Robert Watkins on what it takes to be a publisher

Robert Watkins is the Publishing Director of Ultimo Press. He has over 20 years experience in the Australian book industry having worked in book retail, sales, marketing, publicity, publishing and more recently as Head of Literary at Hachette Australia.

Robert’s love for a good story well told has led to publishing some of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, including Maxine Beneba Clarke, Claire G. Coleman, Sarah Schmidt and Michael Mohammed Ahmad. He is an advocate for progressive and inclusive publishing that speaks to contemporary issues, whether that be in narrative non-fiction or literary and reading group fiction.

Robert Watkins on what it takes to be a publisher


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Robert.

ROBERT: Hi. Thank you for having me.

ASTRID: Now, you are the Publishing Director at Ultimo Press and the former Head of Literary at Hachette Australia. Normally on The Garret I speak to writers, but I'm also interested in how the industry works. Tell me, Robert, what does a publisher actually do?

ROBERT: I think that common misconception is that all we do is read all day or that your entire day is made up of working on manuscripts, but actually, it's a lot more involved than that. I guess the most important definition and difference between an editor and a publisher is that someone who is an editor exclusively works on the text of a book, and someone who is a publisher might do some of that editorial work, but also acts as kind of a project manager for the book.

So, they buy books that they're interested in, or commission books that they're interested in from authors, and then they might do some of that editorial work. Not all publishers do that editorial work. I do, but not everybody does. And then they take the book through the rest of that process alongside the author. So that's from helping them, well, packaging the book, helping the author develop their work, talking to the marketing and sales teams about it. They really are involved in every stage of the book's life, in the sense that they will stay with it from acquisition to publication and onwards, and hopefully… Well, at least for me, I like the idea of working with authors for a little bit longer than just one book. Hopefully, you work with them for more of their career and help them develop their work even further. It is quite involved, but I think the most common misconception might be that an editor and a publisher are the same thing when actually they're not really,

ASTRID: We're going to come back to that idea of helping an author develop throughout their career. Before we get there, though, I want to kind of dig a little bit deeper into, how do you become a publisher? That isn't meant to be a vague question, I am genuinely interested. I don't know the answer.

ROBERT: Well, the reason you don't know the answer is because, literally, the publishing industry is a weird secret society. No, that's a joke.

ASTRID: And I think, to be honest, it kind of looks like that sometimes.

ROBERT: Yeah, it can be sometimes. I think part of it is because there's no kind of straight linear pathway to becoming a publisher, particularly not these days. I think if you looked maybe, I don't know, 50, 80 years back into kind of publishing, the pathway to publishing was pretty much people worked through university degrees or pathways that were kind of from editorial directly to publishing, which was they were working with authors on their text as an editor and then moved their way up the ladder to the point where they were actually commissioning and acquiring work.

These days, that kind of pathway to being a publisher is very different. I think I have a particularly unique pathway to being a Publishing Director in that I started out as a bookseller at the age of 16 and I didn't finish high school, I left high school at Year 10. I worked in the retail side of books for – my math will be a bit fuzzy here because I can never remember exactly – but somewhere like 10, 11 years within book retail. Then I found a job working as a sales rep at a publishing house, Hachette Australia, where I was selling books to bookstores instead of being a bookseller. Then after I'd been doing that for a couple of years, I moved in-house at the publisher to become a publicity manager. I was a publicist for a couple of years. Then there was a round of kind of redundancies at the publishing house then, but instead of being made redundant, my boss at the time thought that I had the skill set to move across from publicity into marketing, so I became Marketing Manager at the same publishing house. After I had been in that role for a couple of years, I left the publishing house altogether and went to another job for about 10 days and hated it and quit.

I was in between jobs then for a bit and not really doing anything. But my old boss, which is Matt Richell, who used to be the CEO of Hachette Australia who died tragically in an accident about eight years ago, he said to me, ‘What do you kind of want to do next?’ So, we went and sat and had a coffee. We're having this discussion and I said, ‘What I would really like to do, but I don't think is really done, is I would love to be commissioning work’. We discussed how that might work and the kind of books that I would be interested in publishing. Then I had a conversation with the publishing director I used to work for, Fiona at Hachette, and she said to me, ‘Tell me what the scope of your list would look like and what kind of books you'd be looking for and why you think people want to read them’. A couple of weeks later, they offered me a job and I came back to Hachette Australia as a Commissioning Editor. So, a Commissioning Editor is just a junior publisher, it's somebody who's acquiring work. It's just kind of like a tier below a publisher. It's like a baby publisher. I stayed there for another 10 years moving up the ranks as a publisher then as Head of Literary there.

I don't really have a traditional route to my publishing in that I don't have a university degree. I come from a working-class background where I didn't finish high school. I worked in retail. I've got a sales marketing and publicity background. The more traditional route would be to kind of move up the ranks editorially and into a publishing role, but I think what you're seeing these days is that most publishing houses see the value in someone who has a little bit more of a broader market context when they're commissioning work because it's not just about the editorial work, though that obviously is incredibly important and something that I pride the Ultimo team on in that we do really care about the editorial process.

But so much of being a publisher these days is kind of being cognizant of who the reader is, how you get to the reader, why a reader wants to read that particular work, and if that kind of book hasn't been successful before, how you overcome the hurdles to make those books interesting to readers. I think to do that kind of work, you kind of have to have had a little bit more of a broader market context experience, which might be from having worked in sales or marketing or publicity, or at least, having been a bookseller at some point in time. All of those things are really valuable.

ASTRID: You have an excellent career. I wish I had your career. I too started off as a bookseller and I have not topped that yet. That was the peak of my career and my enjoyment in my career. And I'm really glad that you kind of started by saying a publisher is not someone who sits around and reads all day. My goal in life, Robert, is to find a job where I can sit around and read all day. So if there…

ROBERT: Look, me too.

ASTRID: That is the goal. Now, you mentioned a publisher's list. As a reader, as a forever reader, that is such a mythical sexy kind of thing, this list of amazing storytellers that just produce amazing works. You have a very impressive list at Ultimo.

ROBERT: Thank you.

ASTRID: Can you unpack how do you put together that list? How do you put together that group of authors that you want to put your own name, and of course, the company that you work for behind?

ROBERT: I guess publishing is a fancy kind of curation. You are literally finding and connecting to works that you personally enjoy or understand or can see a big readership for, and pulling them all together to make up a year of work effectively. Every year, for example, here at Ultimo, and as the Publishing Director, I have a little bit more kind of influence over the shape of our list, we talk about what that mix of books might be. We are slightly more heavily weighted towards fiction at Ultimo. So that means in any given year, we might publish, I don't know, 65 per cent of the mix might be fiction, and 35 to 40 per cent of the mix might be non-fiction. And in amongst those books, each individual publisher, because there's three of us, decides how many of those books are which particular kind of books.

I always look at my list as wanting to have as broader kind of scope as you can have in any one year. Here, I think I'm publishing maybe 13 books this year. That could be wrong. I might have made that number up, but that's probably close to the number of books that I'm publishing this year. And what I wanted to do with that list was to make sure that I felt it was representative of my tastes and representative of the kind of books that I think Ultimo should and will be publishing moving forward. Because I think each year, you have an opportunity to kind of repeat the message of, ‘These are the kind of books that we think are of value to the literary marketplace. And at the same time, these are the kind of books that we think lots of people will want to read’.

So, it's not an exact science because, obviously, it depends on what authors are working on and the kind of books that you can find. But I also have been passionate over the years about publishing inclusively. I always want to make sure that my list is representative of those passions. So that's about working with Aboriginal and First Nations writers, it's about publishing Queer writers, it's about publishing other writers from kind of CALD backgrounds. It's about looking for opportunities to find writers who come from different class backgrounds because I do think there's a class divide in publishing as well and finding a way to make that mix feel like it's organic and even, and sort of shows the breadth of writers and readers that we have in Australia. Because I definitely think there's value in considering how under-representative writers are the most excited things in publishing because those are the voices that we don't see in Australian publishing.

So that's some of the things I think about. But there's other factors to it. It's kind of like what's our mix of fiction for the year? How much of it is kind of the more literary end of publishing and how much of it is a more commercial kind of reader? And then even within nonfiction, I don't want us in one year to only, and this is probably true of every publisher, you don't want to just publish memoirs for a year. Do you know what I mean? Maybe you want a mix of non-fiction that's kind of looking at social issues or talking about specific topics in a certain way.

So I think the list, which is kind of a really, I think it sounds like a weird, magical term, but it's just genuinely however many titles you're publishing in the year, it's the mix of those books that you're doing. And I think even when I look year on year, I start to think about, ‘What was last year's list like? And what's this year's list look like, and is it too similar to last year?’ So it's nice to just have breadth of scope.

ASTRID: That was an excellent explanation, Robert. Thank you. You are now at Ultimo, and Ultimo is a new publisher. If I remember correctly, founded in 2020.


ASTRID: It's described as an independent publisher. Can you explain what that means? Because, of course, you did have a long career in Hachette, and Hachette is one of the big internationals. What's the difference for you as a person who works at Ultimo and also what's the difference for the writers who get to work with you?

ROBERT: So trade publishing, which is the kind of publishing that we do, definitely, there's a divide between publishers that have owners that exist overseas, so they're the big multinational publishers. In Australia, each of those large multinationals have representatives. So it's publishers like HarperCollins, Hachette Australia, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Pan Macmillan. They're pretty much the big five publishers. Outside of the big five multinational publishers, there's also a really healthy kind of independent publishing industry in Australia. Lots of people would be really familiar with publishers like Allen & Unwin and Text and Scribe and Black Inc. and UQP and Magabala Books. There's a really great mix of smaller, independent publishers who originated in Australia and are Australian-owned companies.

Ultimo Press is an independent publisher owned by Hardie Grant. So effectively, we're an imprint of Hardie Grant Publishing. And Hardie Grant is an Australian independent publishing house and they are one of Australia's largest independent publishing houses. And if you were to look at their global turnover, you might even consider them to be Australia's largest independent publisher because outside of Australia, they have quite sizable turnovers in both the UK and the US. We are an independent publisher in the sense that it is an Australian-owned company and it is independent in the sense that we don't report to a large overseas publisher and we're not owned by a corporation of investors or a big media company overseas. We are owned by a group of people in Australia.

The interesting thing, for me, coming from a background working in a large multinational publishing house and now working independent is kind of being able to compare how the two different models work. I've only ever worked in a large multinational before I worked at Ultimo. Hachette is a big machine. They are owned by a large French media corporation who then have arms in the US, the UK, and everywhere. And their business model is kind of predicated on being able to import books from overseas. They sell their UK and their US books into the Australian market and then they have a small Australian publishing part of their turnover.

If you were to look at their, and this is specific to Hachette, I can't necessarily speak to the numbers elsewhere, but primarily, their turnover comes from those imports. And then the Australian publishing arm is a much smaller portion of their turnover. When you work at an independent that's based here, primarily, the business is the Australian publishing arm. And the books that you make here and where they're sold overseas actually still comes from the books that you make here primarily, though Hardie Grant does also distribute some of those books from overseas.

Even at Ultimo, we've started licensing books from some overseas publishers. So it's the reverse model, if that makes sense. In a big multinational, the core of their business is their international titles, and the Australian arm is a smaller slice of the pie, or at least that's in my experience. At Hardie Grant, the focus is on these Australian titles and what we can do with the authors that we have here. The other core difference, obviously, is just the size of that actual publishing model. A number of books that you're talking about, in a large multinational, it's a really big list, right? It's a huge publishing list that encompasses not just their international titles, but they're spread of Australian titles. An independent publisher, it's a much smaller, more tightly curated list.

We also have the benefit at Ultimo in that we have our own little team within the Hardie Grant team. We are publishing the only fiction titles on the Hardie Grant list. And our nonfiction is a little bit different to the Hardie Grant books non-fiction list. So, the books that we are publishing into the Hardie Grant model are smaller in the number of books, but the focus is a lot more heavily weighted to that small number of books.

What I enjoy about that is that I know that every time I acquire a book, it gets all of our attention with our bespoke marketing and publicity teams and the editorial team. And I know that we will only publish a certain number of books a year, and that then within the Hardie Grant model, those books are unique on that list and they get the entire focus of the Hardie Grant sales team because Hardie Grant has its own sales team. In a larger house, you're competing for attention on a much bigger scale. And you don't, necessarily, if you look at the scale of that publishing, have more focus attached to each of those books. I've enjoyed that we've had the opportunity to kind of do things a little bit differently because every time I buy a book, I know that we can really focus our attention on each of them. Whereas, I'm not sure that I could have argued that necessarily in a much bigger machine.

ASTRID: Now, one of the reasons I wanted to speak to you as opposed to another publisher is because writers speak really highly of you personally. Writers who I admire speak incredibly well of you.

ROBERT: That's very flattering. Thank you.

ASTRID: Well, on The Garret, there's been two, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Claire Coleman, both rate you highly. Neither Maxine nor Claire gives away compliments for free. They would not say it if they didn't mean it. So a hard question for you, what makes you good to work with for a writer?

ROBERT: I'm not sure how to answer that without sounding like I know all the answers. I think it's easier for me to talk more closely to the way I like to work with authors. And hopefully, that explains why some people might really enjoy working with me or at least, why I believe that publishing is something that I'm good at. And I'm not sure you're allowed to say something like that, but I think it's something that I really like doing. So hopefully, I'm good at it. But within my commissioning mindset, there's a few things that I like to think about whenever I acquire a book.

The first is, I'm only really interested in acquiring and working on books that I personally believe in, and I'm invested in so I can truly say that I'm passionate about them. And that's not to say that other publishers don't do this. I'm not suggesting that I'm doing anything amazing or unique, but that's something I really believe in. The second thing is I always really love to meet and discuss the work with an author before I acquire it. That's important to me. The next is that I really do believe in collaborative publishing.

I would like to believe that anybody who has worked with me on a publishing level or who I've acquired their work of has felt they never got to a point in that publishing process where they didn't understand what was happening or couldn't understand why a decision was being made or didn't feel like they had a voice in that discussion because I believe that the editorial process should be an open discussion. I believe that the discussions around what your book looks like should be a collaborative discussion.

I think the discussions about how your book is marketed and publicised should be a collaborative discussion. And I think that I've always believed in the idea that the author's the authority on their work. I'm just here to help them reach as many readers as possible. I don't think any of that is revolutionary by any stretch. I just think that those are the core tenets of good publishing. So maybe that's what appeals to people. I have never been published so I don't know what that's like, obviously, from that side. I can only speak to the fact that I enjoy that kind of publisher/editor, author relationship.

Because I think when you approach it in a way that feels like you're there to serve the work and help the author and how could it really go wrong? And that's not to imply that I'm sure that there aren't some authors out there that might not have felt that way. I don't know. I'm not sure that they would necessarily tell me that they really hated it, but I hope that's not the case. I hope that at least if they listened back to that, they'd be like, ‘Oh yeah. No, definitely, there was plenty of communication and it always felt collaborative’. That's the key, I think.

ASTRID: On Ultimo's website it is really easy to find your bio and the bio of the other editors and publishers. I think that might be the only publishing website that I can say that about. Honestly, I've been to a lot of publishing websites. And I don't actually have a question, but I just wanted to note that I feel there was some transparency there because so often, publishing feels like this kind of indecipherable black box. And I don't know, I think I'm just saying kudos, it felt really nice to have that kind of-

ROBERT: Some people might think we overshare. We obviously have a specific aesthetic that I think our books kind of show. And I think that we definitely want to be open about the team here and how we work and the kind of books that we're interested in. Lots of people say whenever they look at our Instagram, it always looks like we're having too much fun. Maybe that's a bit put on, but actually, genuinely, we are having fun. But that doesn't mean we're not also really working very hard and that sometimes days are really difficult. So we just don't necessarily take a photo of the day that I'm grimacing in a corner.

ASTRID: Look, no one takes a photo on that day, so that cannot…


ASTRID: ... be held against you. So, how does someone get published by you and Ultimo Press?

ROBERT: Again, it's not a linear thing. You can't necessarily just slide into my DMs with a book deal. And not that people haven't tried. I kind of have a mix of different ways that I've commissioned over the years. Some of it comes via Australian literary agents. Some of it has come via different prizes that people have won that have kind of brought them to my attention. Some of it has come from me reading something that someone has published and being interested in their other work. Some of it's come from genuinely a couple of books I did publish because I met people at the Emerging Writers Festival. Big shout out to that festival because I think it's a wonderful festival.

There is no direct route, let's put it that way. We do have a portal which many people have seen on our website where you can submit. I will say that there's an overwhelming number of people that really do want to get published so it can take a very long time for us to sift through that. And I wouldn't say that the strike rate is particularly high. I'm not here to say that people who submit via our portal are guaranteed either a response or necessarily success because, literally, in any given month, there's hundreds of entries in there and we are a team of three publishers mostly doing that kind of commissioning reading outside of work. It just doesn't really happen that way.

But we are kind of developing a new process of being a little bit more careful about how often we read through them. But I wouldn't say that's necessarily going to change that success rate, if that makes sense, because there's just so much that's in there. And also, because we are very careful about the list that we curate. For every 100 books that are submitted via different ways to Ultimo Press, maybe one gets published. I feel that's such a depressing thing to say. Please don't give up, emerging writers. I'm not implying that you should give up on the thing that you're passionate about.

ASTRID: Look, Robert, that is a depressing stat. And that leads me into my next question, which is asking you for a depressing stat. So there's lots of different things that are published in Australia. And if we're talking about fiction, a broad distinction would be literary and commercial. And I'm going to really make a very large generalisation here and say, literary is kind of where the awards go and commercial is kind of where the sales go as a kind of basic breakdown. But from your experience, what is a bestseller in terms of literary? How many copies do you have to sell to get that label? And I know it's slightly different between publishers, et cetera, but for those of us who don't work in publishing.

ROBERT: It is a very hard thing to put a specific number on. And there are a lot of factors that go into that. I think you're 100 per cent correct that literary fiction as a whole can be of a much smaller scale, what you consider a bestseller as opposed to commercial fiction, which might be a much larger scale. And even within commercial fiction, there are different genres that are bigger in popularity at any given moment than other genres within that. At some point in time, romance might be huge because Bridgerton is on TV and everybody's buying into that space or because TikTok has been so influential on some of that commercial fiction, there's a very specific subset of romance that's very popular at the moment. For a while now, we've had this kind of resurgence of Australian crime that's seen that kind of real noir, like really big.

So in that kind of commercial fiction space, a bestseller could be anywhere between, I don't know, 7,000 copies and 150,000 copies or more, but as you get further up, there's definitely less books that hit that level. So, it's a really big scale, I think, with commercial fiction. On the literary fiction end, I guess it depends on what your expectations are. And publishers are often realists about the size of an expected audience based on past experience. But that doesn't mean that they don't always have the highest of hopes for books. With literary fiction, a bestseller in that space can also be quite big and might be 20,000 or 30,000 copies, but there are far less of them than there would be in the commercial fiction space.

I think a more realistic number for literary fiction might be actually somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 copies, that might be considered to be more of a good sales. But depending on what level your publisher buys your book at, 1,500 copies might be exactly what it needed to do to earn out what they've spent to make it. So there's a difference, I think, between the expectation of being a bestseller and making a book that's commercially sustainable. There's different models that make those books work in different publishing houses. In the worst possible way, there's no definitive answer to that question.

ASTRID: You did very well with an unanswerable question. You did it with dignity and a lot of information. And I guess just to explain why I asked the question, I really believe in careers for writers and pay for writers and monetary remuneration for the art that I love. And I read literary fiction and I know it sells less. And it might take someone a year to write a book, it might take someone 10 years to write a book. And if at the end of 10 years, it's sold 5,000 copies or something, that's not a great monetary reward. And I think it's important for me as a consumer, but also for writers who are planning how they're going to pay their rent to kind of have a vague understanding of where the money goes. Moving on to…

ROBERT: I just have this funny anecdote, I think, that sort of sits quite nicely alongside that. It's not funny, it's more kind of just very relevant to it, is that I, at the Sydney Writer's Festival, went to an event that had Diana Reid and Allee Richards on it, both literary fiction authors. And Allee said something that I just think is just so pertinent and important for those who do write literary fiction to remember. And she was just like, ‘I don't know how you would do this if you didn't also have a job’. And I think that's the thing that I would just say to people who want to be writers in Australia is that there are very, very, very few writers in Australia who can afford to live purely off the advance that they might receive for publishing a book. And to expect it to be otherwise is maybe unrealistic, even for those that are working in the commercial fiction space.

Because just doing my kind of shitty maths, if you think about 20,000 copies of a book that's earning $3 from each book, the actual earning that you might get from that one book in that one year is still only maybe $60,000, right? Which for many is not a bad base wage, but it's also not necessarily sustainable if you're not doing a book every year, right, and then expecting that book to sell to that level every year. If you were doing a book every two years, but one sold 20,000 copies, you still then have got over two years, you would've only earned $30,000 a year. So even for someone who is a bestseller, they can't necessarily be guaranteed that the royalties that they earned from their book is going to sustain their working life. So yeah, well, that was depressing. I don't know why I needed to pull that out, but there you go.

ASTRID: Look, depressing but important. I am going to move us on to a happier question.

ROBERT: Please.

ASTRID: What are you most excited about publishing coming up this year? Because there's one on your list that I'm very excited about and I'm interested in what you're going to say.

ROBERT: You can't choose between your children, Astrid. So, I'm not going to say that. I am very excited about all of my Ultimo authors, obviously. When we were talking about lists before, I'm really happy about the shape of the Ultimo list as a whole. So, the books that Alex is publishing and the books that Brigid's publishing, the books that I'm publishing has kind of come together for the second half of this year. I'm excited that we have a great mix of both inclusive publishing and commercial and literary publishing. We got some reall exciting narrative non-fiction from voices that you'll already know and new voices. We do obviously have a second novel from Diana Reid in October, which I think is the book you're talking about for later in this year, which is super exciting, which is her next book, which is called Seeing Other People.

But across that list, I can, without a word of a lie, just be like, we're so proud of the books that are coming out at the second half of this year. We've got an incredible mix of authors, but we also just have this incredible mix of genre and fiction and nonfiction. There's nothing more exciting than to look at that and be like, ‘What a great scope it has’. Because that's what makes publishing exciting, knowing that you've got this great dynamic list and authors that you're really excited to both showcase as new and then authors like Sophie Cunningham, whose been Australian royalty in publishing and writing for so long with a brand-new novel that's extraordinary. Or even the fact that we're publishing Anna Spargo-Ryan's narrative non-fiction later this year. That's an author who many people will have read her fiction and read short pieces that she's written as non-fiction. And she's got this incredible book about living with complex mental health that's coming out later this year that I think is going to literally blow people's minds. Across that list, it's so exciting. And then there's debut voices like Alex Sarkis who's from Western Sydney and it's an extraordinary commercial fiction book. Pirooz Jafari, who's written all about working as a migrant lawyer, but also where's home. A brand-new book from Sulari Gentill, who's like crime royalty in Australia, I think. And it's a standalone book that's so extraordinary. It genuinely is really exciting. I would name them all, but off the top of my head, I can't think of all of them, so that's what you get for now.

ASTRID: I can confess it was Sophie Cunningham's first novel that's got me really excited. I cannot wait, but I will read everything that you publish. So I am a really easy sell. Robert, thank you so much for talking with me today.

ROBERT: Fabulous. Thank you. Astrid.