Small Presses Making Waves

Between the behemoths of the Big Five and the sea of self-publishers, there’s something interesting going on. Libby O’Loghlin and Jill Marsh investigate four of the many small presses who are making waves.

Sam Jordison, Galley Beggar Press

Galley Beggar Press was founded in 2012 by Henry Layte, Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, specifically to act as a sponsor to writers who have struggled to either find or retain a publisher, and whose writing shows great ambition and literary merit. Their primary questions are not who someone is, or whether something is going to make it into the supermarkets. Rather, it’s whether this is an author they want, a novel they love. If the answer is yes on both counts – then, no matter how challenging a read the book is (or how obscure the author), they will set about bringing it to the widest possible public.

galleybeggar.co.uk

Why do you think small presses have seen a revival of late?

The short answer, I think, is because there’s a demand for the kind of work we do. There are quite a few people that really value literature and people who take risks with books and try to innovate … And who have (I hope this doesn’t sound horribly vain) high aspirations. We really love quality writing—and other people do too …

We’ve been able to flourish at this point in time partly because big publishers have been suffering … Thanks to amazon and everything else, their editors have sometimes been more constrained in the kind of books they can take on—and also haven’t been able to dedicate as much time as they might have in the past to line-by-line editing. But that’s not the whole story. A lot of bigger presses are still putting out wonderful books and doing fantastic work. We’ve been able to find our place thanks to the way the internet has enabled us to build up a community of like-minded readers. And there has been a cultural shift. People no longer see small presses as the publishers of last resort— they’re often putting out the very best things … I can’t really explain why that is. I think maybe it’s because we’re in a lucky moment when wonderful people are working for publishers like Salt, And Other Stories and Influx and things have just come together nicely.

What benefits does an author reap from working with a small press, and are there downsides?

There are definitely downsides! A certain amount of chaos (although most big publishers I’ve worked with also provide plenty of that). Advances might not be as big. We won’t put posters on the Tube. (Not often, anyway.)

But we hope there are advantages. We dedicate serious time and attention to editorial. We will work with our authors to ensure their book is as good as it can be … Because we also put out only a few books, we can work very hard on publicity and tend to get reviews. We also are very fortunate in that we have a certain amount of kudos and a readership who seem to value what we do. Possibly the best thing we bring is serious and dedicated readers, in fact. Oh, and our books look good. And we have the best typesetter in the business.

How would you describe the ethics behind Galley Beggar?

We want to stick it to The Man, each and every day! More seriously, I guess we like to think of ourselves as Citizens Of The World, part of a big community of people who value truth and art—but who also probably have a slightly irreverent sense of humour. We don’t compromise our books in any way—we trust our readers to trust our writers. Even if the books might be challenging or strange or new or—conversely—deceptively straightforward, we believe that there are people out there who will enjoy reading them. What else? I guess we like being underdogs and on the fringes and outsiders to a certain extent. We like outsiders. Especially now, in Brexit Britain, we don’t really fit in. Nor do most of our friends.

Why did you choose to pursue this business model? With the current editorial team, and your particular time and budget constraints, how do you choose the ideas that make it to dry land, versus the ones that get thrown back into the sea?

To a certain extent, the business model chose us. We thought for a while about trying to pump out more books a year. But we realised that our biggest skills lay in curating a really special list of books we love, and working intensely on editorial. We also wanted to minimise risks. If you have two books that don’t sell in a year, that’s bad enough. If you have a dozen, that’s curtains … The other thing that governs what we can do is time and money. We only have limited finances and we have to support ourselves doing other work, so to be sustainable, we have to stay small.

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Sean Platt, Sterling & Stone

Sean is a prolific small press founder who loves that he not only gets paid to make up stories and come up with crazy ideas, but that he gets to do so with his best friends.

Sean and David W. Wright started collaborating in 2011, and published Yesterday’s Gone at Collective Inkwell, and since then published four more series, as well as two standalone novels and a short story collection. In 2013, Sean and Johnny B. Truant founded Realm & Sands with their debut novel, Unicorn Western, then immediately followed that with their sci-fi “future history” serial, The Beam. Since then, they have written five series and three standalone novels, and co-authored the bestselling non-fiction titles: Write. Publish. Repeat., Fiction Unboxed, and Iterate & Optimize (with a bit of help from Dave) for their Smarter Artist imprint.

sterlingandstone.net

What prompted the decision to form a small press?

It was easy to think in terms of ‘small press’ simply because when you’re filling out your information in most book reseller platforms, there is a space for the name of your publisher. All you need to do is fill this in. So Dave and I had been doing that for a year already under Collective Inkwell by the time Johnny and I started doing it with Realm & Sands. And I had done the same thing with Sterling & Stone with a line of nonfiction titles. So there wasn’t ever a time when the decision was even on the table.

What do you find are the advantages and fun parts of collaborating in this way?

I can’t imagine creating any other way. More eyes and hearts in what we’re making are always better. I collaborate with people who are better than me, but who also need something unique that I can bring to the table. That goes for books, business, software design, you name it. Collaboration is core to what we do.

Any major challenges?

Our challenges rarely come from the collaborations themselves. They mostly come from the growing pains of trying to build the component pieces of the engine that will drive us on all the adventures we plan on taking into the future.

How do you divide your time between the actual writing and the development of other aspects of the business?

It’s mostly been an organic approach until now. But I’m trying really hard to divide my time between creation in the mornings and business building in the afternoons. This has really helped me to be more focused during both of those times.

What would your advice be to authors or would-be-publishers looking to set up a small press?

Do as we say, not as we do. Focus on one thing at a time, nail it, and then get the next thing done. Juggling multiple genres at once is always a slower path.

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Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

And Other Stories is a not-for-profit publishing venture. Nichola handles And Other Stories publicity, marketing and sales in the UK. She’s also a translator and lover of Swedish literature, and an escaped academic—in 2014 she finished her PhD in Scandinavian Studies at UCL with a thesis rather nattily titled ‘Contemporary Urban Vernaculars in Rap, Literature and in Translation, in Sweden and the UK’. Her translations include Jogo Bonito by Henrik Brandão Jönsson, a Swedish book about Brazilian football (Yellow Jersey Press), and How to Fall in Love with a Man Who Lives in a Bush by Emmy Abrahamson (Borough Press). She’s lived in Berlin, Stockholm and Rio, but London is her home. You can find her (very occasionally) on Twitter @tallnicky.

www.andotherstories.org

And Other Stories is not a for-profit organisation. Why did you choose to pursue this business model?

​Subscribers support us in many ways—not just financially. They spread the word about our books, as well as give us that solid base we know we can rely on. They give us valuable feedback too. Being not-for-profit means that although we want our books to sell well enough to support themselves, we can also apply for funding to give us freedom from commercial restraints. ​

How would you describe the ethics behind And Other Stories?

​We’re a not-for-profit company, and we plough all our profits back into our books. We’re also very open to suggestions from readers, and we have reading groups, made up of readers, writers, translators and other publishers who come together to find books that might work well for our list—it not only ensures we get hold of hidden gems, it also builds a strong literary community, something that’s reinforced by our 1,000-odd subscribers. We seek out literature from around the world—be that originally written in English, or in other languages, because we think great stories and innovate ways of telling them will delight readers in whichever language they were originally written.

How do you select the projects you want to champion?

​We have a lot of conversations among the team about books​ we’re considering. It’s always a tough call, and we’ve definitely seen books we reluctantly said ‘no’ to ending up on prize shortlists and doing very well for themselves—that’s just how things happen in publishing! We’re generally looking for something that uses language, form or subject matter in an exceptional way—does it have that spark?

What benefits does an author reap from working with a small press, and are there downsides?

​The author will receive a lot more attention than at a bigger publisher​, as only the biggest titles in any given season will really be pushed. At And Other Stories, for instance, we treat every single book with the same dedication and attention to detail. One potential downside is lack of resources, but it’s demonstrably the case that any lack of material resources can be more than made up for by that dedication.

Why do you think small presses have seen a revival of late?

​I would attribute it to the conservativism of mainstream publishing in the late 2000s, which led many to think they could carve out a niche for themselves publishing more exciting books. It had the knock-on effect of creating a readership hungry for great literature that wasn’t served by the big publishing houses.​

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Joanna Penn, Curl Up Press

Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under J.F.Penn. She also writes inspirational non-fiction for authors and is an award-winning creative entrepreneur and international professional speaker. Her site, TheCreativePenn.com is regularly voted one of the top 10 sites for writers and self-publishers.

curluppress.com

You’ve been publishing independently and prolifically since 2008. When did you first get the idea to start your own imprint?

I’ve had my own company, The Creative Penn Limited, since I started writing seriously as a business. I’ve run several of my own companies before, so that was an easy first step. But I didn’t see the need for a publishing imprint, something with a separate name to my company, until we decided to look at the print market more seriously in November 2016.

Most indie authors make the majority of their revenue from ebook sales, and in the last financial year, my ebook revenue was 86% of my total book income, with print at 10% and audiobooks at 4%. We decided that it would be a good idea to try and grow the print sales figures by being available in the wider retail system and also to libraries through the main catalogues.

You’ve mentioned before that booksellers and libraries will question how a book is published before making a decision to carry it (i.e. they will look at who the publisher is). Why do you think this is? And do you think this will change?

Booksellers need to make a margin on their book sales, so they need to order from a retailer where they can make a profit. This isn’t possible with Createspace, so indie authors who only use Createspace won’t be ordered into bookstores. I’ve faced this at writers’ festivals, when the bookseller in charge of the conference hasn’t been able to order my books as they can’t get a discount. If you use Ingram Spark, your books will be available in the catalogues that booksellers are used to ordering from, and they can make a margin. So it’s not so much the publisher’s name as the ability to order at a discount and then make a profit. Libraries use similar catalogues, but as indie authors, you can get into these catalogues through Ingram Spark.

In what ways (and for whom) can a separate imprint or brand be useful when it comes to licensing intellectual property rights?

Basically, we needed a website that wasn’t associated with my name in order to take the business up a level into the realm of professional publishing. My main websites are TheCreativePenn.com for non-fiction and JFPenn.com for my thrillers, both of which have my name in them. When my husband joined the company in 2015, and The Creative Penn Limited started to make six figures, we knew we had to get serious in order to make it to the next level. We are now using CurlUpPress.com as the imprint for our books and will use that as the vehicle for pitching foreign rights agents and also for other forms of rights licensing.

When will we get a first glimpse of the Curl Up Press ‘sweet romance’ series? And is this a solo writing project or collaborative?

Curl Up Press is still an imprint for my own books, but nowadays I’m also cowriting across both non-fiction and fiction. The sweet romance series is co-written with my mum, and we’re keeping it quiet until there are several books out and the algorithms have learned who the target readership is. Once we have a number of books in the series, we’ll start to look at wider licensing, but for now, we’re concentrating on building the author brand.

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist and poet, social entrepreneur and content coach. Co-Founder + Co-Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich.

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