Interview with Derek Armstrong – Publisher, Kunati Books

Derek ArmstrongKunati Books has been described by Booklist magazine as “a publisher to watch.”  Kunati has been an innovative force in the book publishing world.  Kunati has successfully combined its focus on edgy and controversial fiction, with cutting edge book marketing.  The company is riding a wave of popularity and has been forced to reprint most of its titles to fulfill increasing demand. 

We recently interviewed Derek Armstrong, publisher and founder of Kunati Books, as well as a popular author, to learn more about his views on book publishing and marketing.  

FPP:  You’re an author, as well as a publisher. What made you decide to go into publishing?

Derek:  I didn’t fall into it by accident. For the last twenty years I’ve been principal of one of North America’s top ad agencies (Persona Corp.). Over the years, we’ve done extensive work for five large publishers. From a marketing point-of-view, we’ve actually led with innovations at Persona, including the invention of the animated novel trailer back in the early eighties. In 1996, Simon & Schuster published The Persona Principle, written by my partner Kam Wai Yu and myself, which became very popular, and led to more publishing clients. It was translated into six languages. My first novel, THE GAME, did the rounds a couple years ago with a big agent in New York, and just at the point where three publishers made offers, I began talks with other writers and creative people about forming our own publishing company. It was actually kind of fun to turn down offers and jump right in with THE GAME as our first acquisition. The “reality TV” humor and making fun of the zeitgeist made it perfect for Kunati.

To answer more directly, publishing and writing are my main passions. Founding a publishing company was inevitable. Plus we wanted to use our creative innovations for our own venture. We love authors. We love great books. We love making a splash and we’re experts in marketing. It seemed natural. We weren’t quite prepared for the literal flood of manuscripts (pun intended). Within six months we hit the 5,000 manuscript mark and realized we had created a monster. We secured a large distributor, opened another office, increased our title release plan and – well, who needs sleep anyway? The astonishing thing is that of these thousands of manuscripts, I would say hundreds deserved to be published. We can only publish a dozen or so a season – and that’s the hardest part of being a publisher. I really dislike the whole “not for us” scenario, especially when you love the books you’re passing on.

FPP:  On Kunati’s site, it states that the company’s mission is focused on “publishing provocative, edgy, fun, quirky and controversial books” and that you avoid classifying your titles by genre. What inspired this approach? Have you met with any resistance from booksellers?

Derek:  An absolute truth in marketing is that a product must be unique, truly unique, to be marketable. If a novel or non fiction book can’t be synopsized as unique in one sentence or two, it’s not for us. Why? Because it’s very difficult to capture a consumer’s attention, and publishing’s an expensive venture. In an ad you have your headline – one sentence. A browse in a bookstore starts with the first sentence on the flap. It’s all about capturing attention. This isn’t as shallow a statement as it seems. For decades I’ve coached my clients – companies like IBM and Simon & Schuster – to differentiate, differentiate, differentiate. The three rules of Persona we called it. So, how could we launch a publishing company without truly emphasizing our differences. This became clearer when we were forced to start turning down manuscripts. How do you decide between a hundred magnificent books? It can’t just come down to prose and character alone. It has to resolve around the “HOOK”. Our hook was defined by the market. Provocative is in. From Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code to the flood of intimate memoirs, controversy sells. This allowed us to differentiate along lines that would appeal to booksellers. After only one season it’s worked out that way. Our first print runs sold out. Libraries in particular order a lot of our books. All major chains and most indy’s have ordered. So the reaction has been quite the opposite of ‘resistance.’ I suppose “resistance is futile.” Our second season was even easier, with booksellers and libraries ordering “sight unseen.”

On the question of genre, it’s just a tired term. Nearly every book is cross-genre. So why do we need these classifications? A good story is a good story. Great characters are great characters. In non fiction, the theme rules and the “question” (the question to be “answered”). How does an artificial category help? For instance, Carol O’Dell’s memoir Mothering Mother could be classified as “personal memoir” but it’s just as much a ‘how to” on living with elderly parents, or on care-giving for people with Alzheimer’s. And it’s as entertaining as a novel. How do you classify any of our books? RABID could be described as “Peyton Place meets the science thriller” (one reviewer did, and gave her a starred review) but it’s also one of the most literary novels I’ve read in awhile. How do you categorize something like that? Some of our novels are being adopted as “recommended reads” by lobby groups and causes. Whale Song is actively buzzing in the “assisted suicide” groups. Bang Bang is as popular with the NRA as with the anti-gun groups.

FPP:  How have you evolved your branding to reflect this mission?

Derek:  Of course there are layers of branding subtleties in all of our executions. Our authors, of course, represent the main anchor of our brand. As I mentioned, we were able to be selective on authors, choosing great new voices with edge and building a “Kunati family” around them. Our authors group – a social online marketing group we formed for our authors-has made Kunati authors friends and family. We meet every day online.

Red, a color psychologically aligned to success and growth and aggression was our pick for our logo. Branding our books with the Kunati red band on the bottom allowed “recall” of Kunati. Even the differentiated name. Kunati is an invented word, and therefore trademarkeable, but it’s derived from two words. Kunata (Icelandic word for Knowledge) and Kunatai, the native hero known as the “lucky hunter.” Hunting for knowledge? Hunting for success? Both. Our covers carry on that “demand for attention” with simple and highly graphic and hip images. Like the now-famous screaming lips with the branded cross on the tongue for RABID. That was as edgy as you can get, and became emblematic of Kunati. And, naturally, our trailers. We invented the trailer in the eighties, so it behooves us to make sure each of our books has a really hip and seriously edgy trailer.

FPP:  What do you feel is the strongest branding component – your authors, titles or Kunati itself? How does Kunati integrate its author / title and company branding?

Derek:  Our authors are the most important by far. They are Kunati. They’re all quite different in voice, theme and what others would call genre, but they’re Kunati in spirit all the way: new, different, edgy. They’re an international group as well, so far U.S., U.K. and Canada. From a marketing point-of-view we’re highly integrated author-to-publisher, title-to-Kunati. We find that unique edge or hook and use that to demonstrate our mission. Our authors are enthusiastic about it. And we meet every day online in our Kunati group, discussing our daily marketing activities, our signings, our successes, what we learned, cheering each other on.

Our Meet the Author feature on our website is very popular, with about 2000 unique visits a day. There, our prospective readers meet our authors via their fun bio, their personal blogs and forum style chatting. It’s very cool. The Kunati authors are the most enthusiastic marketers I’ve ever met, even though their first love is writing. It’s just in the nature of being part of something different, I suppose.

FPP:  Kunati has been very innovative with its marketing. Could you describe some of the techniques – e.g. podcasts and book trailers – you use and rate their effectiveness?

Derek:  Online is very powerful. The great equalizer I call it. I coach our authors to review other novels on Amazon, to blog every day, to reach out to new friends on myspace and youtube aggressively. Some of our best quotes on our book covers, from NY Times best selling authors came from online friendships with authors-to-authors.

Our Meet-the-Author feature on our website is hot. It represents about 1 million collective unique visits so far. Our trailers of course, although as time passes, and everyone does it now, we have to push on and make them even more unique.

The “collective” nature of our author marketing is unique. Instead of going it alone, we do many things together. Then, as each author promotes their activities, they cross promote each other and make new friends along the way. It’s definitely a momentum, viral marketing approach.

We don’t believe in the “big buck for one month” approach of larger publishers. At Persona we became quite familiar with the big launch approach. Every spring and fall the marketing space is so crowded it’s hard to get noticed. We try not to fall into those seasons in our marketing. We have no choice in our release dates because of distribution, but our marketing is year-round and actually lighter in the spring and fall. We go heavier in the summer and winter when others are quiet.

Graphics and loglines play a major role in our marketing. We believe every novel can be described in one sentence and expressed with one iconic image (the rabid cross on the tongue for Rabid, the screaming head bursting out of the TV for The Game). By doing it this way, recall with readers becomes easier. Pitching to booksellers becomes simple. Grabbing attention in a crowded media space is such a big problem we view this as the most important thing of all. Instant impact we call it.

FPP:  You’ve also employed a marketing strategy built around an author marketing group. Could you explain what an author marketing groups is and how it works?

Derek:  The KAMG – Kunati Author Marketing Group-is a growing family of authors who dialogue every single day via a private online group. It’s like a mail list, in that every post goes to every author mailbox with an immediate read by authors (when they’re online). This way, we connect every day. We brainstorm. Discuss new campaigns. Vote on ideas. Help each other get over hurdles like the first book signing. Invite each other to stay over at our houses when we’re on tour in their cities. Meet up at BEA. Become friends. It’s magnificent. Simple. I’m not sure who else does it. I highly recommend it to any publisher with more than one author. All ideas are good ideas. No one gets shot down. Many of our best ideas came from author ideas that were then brainstormed and refined in the group. Of course our marketing team, led by Kam Wai Yu, ultimately will execute award-winning creative to go with the idea, but it starts in the KAMG.

FPP:  How do you think Kunati’s growth will change its branding or marketing strategies?

Derek:  I hope it won’t. We’re experience growth pains now. More submissions than we can handle, and slower responses to authors, but we’re committed to not changing our “no agent required” policy in spite of the workload. Distribution is no issue since IPG is really well connected everywhere and can warehouse even the best selling book. International interest and movie rights interest has changed us somewhat, but it’s really changing us for the better. We’ve always been very commercial in focus, so it’s a fairly easy change for us to facilitate anything related to marketing or rights. The author group keeps growing, now it’s dozens, but that just makes it more energetic. Until we get to hundreds, I can’t see a big change there. Our marketing is very focused on bookseller and librarian support, and that will not change.

FPP:  Looking back, is there anything you would do differently knowing what you know now?

Derek:  Minor things, I suppose. We did a lot of things right – like not adopting seasons, focusing uniquely, and so on – but we haven’t yet begun to actively contact agents. The huge swell of submissions has made that, so far, unnecessary. Agents have found us, to be sure, but we acquire as many unagented as agented authors. I wouldn’t change that either. At the moment, I can’t think of much.

FPP:  How do you see book marketing in general changing in the next 5 years?

Derek:  I think authors will play a larger and larger role. I believe online marketing will become the main tool, particularly interactive (not necessarily blogging, but definitely “friends-style” networking such as myspace). I think PR will play less and less of a role, but it will always be more important than media advertising. We do trade media advertising – which does work – and consumer advertising in media – which has limited impact. Most of our buzz comes from online activities, and I see that growing and growing. Interactive trailers will become big. The virtual tour will be perfected in a year or so. ONLINE book clubs will be big and important to publishers. Libraries have to become more important as they become very “online” as well. I hope, one day, ebooks will succeed, but so far it has not found legs and won’t until there’s a standard. I think book covers and reader reviews will grow in importance. I think there’ll be more titles published, not less, so there’ll be fragmentation and a need for more personalized marketing, such as “collection of emails” through various vehicles. And savvy marketers won’t ignore the independent booksellers. Yes, independents have taken a one-two punch from chain retailers and online stores, but they’re here to stay and they’re neglected. The publisher who works with the indy’s will do well.

FPP:  If the demands of the business began to interfere with your writing, would you give up the writing or scale back your role as publisher?

Derek:  I will never give up writing. It’s three hours out of each day, starting at 5am each morning. Give it up? It will never happen. It’s my leisure, my joy, my passion. Books are also my obsession, and I see myself as publisher forever — but I’ll die with my fingers on a keyboard (as author). I, personally, believe that a publisher who is also an active writer is a big reassurance to our Kunati authors. I don’t want to say something hokey like “I understand authors” but I’ve lived through hundreds of agent and publisher rejections after spending years writing my precious novels – so I’ll never be unsympathetic or glib to writers. It actually hurts to have to “pass” on a good book. We’re just not able to take hundreds of titles – yet. Maybe someday soon.

You can view some of Kunati’s book trailers for current and soon to be released titles by clicking the links below.


view trailer
Lynn Hoffman’s edgy novel takes on the NRA and gun rights
The Game
view trailer
Derek Armstrong’s “attack” on the stupidity of reality television
view trailer
TK Kenyon’s clash between science and religion


Truth or Bare
view trailer
Richard Cahill’s hot and sexy (and chillingly humorous) novel
The Last Troubadour
view trailer
Derek Armstrong’s decade-in-the-making epic (highly critical of the Catholic church and makes fun of the current popularity of Grail mythology)
Recycling Jimmy
view trailer
Andy Tilley’s controversial take on suicide-for-profit (a novel)


Enjoy the controversy!

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