Devault-Graves Digital Editions
Making their mark on the e-book market.
Darrin Devault, who teaches journalism at the University of Memphis, admits it: Sure, he goes online for news, and he’s not opposed to reading by smartphone. But when it comes to reading for pleasure, he’s still a print kinda guy.
Tom Graves, who teaches English at LeMoyne-Owen College, likes the feel and even the smell of a good hardback. And when e-books first appeared, he didn’t know if he’d care for them or not — this from a writer who, when he has time to do his own writing, prefers paper and pen. Graves admits, though, that e-books come in handy. When he had his car serviced recently, he needed something to read while he waited, and before leaving the house, it took him seconds to download a book onto his Kindle. Does it need saying that Graves is hardly alone? According to a report last fall in Publishers Weekly, e-book unit sales, in the first six months of 2013, accounted for 30 percent of unit book sales overall.
Darrin Devault and Tom Graves are tapping into that market. They’ve founded the Devault-Graves Agency, with this in mind: bringing out-of-print or backlisted titles onto the market as e-books with fresh graphics and a keen appreciation for how words appear on the page — the digital page. As their website says: “No good book deserves to fall into obscurity.” But no reason an e-book shouldn’t look high-quality.
The company has so far made available, under its imprint Devault-Graves Digital Editions, lesser-known Beat novels by Jack Kerouac; classic collections by celebrity profiler Rex Reed; an autobiography by crime photographer Weegee; a forgotten memoir by E. Frederic Morrow titled Black Man in the White House; Noe Gold’s offbeat Yiddish Glossary for Goyim; and Graves’ own Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson. Sharecropper Hell by Jim Thompson and The Secret Squad by David Goodis appear under the company’s crime-fiction imprint, Chalk Line Books. Titles, available from the major online book retailers, range in price from $4.99 to $9.99. Most popular title so far? Kerouac’s Big Sur.
How did Darrin Devault and Tom Graves, who met more than a dozen years ago when both worked in communications for Memphis City Schools, arrive at the idea to set up their own company? It started at a personal (and publishing) crossroads for Graves.
“When my modestly successful book on Robert Johnson went out of print, the rights reverted back to me,” Graves said from the company’s office in Midtown. “I wasn’t happy with the contract I’d had on that book, because my royalty rate was below the norm. My publisher profited much. I profited very little. Once I owned the rights, I knew off the bat that I wanted to put the book out as an e-book. I learned all the ins and outs of e-book publication. I felt I could market the book well.
“Then I realized the many famous authors who had books not available as e-books. I thought, Why not try to navigate those waters and see if I can acquire the rights to select titles? But I knew I couldn’t effectively do it all by myself. I’ve tried to go it alone before. I knew just how difficult starting a business can be. The only person I trusted enough and who had an extensive marketing and communications background — and somebody with good business sense — was Darrin Devault.”
It’s been a good match for both, with Devault, whose journalism classes include the finer points of online content, handling much of the marketing and public relations.
“Darrin is much better at social media than I am,” Graves said. “He’s also more the sober businessman. I tend to take more flights of fancy in the creative realm. But whenever I run an idea by Darrin, if he signs off on it, I know it’s a solid idea.
“When Darrin and I first discussed going into business, I was very impressed at how he quickly understood the e-book business and how to structure our own business and goals. I’m more the seeker of titles, the guy who chases down an author or the author’s estate or agent to nail down the books and the rights.”
“I can’t take any credit for the business idea,” Devault admitted. “But I can recognize a good idea when I see one. When Tom pitched his idea, I was onboard. I was honored to be his business partner. Tom’s the lead person to select the titles, our bird dog. My expertise is web presence, in addition to shooting short videos, usually of Tom doing a promo for the new titles.”
Both men acknowledge that starting an e-book business involved a steep learning curve, but they took their time fine-tuning their business model before launching in earnest last year. They looked to the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the U of M for sound startup advice, as have other faculty members and students at the school. (In Devault’s words, “Memphis is a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity.”)
Devault and Graves also took seriously the legal advice of a local law firm that specializes in intellectual property. That’s critical, because the e-books published by the Devault-Graves Agency enjoy copyright protection, thanks to specially commissioned artwork and materials, such as endnotes, added to the original text. Former Memphian and actor Chris Ellis, for example, illustrated the jacket of the Weegee autobiography, and a whole host of European graphic designers were hired for other titles. In the case of Black Man in the White House, local newscaster and Memphis Flyer columnist Les Smith wrote an afterword.
“All of this makes up-front costs higher, but it also means no one can come behind us and replicate what we’ve done. It’s why we have good legal counsel,” Graves said.
But as Graves, a novelist and music writer, also said, the company’s business model wasn’t based on traditional book publishing. It was inspired by Rhino Records, which built its reputation on acquiring neglected or hard-to-find rock music. Apply Rhino’s example to e-books, and according to Graves, “We, like Rhino, want rights to older backlisted or out-of-print titles that we can then remarket.
“This is what separates us from other publishers. Very few publishers are specializing in e-books only. Most companies want hot, new titles, new authors, best-sellers. Our methods for getting the rights to publish are where our trade secrets come in. This is no easy thing at all. But it is at the heart of our business. Sometimes, we get turned down.”
As was the case when Devault-Graves sought to secure writer Harry Crews’ catalog. When Crews was alive, they thought they had his permission. Since his death, though, negotiations to win the rights to Crews’ work have gotten more complicated, if not reached a dead end.
What are the major goals of Devault-Graves, aside from rescuing authors and titles? Buildling a brand, for sure. Making a profit, no secret about it. According to Graves:
“We’ve discovered that some e-books sell fast, some sell slow. But they all sell if you market them well enough. Our best-sellers are projected to earn back all costs within one year. After that break-even point, we earn only profits into infinity. Anyway you break it down, it’s a successful formula for us.”
The key to success? Quality.
“Our expenses include going through an e-book distributor to every major retailer, including Amazon. We pay the premium price for this service, because we take great care to make our e-books look and read perfectly. ‘Perfect’ costs extra. So many e-books are sloppily put together. We take great pride in the quality of the reading experience you get from one of our titles.
“Other expenses include acquiring ISBN numbers, the electronic scan of each book, the hiring of artists for covers and illustrations, the hiring of writers when Darrin and I don’t have the time or the expertise. There are many variables and expenses to putting together an e-book. It is not work for the fainthearted.”
And as for the future:
“We will have to build up our readership person by person,” Graves said. “It’s our short-term goal to have 25 titles out by the end of the year. Our long-term plan is simply to multiply and keep multiplying the number of high-quality books under our two imprints. Our hope: that we brand ourselves well enough so that readers will take a chance on a book simply knowing it’s a Devault-Graves title.”
Neither Devault nor Graves has any intention of neglecting their chief priority, however, and that’s teaching. But thanks to the internet, they’re open for business 24/7.
They only ask that writers or their families or their representatives think twice before signing e-book rights over to bigger publishing companies.
As Tom Graves said, “They need to start thinking about the little guys who might actually do a better job. Yes, we have our dreams.” N
For more on the Devault-Graves Agency, go to devault-gravesagency.weebly.com.