U Star Novels In the Media
Personalised novels are a real success story
03 June 2008
When Katie Olver, co-founder of Ustar Novels, wanted a personalised book to give to a friend as a birthday present, the only ones she could find that were not aimed at children were produced by a company in the United States.
She bought the book, but couldn't get the idea out of her head and contacted the US publishers to see if she could distribute their products in the UK.
As they wanted an upfront payment of $100,000 and commission on every sale, the distribution concept never got off the starting blocks. But Ms Olver was not about to give up that easily.
"I was chatting with my accountant," she recalls, "and he said he thought it was a great idea and that I should just do it myself." And that is exactly what she did.
Her first step was to prepare a business plan. "I wanted to be clear in my head exactly what I was going to be doing."
She and her partner, Jon Reader, with whom she already ran a PR company, "put some feelers out" on the internet for suitable writers for the romantic - often steamy - novels Ustar would offer.
Ms Olver laughs now when she thinks of how protective she was of her idea, leading to difficulties in explaining exactly what she was after from prospective authors. "We wanted the stories all to be set in holiday destinations and to be threaded with lots of details that could be personalised, like people's favourite colours, birthdays and the names of their best friends, but we didn't want to give the game away."
She commissioned three writers for the company's first books. Although the couple had a loan offer of £20,000 from Barclays, they decided to use their own money to save the hefty charges that a commercial loan would incur.
"It just made more sense to use our own money," says Mr Reader. "We found that very motivating and we had every confidence we'd make it back."
Apart from paying the writers - which it was agreed they would do in three stages - the other major expense was the creation of a website. They knew the business would centre on the internet. Customers answer 20 to 30 questions online and the answers are then dropped into the relevant parts of the book they order.
Their first attempt got off to a false start when the web builders failed to deliver, and the intended launch date of Valentine's Day 2006 was missed. Then they were nominated for the Business Plan of the Year award, organised by Startups.co.uk - which they won. So they reorganised their launch date around the October award ceremony.
"The rules of the awards stated that businesses in our category were not allowed to be up and running before then," says Ms Olver.
It worked in their favour, as the awards generated plenty of press coverage and interest in the site. Boosted by the publicity, orders poured in from day one. Cashflow was never a problem as customers pay for their books before they are generated.
The couple appointed reliable printers to produce a high-quality product, which compares favourably with paperbacks in mainstream bookstores. This year, most of the £80,000 sales (up from £40,000 last year) will come through word of mouth.