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OWN IT! founder Crystal Mahey-Morgan on her experiences starting up a business that is about more than publishing
Starting your own business can be a daunting prospect. When after six years at Penguin Random House I decided to leave to start an independent press, OWN IT!, a few people thought I was brave. When I explained that we would be not just a publisher but a storytelling lifestyle brand offering music, fashion and film as well as books, some of them were confused. And when they heard that OWN IT!’s business model was to pay authors half of all net profits instead of an advance, they thought I had forgotten everything I learned in publishing and taken leave of my senses.
But I felt compelled to realise a different kind of vision. OWN IT! has been trading for just over a year and a half now, and if I’ve learned anything it is that you have to be brave and experimental to run an independent press. Boundless creativity, clever resourcefulness and strategic thinking are other essential ingredients—and perhaps above all else is passion for a project and the conviction to take it to an audience.
With this, some hard work and the help of some super talented and exciting new voices, I’ve been fortunate that 2016, our first full year of trading, was very successful, creatively and commercially. As the Guardian reported, we published Britain’s only debut novel by a black British man of 2016: Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robyn Travis. It was culturally important, but disheartening to realise that there are so few representations of voices like Robyn’s, especially given the many unexpected global political events that took place last year. We launched the book at a sell-out event at the Hackney Empire, attracting an audience of whom 95% were from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and working class backgrounds. It shows there is a lucrative and largely untapped market out there. We will be releasing the book in paperback, audiobook and multi-media editions soon.
After taking the plunge with my own business, it has been hugely rewarding to seek out new talent, commission bold projects and engage new audiences. By offering profit-shares rather than advances, my business model has minimised upfront costs and maximised rewards for authors, and it has opened up new cross-platform projects with the potential for multiple license deals, including some that are non-traditional to book publishing.
We have a lot to look forward to in 2017, including another book by Robyn Travis, another debut, No Place to Call Home by poet JJ Bola, and more other exciting projects, not all of them book-related. By producing music, T-shirts and films as well as books, we find many different ways to create and express art, and multiple ways to make money. But no matter the format or medium, at the heart of everything we do is a desire to share, empower, celebrate and inspire—because stories are life.
Crystal Mahey-Morgan is founder of OWN IT! In 2016 she was named a Rising Star by the Bookseller and one of the 100 most creative people in the UK by The Hospital Club. OWN IT! was shortlisted for last year’s FutureBook Platform of the Year award.
Pictured: Robyn Travis, Crystal Mahey-Morgan and comedian Kojo

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