The ALCS Interview: Crystal Mahey-Morgan

Crystal Mahey-Morgan is an independent multi-media publisher and founder of ‘OWN IT!’, a company specialising in ‘telling stories across books, music, fashion and film’. She shares her insights into digital publishing and diversity with Jade Zienkiewicz, along with some advice for authors on contracts, and how they can find new audiences online.

Digital Native Products

Mahey-Morgan’s flagship release through digital publishing house OWN IT! is Don’t Be Alien, a multi-media digital book with an animation and a song. It is also a ‘digital native product’, i.e. one that has never been published in physical form. As she puts it: “It meant thinking about the creative possibilities of digital from the very beginning.”

Her next project is Mama Can’t Raise No Man, a debut novel by Robyn Travis. It explores different themes of masculinity and offers social commentary on growing up in inner-city London. “The whole plot unfolds through a series of letters between the main protagonist in prison and a colourful cast of characters. It’s eye-opening, laugh-out-loud funny and full of interesting ideas about what it means to be a young black man in today’s society.” It will be published in print and digital. The digital book will offer a multi-layered experience which is something firmly rooted in why Mahey-Morgan started OWN IT! in the first place: “New technology means we can tell stories in exciting new ways and in doing so, help engage new audiences who may not have previously thought of books as entertainment.” To celebrate the release of Mama Can’t Raise No Man, OWN IT! is also republishing Robyn’s first book about his experiences growing up on the streets of Hackney and Tottenham.

Digital native products are one thing, but their presence doesn’t mean print books can’t cross over too. Mahey-Morgan is adamant that the two different formats must be thought through in their own right: “What I have often seen in a bid to access the digital market, is a book simply turned into a file. Everything else is an afterthought: ‘Oh I’ll stick an author video in it’. That’s fine if you want a straight e-book, but if you want to capitalise on a digital format, you have to think about a book’s life online and what else it can be from the start.”

Mahey-Morgan doesn’t think this is the new digital frontier, but rather just another way of reaching people and telling stories. “A large part of my audience are young and interested in digital multi-media sensory experiences. And I know that this audience use their mobile phones to consume content, so it’s my job to deliver stories the way they want to experience them.” She urges writers to know more about who their audiences could be, and what they are doing online:

“What’s your book about? What else does it reference that would cross over nicely? Are there cross-promotional opportunities? A book about France which happens to reference a lot of cheese and wine might be appealing to foodies, so you have a potential new audience there. Are you seeking them out? Think creatively about how you might reach them.” It is also imperative to interact with your audience online, she says. “The more you invest in building a relationship with your audience, the more they will invest in finding out what else you have to offer.”

Mahey-Morgan agrees that young content creators might find it easier than older ones to put their work online, but believes that everyone can have a go (“if they want to”). “There are a lot of traditional ways that writers have always used to get their books read. They are still there and being replicated online: book clubs for example. And it’s great because you can reach more people digitally – you’re not restricted by time or location.”

To her, digital is just another way to tell stories, and not the threat to culture that some might believe. “At one point a physical book was considered revolutionary: throughout human history, stories were always an oral tradition. So formats have always changed, from books to e-book, vinyl to CDs, to downloading. Stories have always been at the centre of everything.” This principle is at the heart of OWN IT!

Contracts and the Publishing Industry

Mahey-Morgan’s time working in contracts at Random House before the company merged with Penguin has directly affected how she runs her business today. “You need to be able to negotiate, draft your own contracts, understand terms and the commercial side of things.”

What contract advice can she share with ALCS Members? She believes it’s a question of finding a balance of writers not undervaluing themselves, but also being realistic. OWN IT! terms give a 50/50 split between artist and the company, with both digital and physical books. “Which is quite rare,” she concedes, “to offer 50%. Some people think it’s crazy. But it’s a two way relationship. The profits should be split evenly once I’ve recouped back the initial investment I’ve made. Writers are really undervalued in the way current contracts are set up and it can be quite exploitative.”

However, her warning is clear: “50/50 splits like mine are really hard to find, so authors should be realistic about what’s out there.” She goes even further and suggests that writers need to negotiate: “Are you giving away your ‘world rights’? Unless a publisher has plans and can demonstrate how they are going to exploit your rights in other territories then you’re justified in retaining those rights: don’t give them away as a standard part of the contract.”

“If you do decide to give away those rights then you should try to negotiate a higher percentage, or even a bigger advance. Think about all the subsidiary rights… as a writer you need to be benefiting from them.”

“Every publisher is going to hate me now! But someone has to say these things. As an independent publisher I’m in a position where I can.”

Mahey-Morgan’s views on fair pay for authors also encompass appearances at gigs. “I feel very strongly that authors should always be paid. OWN IT! is curating a night at Stoke Newington Literary Festival and is paying all our featured artists.”

“I also love the fact that Stoke Newington Literary Festival raises money for literacy initiatives and supports young writers and poets who are often overlooked by major publishers and other festivals.”

Diversity in the Creative Industries

Writers should work for free if they want to, says Mahey-Morgan. But her concern is that if this is the standard, the industry will continue to suffer from a lack of diversity. “We are losing out on brilliant voices and we’re not giving them an opportunity. They simply can’t afford to be authors.” Mahey-Morgan would like the publishing industry to realise that paying writers is good for business: “It’s about enriching our own industry. We need to understand it in that frame. Not in terms of us helping these ‘poor writers’, but in terms of investing in the culture and richness of our art.”

In some ways Mahey-Morgan is typical of the sort of creative professional that inhabits our times. She’s young (32 years old), entrepreneurial, multi-skilled and a Londoner who grew up with technology. But it wasn’t as easy as it might seem: “It’s quite hard for someone like me to get into the industry … as far as glass ceilings go: women feel it, people of different races feel it, working-class people feel it. I happen to be all of those things.”

She describes not being taken seriously at times, feeling as though her ideas were ignored because of the way she talks and the perception people had of her because of this: “I was told to lose my London accent when I first started in publishing. It was made clear that the way I talk would hold me back.” I’m happy to report, dear reader, that Mahey-Morgan very much still has her London accent.

“I think that part of the reason I’ve been able to overcome it is because I am just a stubborn cow. Why don’t I deserve to work with books as much as anyone else? When you think about how knowledge is power, and books give people self-worth, it really upsets me that we have got to a place where books are only for certain people.”

But, with a hugely impressive CV (jobs at The Face magazine at 14, The Guardian at 16, Raindance Film Festival at 19), it’s clear that she was always going to get somewhere: “It’s quite embarrassing but I have a rejection letter from Penguin from when I was about seven.”

With her early interest in poetry and journalism, I wonder if Mahey-Morgan will ever release any of her own work through OWN IT! “Stories have always been part of my life, so it’s always a possibility. But for now my main focus is working with talented artists. I feel like my creative voice is being used to the maximum through my work by enabling other creative voices. I am still at the beginning really.”
Don’t Be Alien is out now.  Look out for debut novel Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robyn Travis later this year as well as a re-issue of his first book Prisoner to the Streets. available from June.

Crystal Mahey-Morgan is a multi-media publisher, editor and freelance marketer. Contact her: info@OWNIT.London

Website: www.OWNIT.London
Twitter: @OWNITLDN