What Life is Like at a Small Publishing House
When I was 42, I was made redundant from my job as a middle manager at an IT company. I’d been ill for a few months, and wasn’t in a fit state to go back to work. As my redundancy money gave me a small financial cushion, I decided to go back to studying. I signed up for the University of Nottingham’s excellent (and now sadly defunct, but that’s a story for another time) Creative and Professional Writing degree. It wasn’t long before I realised that there was no anthology of student writing. The tutors said if I wanted to organise one, I’d be welcome to. I seized the opportunity.
I already had typesetting, project management, and team leadership skills from previous jobs. That, I thought, would surely be enough. All that’s involved in making a book, I thought, was gathering together the material, typesetting it, and sending it off to the printer.
As it turned out, there was a whole raft of additional skills I needed to acquire—editing, performing, planning, book layout and cover design, managing and working with volunteers, knowledge of the publishing process, fundraising, networking, and coaching.
I was lucky to have an excellent mentor in Cathy Grindrod, who taught me many of those skills and made sure the project ran well.
When the boxes of Into the Fire turned up, I was prouder than I have been of anything in my life (apart from my two children).
There’s not much to beat the excitement of opening a box of books, fresh from the printer, containing the result of months of hard work. We held a launch event which was attended by over 70 people, and copies of the book rushed off the shelves.
About a month after that, Cathy contacted me to suggest I put in an application for a publishing assistant job at Five Leaves Publications, an independent publisher based in Nottingham. As I was still unemployed, and keen to work in a literature-related industry, I immediately printed off my CV and sent it in. Within the day I was offered an interview.
I didn’t know what to expect. I thought publishing houses were all busy concerns, employing lots of editors and proofreaders and sales staff and designers and…well, to be honest, I had no idea. I knew Five Leaves was a small press, so I thought perhaps there would be fewer than ten employees, and maybe their offices would be on the small side too.
It turned out that, like many independent presses, Five Leaves was a one-man (or woman—many publishing houses are run by women) band, located in a small rented office in Nottingham’s Lace Market. The office was full of books—on shelves lining the room, and in piles of boxes overflowing into the lobby area outside the office door.
Ross Bradshaw started the press in 1995 when Nottingham’s radical Mushroom Bookshop’s publishing arm closed, with the vague aim of publishing books that he thought ought to be in print.
The range of publications was wide: Jewish interest, social history, politics, environmental issues, poetry, children’s fiction, adult literary and crime fiction, translations of Catalan literature, and more; from commissioned new books (where the publisher approaches an author to ask if they’d like to write a book on a given subject) to new editions of out-of-print books.
Ross has published unsolicited manuscripts in the past, but officially the Five Leaves publishing schedule is full until the end of 2017.
This is the story for most independent presses.
Ross, for example, aims to publish 10-15 books every year, but when I joined this had temporarily risen to nearly 30. I’d expected there to be a couple of new books coming out every week, but that was totally unrealistic, even for medium-sized presses.
My role was to be in marketing—not one of my skills then, but I was keen to learn. The first two books I was asked to promote were Goodnight Campers (a history of the British holiday camp) and Rose Fyleman’s Fairy Book (a new edition of early twentieth century poetry about fairies). I wasn’t sure where to start, but Ross gave me a few pointers from his limited expertise.
I spent many days putting a general marketing database together, including and categorising independent bookshops, newspapers and magazines with book review sections, influential book reviewers and bloggers, libraries, schools and universities, literature festivals, and book awards. I learned about advance information sheets (AIs: handouts that are sent to anyone who might be interested in a forthcoming book) and review information (RIs: handouts with further information about the book and the author that can be used by reviewers), and I produced a few to get the hang of it.
Then, for each book, I thought about the target market and ways of reaching those readers. There are, believe it or not, several forums for discussion of the holiday camp experience, so I contacted the administrators and asked if I could plug the book on their websites, offering a copy for review. They all accepted, and we got a few sales through the forums. Probably not enough to pay for my time to find them in the first place, but next time we publish a book about holiday camps (which is extremely unlikely), I’ll have a ready-made contact list.
The Fairy Book was more difficult. There are literally hundreds of websites out there whose readers might well be interested, and then there are tons of new age shops across the UK. All of those had to be added to the database, and AI sheets sent out to all the prospects. AIs also go to Turnaround, our repping agents, who go round bookshops across the country trying to persuade them to stock books from all the publishers they represent.