Leanpub Podcast Interview #26: Emmanuel Nataf
published Jan 20, 2016
Emmanuel Nataf is the cofounder of Reedsy, a marketplace for high-quality publishing services that helps authors find professional editors, designers and marketers. In this interview, Leanpub cofounder Len Epp asks Emmanuel about how Reedsy got started and about their vision for the future of publishing.
This interview was recorded on November 5, 2015.
Emmanuel is cofounder of a London-based publishing startup called Reedsy. Reedsy was founded in 2014 by Emmanuel and his co-founders Ricardo Fayet, Vincent Durand and Matthew Cobb, with the goal of providing a marketplace for high quality services that could be used by anyone self-publishing a book, services like editing, marketing and design.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about how Reedsy was founded, what it’s currently up to, and what its plans are for the future. So, thank you Emmanuel for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.
Emmanuel Nataf: Yeah, great to be here. Hi, Len.
Len: Thanks. I guess the first thing I’d like to do is ask you about Reedsy’s origin story. How did you guys come up with idea and how did you get started?
Emmanuel: So basically I think it all started when I was actually still in college, and I got my first Kindle. I actually imported it from the US; I was living in France. I couldn’t buy it in France, it wasn’t availablem and I imported it and I realized how amazing it was to have all your books in just a little tablet. I wasn’t that much of a reader before that, and actually getting a Kindle made me a reader. I started to read more and more and learn about the industry, and it actually took me years before we actually started Reedsy.
Initially, I was learning about the self-publishing space. For a year I was interviewing people from the industry just to learn about it - authors, editors, designers. And then at some point I think I read an article and the writer was saying how the best publishing professionals have left publishing houses and started to work as freelancers.
So I saw that there were two trends evolving together, basically. One was the boom of the self-publishing market with hundreds of thousands of writers pushing their books to the Kindle store every year. And on the other hand, great professionals available in the market to potentially work with them. And at that time I started to look for professional editors, designers, and I realized that there was nothing to provide high quality services to indie authors. So in a way, I was a bit frustrated that there self-publishing wasn’t a real alternative to traditional publishing yet, because you couldn’t find that level of quality you’d find at traditional big five publishers. So that’s basically where the idea comes from, learning progressively about the industry.
Then I started to build a team. Initially I started Reedsy with Ricardo, who is running the marketing at Reedsy. And then since we didn’t have any technical skills, we added Vincent, who is our CTO, and Matt, who is our designer. And then progressively it became a side project during evenings and weekends. And last year, mid last year, we applied to get into Seedcamp, which is a start-up accelerator based in London. We got selected for it, and we thought that was a great opportunity to become full-time on Reedsy. So the French guys moved from Paris to London, and we’ve been working from here since then.
Len: The quality of freelancers on Reedsy is one of the most important aspects of your company. I was wondering, how do you find and then vet freelancers?
Emmanuel: Initially, when we started, we contacted a few professionals manually that had worked with traditional publishers, because they could provide the level of quality we were looking for. We told them, “Hey, we’re setting up Reedsy. Could you be interested in being one of our first users, one of our first service providers?” And we progressively found a few who loved the project, started to use the product and thought the interface was really incredible. And they could create profiles. Basically, progressively I started to show these profiles to other professionals who would tell me, “Oh, that’s really amazing. I want to be part of this community as well and join”.
That’s how we started. We started to grow our supply side with a strong focus, as you said, on quality. What we did was, we built this profile, kind of a LinkedIn, but for publishing, where you have a quick overview of who the professionals are, different genres they work on, their work experience and a portfolio of books they’ve worked on, with links to Amazon or the Google Play Store. And then we could take a look at the quality of the books they had worked on, and in some way verify their identity, their online identity as well.
That’s how we started, and now it’s completely different. Now we’re getting tons of submissions every week, probably hundreds every week. So far I think we’ve received over 7,000 applications, and selected 330 professionals, only keeping really the best people in the industry, and growing based on the demand we’re getting. So if a publisher or an author comes to us and says, “We have” - I don’t know - “a photography book that we’d like a designer for”, then we’re going to start looking for people who could work on that kind of genre.
Len: Because Reedsy is inherently exclusive - I read a good article about Reedsy in Forbes - obviously some people who are excluded are a little bit unhappy about that. How do you deal with that?
Emmanuel: Unfortunately, we don’t compromise on quality, and we never accept people if we feel like, you know, if we feel like there’s something wrong or it’s not going to work. Even worse is, if we see that something goes wrong, even after accepting the professional, we take that person off the marketplace immediately. We don’t compromise on quality, and some people get pissed off. And there isn’t much we can do about it. At some point we had I think an editor with about 20,000 followers on Twitter who started to rant about it. But we were like, “Sorry, you’re good at social media, but you’re not the editor we’re looking for.” And it’s - it can sound harsh, but that’s why people love our service. They feel like they can come to Reedsy and they don’t have to think about whether that person is legit or not. They know that they’re working with some of the world’s best publishing professionals.
Len: And you also have a hundred percent money back guarantee, is that correct?
Emmanuel: Yeah, we’ve had it more or less since the beginning, but we didn’t make it official; but a few weeks ago we decided to release our Reedsy trust and guarantee policies. So now, if anything happens, you can just reach out to the Reedsy team. There’s a button in the interface that’s present the whole time called just “Help.” If you reach out to us and you say, “The freelancer didn’t come back with the work he was supposed to deliver” or, I don’t know, “I’m not happy with the quality or anything”, then we try to solve the issue, and we refund if it’s necessary. It’s happened once over a few hundred of collaborations so far, so it’s pretty rare. But if anything happens, we have those guarantees.
Len: Fantastic. I was wondering at what stage of their writing do you find that authors, self-published authors, start to approach Reedsy in looking for professional help?
Emmanuel: There’s still a lot of educating that’s needed, because tons of authors come to us at the wrong moment, at the wrong time, basically. They come to us while their draft is not solid enough or the story isn’t even - they haven’t even finished writing it. And we’re very different from Leanpub, because we don’t work on books that are not finished yet. We mainly work on books that are - like you have a solid first draft, or a solid draft, because the first draft is not always solid. And you can come to Reedsy and request quotes from editors and then designers. And the same thing for publicists; so we’ve recently added publicists to the marketplace and you can come talk to our publicist if you have already released your book, for instance. So there’s a lot of educating around when you should come to Reedsy, that we’re trying to do. And we’re actually going to publish more blog posts about it to help authors understand when they need an editor, when they should start marketing the book, when they need a publicist, when they need a designer.
Len: I was wondering how pricing works, and how Reedsy makes money?
Emmanuel: Yeah. So, pricing is completely transparent. There are very few people who can compete on quality with Reedsy basically at the moment. But the only guys who can, are very, you know, there’s no transparency at all in terms of how they price the services. So you can find local agencies in San Francisco and New York who are going to offer their services to you, but you have no idea if you’re actually paying the right price or not.
What we did here is when you go on Reedsy, you can request quotes from up to five professionals. And those people get back to you within a couple of days with quotes or more questions if they need more to offer, to send you an offer. And then you can see the different pricing. So we don’t set the price, our professionals do, and then you can compare the different prices and make a decision. But it’s completely transparent and we display our fee on the offers page. And you can see that Reedsy charge a 10% commission on the author’s side - that’s what you see.
Len: Okay, that’s really clear, thanks. I was wondering, more generally about the publishing industry. There was an article in the New York Times, I think a couple of, three weeks ago now even, that talked about how ebook sales had dropped. Did you come across that one?
Len: There was a bit of a controversy about it, because it was a false report. What had happened was, probably, with respect to sort of publishing industry stuff, a conservative journalist at the New York Times basically just looked at the data that comes from, I guess I’ll call them the conventional publishers, who, in many ways, have been actually hostile to ebook sales. Many of these publishers had actually increased the prices of their ebooks on Amazon, and then their sales went down, surprisingly.
Len: Anyway, there were lots of really great responses to that from people in the sort of - let’s say 21st century publishing world, pointing out that actually ebook sales have been increasing, and it’s just for these people, the people sampled by the data set cited by the New York Times, that had fallen. And I was just wondering what your thoughts were about that, when you noticed that?
Emmanuel: Yeah, so there’s two things. The first thing is like - there was no 50 Shades of Grey this year, basically. So as a result, since it was - there’s been a crazy number of copies of that book that were sold. There’s probably quite a lot of - well Penguin basically probably sold less, fewer copies, and probably impacted that survey or that report. But on top of it, there are so many titles - titles are not tracked properly, because they don’t have an ISBN. So, I’m not sure how it works on Leanpub exactly, but on Amazon, you can publish without having an ISBN. So, it’s data that’s harder to track. Only Amazon’s got the right data about the industry, unfortunately. But I have like, just as a feeling being in the industry, I don’t see it like - I see more and more people reading on the tablets. And I find it weird to hear that fewer ebooks are being bought by consumers. I find it - I struggle to believe it. But that’s not that I don’t have - nobody’s got the data to basically back this up. So it’s kind of confusing, but I would find it very weird.
Len: Yeah, to be clear, on Leanpub we actually don’t require ISBNs.
Len: I don’t want to speak for everyone else at Leanpub, but personally I see it as a form of rent seeking. There’s this one company that owns the ISBN issuing rights [Correction: There is one company responsible for issuing ISBNs in the United States. Other countries have other institutions for issuing ISBNs. - Ed.]
Len: And they make money just issuing numbers that allow people to track books. And the way I look at - the metaphor I use is like dark matter. From the perspective of the conventional book publishing industry, a lot of what’s happening with publishing now is stuff that they just can’t see. For example, if someone makes a really high quality book and puts it up for sale on their own website or Gumroad or something like that.
Len: Or on Leanub, where we hope they would put it.
Len: Then it’s not tracked, because we don’t do that and they don’t do that. And so yeah, so the idea that like the entire world of books is something that is brought -
Len: Yeah, it’s trackable, but it’s particularly that if you want to be an author, you have to be brought into an incumbent system like a panopticon or something like that.
Len: This is something that people are kind of leaving behind. And so, that’s one of the reasons I was so interested to talk to you. Because you’re, in my view, you’re obviously providing people who are behaving - we use the term “independently,” right? But we shouldn’t even have to use that. The reason we use that term is because it’s differentiating from the past. Where people couldn’t do things on their own.
Emmanuel: Yeah, exactly.
Len: Because it just wasn’t done or something.
Emmanuel: Yeah… I wish Amazon would release data like once a year. So at least we’d get a better idea since they sell most of the ebooks available. But yeah, I don’t have that feeling…
Len: Yeah, I know that authorearnings.com actually–
Len: They do seem to be able to get quite a bit of Amazon data, do you know how?
Emmanuel: They basically - well they make assumptions basically, to be able to build their model. Which is - it seems to be kind of accurate, but I’m not sure. As much as I like Hugh Howey, I know he’s been working with Amazon a lot, so I have no idea whether the data is accurate or not. But yeah, when you look at the New York Times and when you look at authorearnings, like completely different pictures basically.
Len: As a sort of really high level questionm, where do you see the publishing industry going in like, let’s say the next 10 years?
Emmanuel: That’s a tough question.
Emmanuel: So the publishing industry in the next 10 years, it’s interesting, it’s something we see already at Reedsy. The rule of publishers is changing. There is that need in the world of abundance for curation. And I guess it’s the one thing that I like that publishers are doing. The fact that they curate content. You may not like it. I mean, you may not like the selection, but at least they’re here to say, “Okay, we’re Penguin, we think this is a quality book.” And I think it’s important worldwide there’s so many low-quality books that are being pushed to online stores. And so the rule of publishers is going to change completely.
I was talking to an author who was telling me, Reedsy’s making quality editing, quality design a commodity. So suddenly the rule of publishers is changing completely towards something that’s more about like being a curator mainly. So I think this is pretty interesting. I think we talked about it together last time, but the fact that people are reading more and more, on their tablets, on mobile, in a very mobile way, is very interesting as well. And I guess it’s taking time before ebooks are replacing traditional books, but I think it’s going to happen more and more in the coming years. I can see [mobile] books dominating the market in five to ten years. Maybe that’s just me.
Len: It’s interesting you’ve mentioned tablets and Kindles a couple of times. I used to live in London, and I remember commuting on the expletive Northern Line, and I would have to kind of work out - it was so packed that I would have to make sure that my book could fit into my coat pocket, and that I could pull it out and fold it in half, so that I could hold it right in front of my face to read it.
Len: And I really wish that back in those days I’d had books on my phone, that I’d had a phone that wasn’t a flip phone or whatever and that–
Len: So I’ve always thought that actually one of the main ways people are going to be reading books is on phones. And you see this happening in the increasing size of smart phones, right?
Len: Because people are consuming content on their -
Emmanuel: Yeah, that’s something I’m a bit frustrated - even though I love my Kindle, I feel like the experience for reading content or - even if it’s just colours, it’s very - I mean there’s so many things you’re missing on the Kindle. And I hope there’s going to be new versions of screens that are going to provide much higher quality - a much higher quality experience with the benefits of e-ink technology.
Len: What’s the most important aspect of Reedsy that you’re working on right now, in your opinion?
Emmanuel: I guess it’s becoming more and more full stack. So providing a full stack experience for authors. We’re working on a collaborative book editor for instance. So an editor, where you have the experience of Medium, the blogging platform. And the collaborative features of Google Docs. So you’ll be able to come to Reedsy and start writing your book, go import it from the Word document or rtf or whatever you’re using. And then invite a co-author to work on that, or your editor and then in one click be able to export it into a properly formatted EPUB file or PDF. Something similar to what Leanpub did, but for - say for the mass market. I think this is going to give a much more interesting experience to authors on Reedsy as they’re going to be able not just to send messages with files through Reedsy, but also to collaborate directly with the professionals they hire. So there’s editing, and on top of that, also adding more services to the marketplace all the time. So we started with editing and design, which are the basic services you need to produce a final book. And we’re progressively adding more services; last month we added publicity services, and we’ll be adding marketing, ghostwriting, and a few other services as well.
Len: You said something about the mass market, as opposed to Leanpub, and I guess I’d better push back a little bit on that. I’m not really sure what you meant?
Emmanuel: I meant a tool that anyone, I mean, without using Markdown for instance.
Len: Understood, thank you. Okay, yeah.
Emmanuel: So someone who is not into tech at all can start writing a book on that.
Len: Yeah we’re very - I just wanted to be clear about that, because that’s really good feedback to hear. We are working on something called Markua which is going to be basically - Markdown was written as a way to kind of easily write things on the internet, and we are working on a version of that for writing books called Markua. What we’ll probably end up with - I mean, I know you know this, but some listeners might not know, but with a WYSIWYG editor, which is basically what you see is what you get.
Len: But yeah, so what Emmanuel is saying is very correct, which is that to date, Leanpub has been made by programmers, and mostly used by programmers. People who are very technical.
Len: And so, it’s kind of like for a technical person, they’ve seen Leanpub, and they’re like, “Oh my God, that’s - I can’t believe someone built exactly what I wanted.” And for people who are non-technical, they’re like, “Why are you making me learn a markup language to write text?”
Emmanuel: Yeah. It’s almost a different product in some way, but I think it’s got its benefits as well. I mean lots of people will find it much better to write without all the HTML that we are going to have to add for authors in the “what you see is what you get” editor.
Len: Exactly, and that’s the - it’s interesting the position that Leanpub has taken, is to kind of radically - in a fundamental sense, it’s actually a radical simplification of the way things are done. But it means that you need to learn a little bit. The way I refer to it is, it’s like punctuation for digital writing. So in the same way that we all understand, we would see right away if we were writing, and we didn’t close off a quotation with the quotation marks at the end. We’re all trained just like - like programmers would see right away, “Oh, it’s not closed.”
Len: And we understand that you have to put quotation marks before and after something, that’s meant to be something that is kind of a reference to something someone said or wrote somewhere else, or something that a character is saying. So we’re actually all familiar with a markup language.
Len: It’s punctuation, but getting people to understand that punctuation can actually refer to the material production of the text, as opposed to simply kind of speech signs. So it’s interesting. And another analogy I use is like - at one point everybody learned how to use like keyboards and typewriters.
Len: To write better, and so we hope that - this is all getting sorted out in very interesting ways, and it’s so great to see so many people applying different approaches to try and make it easier and better for people.
Len: I guess the last question I have for you is, where do you see Reedsy being in five years or ten years? I mean you’re already expanding into new kinds of book tools and stuff like that. Where do you see yourself?
Emmanuel: Yeah, so at the moment, our objective is to become - in some way - the foundry of best-selling books. So we’d like to see, some of the most interesting books being produced via Reedsy. So working with our professionals, or potentially with our tools, and then seeing them published. Basically we - our objective is to help the publishing community publish beautiful books, and that’s the obsession. But where we want to be in a few years’ time, well we’d love to provide services to as many self-publishing authors as possible. But we also started more recently to work with publishers, who came to us and told us, “Well we’ve seen the level of quality you can provide, and we love the fact that you can streamline our workflows with the collaborative tools that you’ve built. And so we’d love to use Reedsy as well.” So we’re currently building a product for them as well. So it’s making Reedsy in some way, the backbone of the industry, when it comes to producing books.
Len: That’s actually, I just thought of one more question I wanted to ask you.
Len: It’s really interesting, Reedsy in many ways is reflecting changes that are happening elsewhere, just in industry in general, right? Where, so for example, people who might have previously been full-time employed - workers at a publishing house, have been booted. Just generally because publishers are doing that to their workers. And then they’re now stuck, now they’re in a situation where they’re freelancing, which means that they are kind of operating independently. Essentially it’s often like one person’s small business or something like that. And so service - when that starts happening, forward-looking people see this happening and go, “Oh well, I mean these people are going to need a way of - they’re still going to need a way of not being entirely fragmented, right? So we need to create a new space for them, that suits this new situation.” And I was wondering, in your experience talking to freelancers, are they - I mean, just asking you to make a blanket generalization, but like are they generally, do they prefer - I mean, assuming that Reedsy is a success at doing its core mission, right, which is creating this new ecosystem - do you they’ll be happier with that new situation than they were in the old one, or–?
Emmanuel: It’s very interesting. We see a lot of things developing for this new economy in some way. So the freelancer economy, you see companies like WeWork, who are going to provide office space or co-working space for all these people who work at - independently. But you also see tons of tools that are emerging. So there’s a really cool tool that I saw recently called Cushion, I think? Where freelancers can basically add all their expenses and get an idea of what the cash flows are going to be at the end of the month or at the end of the year, and how many new contracts they need to sign before they reach their yearly objectives. So there’s a bunch of things that are developing around it, to basically - to help freelancers have a more structured work environment. And I think this is very interesting. Do freelancers like it? Most of the time they left publishing houses because it’s a lifestyle they wanted. They wanted to be able to work at any time during the day or the night. To be able to go on vacation when they wanted. Maybe to sign contracts for six months of the year, and then the rest of year is enjoying the sun somewhere. I don’t know? But it’s much more flexible. It doesn’t mean that they won’t see a traditional work space anymore. Because some of them work still with traditional publishers, and go to their offices as well. So I think it gives them more flexibility and they’re happy with it. And it doesn’t mean that they have to stay by themselves at home, all day. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be like - well there’s - WeWork is an example, but there’s plenty of co-working spaces for creative people in the publishing media industry that are emerging, and I think are pretty cool to work from.
Len: Thanks very much, that’s a really, really great answer. Great balance. I mean it’s - anyone who’s ever worked in the old time-y, commuting-to-an-office kind of world, I think a lot of us see the idea of being more independent as a great change. A great social change.
Len: Away from the kind of like factory floor with a kind of overseer, making sure everyone’s there on time and working hard all day. I mean this is something it’s - I think it’s great that we’re moving away from this and that -
Emmanuel: I think the book, Rework by Basecamp or 37Signals is like, that was pretty forward thinking, like just publishing it a few years ago, and now it seems like the normal thing to do for an old stage company. But like, even just a few years ago, that sounded weird. But like now you have the staff everywhere and more freelancers, and that’s fine.
Len: Yeah it’s interesting. I’ve got a joke that I tell where - for thousands of years, we had the concept of bastards. And that just went away, and we didn’t even really notice. It just went away, because it was dumb. And it’s amazing how these changes can happen where one day kind of people wake up and realize that - for example, like the stress and insanity of making an entire city’s employees at the same time in the morning all trying to get to specific places in one area. Is kind of ludicrous.
Len: And that there’s much better ways we can organize our work together and to do higher quality stuff.
Len: So thank you very much for being on Lean Publishing Podcast. This was a great chat, and I really appreciate you giving us your time.
Len: Okay, thank you very much.
Emmanuel: Thank you, bye.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
– Posted by Len Epp