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A Press of your Own
Financial Times: How to Spend it magazine, July 2003


I became a travel publisher when I met a pair of author’s looking for one at a party. They must have smelt a rat when I showed them into my office complete with a guest still asleep in what was also a spare bedroom. We settled on an advance of one silver denarii, and were all delighted when a year later we offered up to the world the lost diaries of one of the greatest 19th-century Saharan explorers, some 180 years after they had been scribbled down amongst sand storms and fever. No-one made any money but no-one lost any. I still get a glow from handling this book, complete with its sixteen route maps.

The next year my wife came aboard the enterprise and chipped in technical expertise, 85% of the funds and her skills as a book doctor. As a pair of travel-writers with a dozen guide books and a scrap book full of travel journalism between us we were working in a world we already knew. We just about kept our head above water for the first two years (no salaries paid out and not even a bus ride put on expenses) and then rather recklessly acquired Eland Books from John Hatt who had spent twenty years putting together a superlative list of fifty classic travel books. Tucked into this list was the memoirs of the 1920’s Lancashire childhood of an Economics Professor now living in Florida. It had first been published by a county press but John had taken it ‘on’ after it had fallen out of print after a modestly successful run. We could take absolutely no credit for ‘The Road to Nab End” but this did nothing to diminish our pleasure as we watched a mass-market paperback edition rocket into last year’s best seller lists. Like children in a sweet shop we poured the unexpected good fortune into new covers, some top-class designers, an ambitious re-print schedule and a new mail-order catalogue. Others might have taken the family skiing or bought a new car.

But what is money for, if it is not for running a small press, for placing yourself somewhere in that long line of artist-craftsmen that reaches back through Virginia Woolf, Emerald Cunard, Harry Kessler and William Blake? It is an irresistibly romantic tradition.

First there is the guardianship of our culture angle. Six years after the death of their friend William, John Heming and Henry Condell decided to put together a memorial scrapbook of scripts “to keep the memory of so worthy a fellow alive.” Thus were the plays of Shakespeare preserved for the world. And think of those hand-coloured chapbooks filled with his poetry that were produced so lovingly by William Blake and his wife from the meagre wages of a journeyman engraver (but which never sold in their lifetime). They are now revered icons of Englishness, the very matter of Albion.

Then there’s the romantic use of money side to it. Count Harry Kessler, who Auden considered to be the most cosmopolitan man who ever lived (his diaries have an index of 40,000 names), lavished a small fortune on Pan, his journal of art criticsm that helped form the liberal sensibilities of Weimar Germany. Kessler’s Cranach Press did not so much eat money as burn it. He employed all the great artist craftsmen of the day, commissioning illustrations from Eric Gill and using Edward Johnston as his designer. To produce paper worthy of Vergil’s Eclogues, Kessler first bought his own paper-mill in France and then experimented with the artist Maillol in creating the perfect paper, before settling on a recipe that required raw silk.

And thirdly the down-right single-minded twist to it. The explorer Richard Burton was forced to set up a secret press to print the Indian and Arabic erotica that he had discovered and translated. This work could have landed him with a jail sentence and also brought him into contact with a sinister twilight world of collectors: one notorious aesthete repeatedly begged him to bring back the skin of a sacrificed virgin from Dahomey, the ultimate vellum with which to bind his collection of sadistic manuals.

But for those seriously thinking about it, let’s turn to the business plan and some of the 21st century downside. Your first reality check is to glance at the back pages of The Bookseller, the noticeboard of the book trade. Page after page of dense small type lists the thousands upon thousands of books that are published every week.

Your second ordeal is to spend a day wandering through the alleys of the London Book Fair in March. Admire the vast central tents of Penguin, Random House, Macmillan, Harper Collins, Hodder Headline and Orion buzzing with suits, laughter and chat. Then try and find some more appropriate role models, a small independent like Serpent’s Tail who have enjoyed acres and acres of favourable press comment. As likely as not their books will be found in a deserted booth, shared with four other publishers, tucked up against a gloomy outside wall next to the door to the toilets.

Times are clearly tough for the small independent publisher. Urged on by percentage hungry literary-agents, the big publishers hoover up promising authors and TV tie-ins by offering an individual advance that can exceed the whole annual turn-over of a small business. They alone have the resources to muster up a big PR campaign: with posters, reviews, publicity tours and well-timed profiles in glossy magazines. Combined with the marketing practice of ‘renting’ the front tables in chain bookshops and paying for the privilege of window space, this all relegates the wares of small publishers to that gloomy back wall.

And now for some hard figures. The discounts demanded by the big booksellers creep ever upwards (now somewhere between 40-55%) as does their control of the market. By the time this bookshop discount has been added to the cost of warehousing, marketing, printing and the author’s royalty ( you can add an additional 7-10% for each of these four stages) the potential profits are clearly very tight. It is a process that attracts only the most incurable optimists, or those who have added up the costs and still think it worthwhile, quietly deciding that it is not much more expensive than buying a new car or a family skiing holiday.

In the third year of business even the credit of an optimist can dry up. It is not just the money. The energy bank is depleted by over-drafts of work and the interest on the interest of exhaustion can not be paid back by even the most pampering week-long break on the island of your dreams. Everything had been possible in those first 30 months of running your own press. You can be designer, typesetter, warehouseman, packer, despatcher, salesman, PR pundit, marketing guru, blurb-writer and if need be, even author. But on year three, you need some sort of a break to survive.

So how do they survive? I talked to the three independent publishers who had first inspired me to find out how they had kept going.

I first met John Martineau seven years ago when he had just set up Wooden Books having finished a course with Keith Critchlow at the Prince of Wales’s Institute. We had been drawn together by two maverick writers from the world of small presses, the new age writer and controversialist John Michell and the historian Charlie Boxer who was then producing a monthly series of history pamphlets - the Orange Blossom Specials. John Martineau’s Wooden Books, with titles such as Holy Wells, Sacred Geometry, Runic Inscriptions, Platonic Solids, Mazes & Labyrinths, could collectively form the backbone of many a course at the Institute, at Findhorn or be found within the covers of Resurgence or Temenos. They are beautifully printed and bound, and so packed full of original etchings that they could be mistaken for the products of a private press. The series was adored by independent book shops but John soon found that his own high commitment to quality was working against him, in particular the fine brown paper covers got stained by handling and customers were clearly unused to buying 60 page hardbacks – even when they cost just £6.99. His books were loved, well-fondled but not bought in sufficient quantities. The returns were terrible and the unit costs were too high, so that by his third year of business he had just about reached breakdown point. Then a US publisher on holiday idled his way through the Science Museum (one of John’s most loyal London stockists) and fell in love with the whole series at first site. John got a commission to produce three new titles a year for the US market and then with the wind blowing fair, more and more foreign sales and rights blew his way, from Sweden, from China and Japan. Then he started angling his books to specific sites in Britain, like Avebury and Stonehenge and producing a slightly glossier paperback edition. The marketing feedback was not good, but next year they flew out of the bookshops.

Persephone Books is the brain-child of Nicola Beauman who having been a writer, then a mother was ready for a third career. Persephone publishes books ‘by women, for women and about women’. It is a subject that Nicola knew intimately for she had written one of the definitive reviews, “ A Very Great Profession: the women’s novel 1914-1939” back in the halcyon days of the Virago list in the 80’s. She also had a clear business plan and an innate sympathy for her chosen market, knowing that busy women –like herself- were happy to regularly from a mail-order business once their trust has been won. In the process she hoped to cut out the middleman, dispense with the overheads of warehouses, bookshop discounts and a sales team. Instead she would pour all her attention onto building up a mailing list and the preparation of a chatty quarterly newsletter which gave notice of the eight books that are published each year. Envelopes were to be white but designed to fit through – rather than frustrate – the average letter box. She also reversed the usual design imperatives of the book trade, by keeping all the Persephone covers a uniform silver and pouring attention on the period endpapers and matching bookmarks. The strategy, complemented by a public schedule of readings, has worked though Nicola has found that sales are still as dependent on favourable media reviews as any mainstream publisher. However last year when one of her titles, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, broke through into the best seller charts Nicola was in the unique position of being a small publisher who resolutely refused to bend to the demands for heavy discounts. Persephone has since been able to pay Nicola back her seed capital, which now sits languishing on the stock market. It had done ‘better when it was in books’.

Specialization and a passionate immersion in a subject is clearly an absolute requirement for surviving as an independent. This makes the thirty year solo-publishing career of Michael Russell even more of a bewildering achievement. Michael Russell runs a general list par excellence: ranging over political memoirs, military history, travel, letters, diaries and biography. He also adheres to standards of production, in design, paper and print, that have long since been jettisoned by the trade. Clearly no margins have been cut here. What he has done is to cut his marketing down to a handful of literary bookshops: hallowed places like John Sandoe, Heywood Hill, the Pan bookshop and Hatchards who not only stock his titles – but enthusiastically sell them. Nor is he above using an author’s address book to mail off a few hundred covers with a pre-publication offer. Print runs are small but then he knows his market to the last hundred copies and warehouses the books himself. As he wrote in Good Moments: A Publishing Retrospective “It’s a distillation of a lot of effort without the accumulation of much prosperity… ‘whew’ rather than ‘wow’.” Michael is in fact too modest, for there have actually been some pretty good wow’s along the road, or just off it, like the time when he wrote “Fly Fishing by J.R.Hartley” at the height of the Yellow pages television campaign. A fellow publisher – who put Michael upto it - reckoned that at that time the unwritten Fly Fishing was the second best known book after the Bible. His hunch was proved right.

What about the most recent start up’s. Which of them will break through into that small band of innovative independents; to be listed beside the likes of Profile, Verso, Canongate, Serpents Tale, BloodAxe, Dedalus, Constable-Robinson, Arcadia and Granta. My money would be on the couple who first set up the Rough Guides, Mark Ellingham and Nat Jansz, who have launched a new list, Sort of, and already scooped up two best-sellers and one prize winner. Alongside them I would also rate a pair of North London journalist-mothers (Rebecca Nicolson and Aurea Carpenter) who are behind the prolific output of Short Books and have put their legendary contacts within the media to effective use. Then there are some stylish reprint houses to consider: Gibson Square, Melissa Ulfane’s Pushkin Press and Alessandro Gallenzi’s Hesperus Press who are all steadily building up a back list base from which to launch out into new fiction. You might also keep your eye on Black Amber which is devoted to New Immigrant writers.

A small publisher should have an intolerable passion for books married to a detailed knowledge of a specific market. Ideally you should wait until you have paid off the mortgage or found a partner with a steady income (ie not one based on publishing). Then without going near a bank loan, you must be able to put together £50,000 that you might never see again. You can then put together a financial plan based on survival and start living on hope.

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