously specialism helps as you have a clear understanding of your target reader and can market more effectively.
Where would you like to see Neem Tree Press in five or ten years’ time – and would you recommend other people set up their own small publishing houses?
I hope we are incredibly profitable so that we can continue publishing compelling books and attract interesting and driven people to the company. We would have shifted our focus to be 25% fiction and 75% non-fiction and have a robust backlist and a very exciting and varied front list. And of course, I’d love us to have published prize-winning literature that is internationally renowned and adds to the list of classics!
I would recommend people set up their own publishing companies but only after they have immersed themselves in the amazing publishing ecosystem that exists in the UK and have defined clearly the types of books they wish to publish.