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You’re the Star in our personalised novels

U Star Novels In the Media

Be the star of your very own adventure story

Monday, June 22, 2009

Katie Olver and the aptly named Jon Reader launched U Star Novels, a personalised book business, in 2006.

Using bespoke computer software, the business publishes a range of books that insert the customer’s name into the lead role – so you can be the dashing adventurer or damsel in distress. Other personal facts and information can also be included.

Olver and Reader claim that U Star is the only UK company offering this service. For Reader, this is a sign of a big opportunity, rather than a sign that no other publisher thinks there is money in it.

So far, U Star is doing OK. Set-up costs were £20,000 – to get the three books written, develop bespoke personalisation software and to set up the website. U Star says it recouped this outlay within four months. How? It charges £26.95 for each book which costs only £7 to produce.

Annual turnover for the business was £35,000 in year one, or about 1,300 books. In year two, turnover was £30,000 and the business says it is on course to hit £100,000 by the end of this year – that’s about 3,700 book sales.

The company is also looking to sell books in the US and a 2009 Valentine’s Day marketing push resulted in sales of 500 books (at $44.90 each). While that is a profit of around £10,000, when you take away the £2,500 cost of hiring a US public relations company, it is not a huge return.

The company has also broadened the range of books it offers and Reader says the raciest titles sell best. Fever in France, for example, outsold the other titles by six to one, while a new title, Amsterdam Lessons, with a more adult theme, looks set to eclipse even that.

Reader says he sees a lot of repeat business, although he notes that while US customers “buy the whole set in one go”, UK customers tend to buy one at a time.

One of the hardest aspects of running the business, says Reader, is finding good authors who can churn out suitably steamy prose. But not only do the heavy-breathing scenes need to appeal to the readers, the editorial needs to sync in with the software – in other words, the text must flow but also conform to a certain format.

By their own admission, neither Olver nor Reader have any previous novel writing or publishing experience.

But while ignorance can be bliss, publishing is a cut-throat industry and the margins are usually thin at best. That said, Olver did do her research and U Star won a NatWest business plan of the year award in 2006.

Even so, you have to wonder what sort of numbers the plan set out back in those heady pre-credit crunch days. Ultimately, it must have hinged on the number of books the business expected to sell and the hefty £20 profit on each one sold.

Yet mark-up aside, guessing the number of book sales is the sort of dark art that no publisher has ever mastered.

Olver and Reader are business and personal partners. When U Star started, they were running Momentous, a public relations business, and although Reader says he now spends “100 per cent of his time” on the new enterprise, he is still listed as account director on Momentous’s website.

Olver says she now spends half her time on Momentous, with the rest on U Star. Both businesses are based in the same Kingston upon Thames office.

But while U Star has benefited from Olver’s PR nous, sales in the region of 6,000 books in three years would not be enough for most publishers to survive long term.

So, is there a future in selling personalised books? Simon Jude, chief executive of the Publishers Association, says that with new print-on-demand technology, there could be.

“Say you go to South Africa and are into geology, Darwin, Robben Island, and wine,” he says. “It would be fairly simple to create a personalised travel book and get it printed in-store while you wait.”

But that’s not quite what U Star is offering. Reader says the ultimate plan is to sell the business but it will have to shift a lot more than the 3,700 books it expects to sell in 2009 to be an attractive acquisition.

Print-on-demand is something only made possible by advances in digital technology, but it is becoming big business.

One company offering the service, Lightning Source, prints 1.4m books a month.

David Taylor, the company’s president, says: “The old business model was print a run of books and hope to sell them. Today, with print-on-demand, you can sell a book online, then print it and have it delivered. It has completely democratised the publishing industry.” And that, he says, is creating opportunities for “micro publishers”.

Of course, creating your own book and merely inserting your name into a pre-written novel are different things, appealing to different customers.

And while a low-volume, high-margin approach is one way of doing it, U Star’s price of £27 for a single book does seem expensive.

Neill Denny, editor-in-chief of Bookseller magazine, says he would not recommend people leave their jobs to set up in publishing.

“It’s not exactly a Klondike of opportunity,” he says. He adds that there could be opportunities in personalising publications that have reached the end of their copyright, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Then again, “O Gordon, Gordon, wherefore art thou Gordon?” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as the original.

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