I won a national writing competition many moons ago and was whisked down to London to meet the editorial director of Macmillan and an agent from Curtis Brown to chat and have lunch at The Ivy. You know the one, all orange-headed slebs pushing the latest lettuce leaf around the plate, worrying if anybody more famous is eating there to scupper their photo opportunity. Anyway, they didn’t like my novel, so that was that. A year later, I read in The Bookseller that all the big money advances were going to young Irish writers, so I changed my name to Colm O’Driscoll, sent off three chapters and a synopsis to Darley Anderson Agency and a few days later, Darley wrote and asked me to phone him, which I did, in a plastic paddy Oirish accent. For a year I had to pretend to be Irish until I went down to London to meet him, where I had to confess my Englishness but still I signed up with them. For twelve months they tried to sell my book, but always the same answer came back. The editors love your book but the commercial directors don’t think they can shift 20,000 copies, so that was that. After returning home to Hebden and moping around the house, Heth, my wife, said—stop grumbling and do something about it; so we remortgaged the house, started Bluemoose and published my book Anthills and Stars and The Bridge Between by Nathan Vanek. We made enough money from these two books that we have published twenty books since.
Independent publishers don’t replicate, copy or follow a formulaic or generic style; they find wonderful stories that are beautifully written and then nurture, polish and shine those books until they are released into the hands of eager readers. It is ALL about finding new writers, because without new writing, literature would be dead. Of course, the Big Six publishers do publish some new writing but they have different considerations and sensibilities. Because of their corporate structure their first consideration is profit. When you are a global publishing conglomerate whose turnover is in the billions, your fiduciary concern is for your shareholders and that means, you don’t take risks. You replicate the success you have already had and publish as many celebrity and BIG name authors with a proven sales record as possible, backing each and every book with massive marketing and sales campaigns. Or you copy what has been successful. Stack ‘em high and sell them cheap. Visibility is the name of the game and you buy shelf space with greater discounts or an increased marketing budget to the bookseller. Publishers have always published celebrity and big name authors and then invested the profits into new writers. They still do but on a much, much smaller scale than in previous times. Investment in new writers takes time and shareholders can’t afford to wait that long to get an income from their investment. The big six promote the book not the writer. Independents promote the writer. Of course, we all have to be mindful of the economic imperative otherwise we would be out of business but we can exist on smaller initial sales than a publisher that has offered a sleb author a six-figure advance and needs to recoup that investment within the first year. I am told repeatedly by authors from larger publishers that, because their ‘sales graph wasn’t going in the right trajectory, fast enough’, they wouldn’t be offered a deal on their next book. There is no commitment to growing a writer, just sales. The stripy shirts have won, because now, the most important person in publishing is the sales director. If the figures don’t add up on the pre-sales-trajectory-graph-simulation-spread-sheet, you can go whistle.
And then there are agents…are they driven by a passion for literature or to get the largest cheque possible? Perhaps a debate for another time.
One of our authors was told when he presented his second novel to a major publisher, ‘who would want to read a book about a working class man from a small northern town?’ That small northern town is Durham, so already you can see a class and northernist prejudice about what is deemed readable and worthy. These responses are not unique. They happen on a regular basis. Literary publishing tends to replicate the reading choices of its employees and on the whole they publish safe comfortable books about people in their milieu, which is middle to upper class, whose social horizons are limited by their schooling, university and work-life experiences. The editor who didn’t think people would want to read a book about a working class bloke in a small town in the north, was wrong, that book is Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers and it has just been shortlisted for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize 2013. There is a class issue in publishing today and it works as a kind of censorship. Many literary editors, when confronted with books that they don’t feel comfortable with or don’t want to feel comfortable with, will dismiss them out of hand for being unsuitable publishing material. They tend to publish for a metropolitan readership, there are exceptions of course but the majority of books seem to be aimed at a North London collective whose only concern this week is where to buy the latest organic fungi as wrestled with by another new TV celebrity chef in a shack on a the side of a dormant volcano on Cape Verde.
But this is a godsend to Independents because it means there is a readership out there that craves and demands books that don’t follow the formulaic Scandawegian cookery bake-off novel trend that is all pervasive at the moment. Independents like And Other Stories, Salt, Myrmidon, Bluemoose, Serpent’s Tail are all publishing cracking books that are just that; wonderful stories that are beautifully written. At Bluemoose we have sold our books on every continent and they have been translated into Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian. We have had two books that have been shortlisted this year, Nod by Adrian Barnes for The Arthur C Clarke Award 2013 and as mentioned before Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers for the Gordon Burn Prize. We regularly get reviewed in the literary press and I have just sold the Film and TV rights of Nod to 20th Century Fox, there will be a twelve-part TV series heading your way in the not too distant future. It can and is being done despite the consumer stranglehold the bigger publishers seem to have on the high street booksellers and the greater literary review coverage they receive in the broadsheets.
Publishing is hard work but when you come across a manuscript that just bowls you over it is just brilliant; and then when you see that book, having been nurtured and edited and polished, sitting on the shelves at Waterstones, then it is just magic. People remind me every day that e-reader will be the end of traditional publishing as we know it but I’m not convinced. Digital sales are still growing but have somewhat plateaued and paperbacks have not exited left just yet. Bizarrely, Amazon, the great Death Star of publishing, which is sucking the life out of everything in its wake NEEDS bricks and mortar booksellers. 68% of all Amazon online book sales come from showcasing i.e. people see books they want in bookshops and then go online to buy. Still a problem but bookshops are an essential part of the Amazon business model, hence Waterstones selling the Kindle in their stores.
The Big Six conglomerates will continue with their acquisitions and big name authors but look to the Independents for the new, refreshing and exciting writers. We spend time with our writers, honing their skills. Of course we need to sell their books but we don’t kick them out of the door if they don’t reach number one at Christmas and we publish great books because they are just that, great, not because the main protagonist lives somewhere other than Londinium.
Upcoming Bluemoose books to look out for:
A Modern Family by Socrates Adams - Available Now
Chickens’ Lib by Clare Druce N/F - Available Now
Stranger Than Kindness by Mark A Radcliffe – Publishing 14 November 2013
Woundings by Heidi James - Publishing April 2014
P.S. I don’t think there are dormant volcanoes on Cape Verde.
On the 19th of October 2013 it was announced that Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers had won the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize. The judges were: novelist David Peace, journalist Deborah Orr and writer and broadcaster, Mark Lawson.