Sign up for our weekly newsletter
Nottingham Castle

Independent Publishers in Nottingham

1 October 09 words: James Walker

Independent self-publishers might just be the way forward – and Nottingham is full of ‘em...

So you want to make a living as a writer, but you weren’t knocked about enough by your Mam as a kid, you haven’t been shagging Peter Andre, and you’re not Jade Goody? Oh dear. The established literary world might be in a right state, but there is a way to get your book out without selling your soul or moving to Islington. As James Walker discovers, independent self-publishers might just be the way forward – and Nottingham is full of ‘em...

“As times get harder and money tighter, collaboration rather than competition seems to offer the key to success”.

In 2001, I excitedly printed out a manuscript for my book, tied it up in string and brown paper, and posted it off to a publisher. It was accepted for publication, and I immediately rang all my friends to tell them the good news. Three years later, the publisher pulled out on the grounds that they were having problems getting their books stocked and that until they were more established, it might be a risk to publish a first time author.

Unperturbed, I entered my book for a debut novelists’ competition, won, and was convinced that my dream would finally become a reality - particularly as the publisher in question had already published my work in various anthologies and collections. Three years later they pulled out too, offering up a combination of valid yet depressing reasons; the prominent one being that as a small organisation they couldn’t commit the necessary editorial time now that bigger projects had emerged - projects which attracted more funding...

I bear no malice to either of the small presses in question, because publishing is a cut-throat business, which, much like the Premier League, favours the rich and established. One bad decision can bring an end to an organisation (more so now than ever) and therefore caution has tended to override risk.

And then I set off to the Nottingham Writers’ Studio to listen to one of their regular members’ talks. It was truly inspiring, and made me realise for the first time that writing was not just about swigging endless coffees through the night and promising your girlfriend; ‘I’ll be up in bed in five minutes’ - it was also about meeting people in similar situations who could offer advice and support.

The talk was by two local publishers/authors; James Johnson of Erth Chronicles and Ian Collinson of Weathervane Press, who had decided to go it alone and self-publish - perhaps because in the current climate it’s the only viable means of getting your work out there (unless of course you are prepared to have breast implants and appear on Big Brother, which will guarantee you a minimum of three autobiographies by the time you are twenty one and your book stocked in Asda).

‘I set up Weathervane Press in March having written a novel last year and decided because I’ve got a print industry background I’d have a go at self-publishing, and I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learnt since then’, explains Ian. ‘Anybody can self-publish off the office copier, particularly if it is a small run like poetry - you can simply staple work together and sell to friends. The next step up, particularly if you are writing longer pieces, is print-on-demand. That’s using a company like Lightning Source where you can get the book set up for a fairly reasonable price and they’ll help you set up an ISBN number and
how to market it. The limitations are that you don’t ever really have control over that product as it always remains a Lightning Source product, and if you stop paying subscription fees, I think they delete it.’

The danger of this approach is that there is no real qualitative assessment, so it enables critics to easily dismiss your work. The solution for Ian was to set up a small regional press, self-publish his own novel and then use this as a platform to publish local writers, thereby giving them the chance to be objectively assessed and selected for publication. ‘As noble as this is, it‘s a big risk - which is why I’m trying to do short-run books which are cheap to produce, compact – the size of a traditional Penguin book - and easy to distribute. It’s digitally printed, which means a very low overhead in comparison to litho presses and conventional equipment which just wouldn’t be cost effective.’

To sell his books, Ian joined the Amazon Advantage Scheme - although it should be noted that the returns on this once they have taken their cut can be so low that some presses avoid it altogether. Another necessity was setting up a Waterstone’s account, although experiences with them vary. On one hand, they support local authors and mark out specific designated areas of local interest. On the other, they won’t use any promotional material because the ‘big boys’ pay them to put up their stuff (that’s why most of the books you see in the shop window aren’t the crème de la crème of literature - publishers have bought and paid for the privilege).

Money is a similar obstacle with WHSmith. ‘Yes, they are interested in local projects, but this changes when it goes to head office, as they will only ever stock anything that has sold so many thousands before they put it out on the shelves.’ And if you can’t get it onto the shelf in the first place, how are you ever going to shift those units?

For this reason, selling online via your own website has become the lifeblood of the self-publishing industry. Ian invested £19.99 in an eCommerce package called Mr Site which includes basic tools such as web address, shopping cart, blog and mailing list facilities. One particularly useful feature is the ‘jukebox’, which has enabled him to play audio readings of his book. In addition to this, he’s tried to build local links to complement what he’s doing. For example, when you order the paperback version from his online book shop you also receive a free designer greeting card by local painter Nick Hedderly. ‘He’s happy for me to give away his cards in the hope that people will then want to get in contact with him, and ideally buy a painting.’ It is good old fashioned synergy and the kind of innovation that typifies small-scale publishing.

Variety appears to be a vital means to success - or at least capturing the imagination of visitors to his site - so Ian has also invested in Adobe Digital Editions eBooks. ‘I’m not proposing that they will ever take over from the real thing, but it gives you a different route to market. You don’t need a Sony Tablet Reader to read the books, either. They can be read off something like the iPhone, which I think will become the main source for reading
because they are so streamline.’ He may be onto something here, particularly if the keitai shousetsu (mobile phone novel) craze kicks off in England as it has done in Japan. With so many applications already, literature - indeed any artform - is always only a finger tap away.

The only real problem, aesthetics and tradition aside, is DRM (Digital Rights Management). If you don’t protect files sold online, then someone can download them and give them away free. ‘You can subscribe to the Adobe version but it costs about $3000, which I’m not in a position to do.’ Until he is fully established, he has no option but to risk selling it from the website without DRM. There are many other options Ian has pursued - such as Mobipocket, owned by Amazon, which enables you to download the book via a ‘free’ reader. Best of all, it enables you to enlarge text bigger than alternative readers which is great for encouraging the elderly or poor-sighted to embrace new

The one area of publishing which Ian is less keen to embrace is social networking media, which he confesses is partly due to age but it could be his downfall as it offers a captive and expandable audience. Indeed, Jenny Swann of Candlestick Press pointed out that she has a Twitter account ‘because Google picks up your tweets very quickly, which helps to push up your ratings.’ There are more pragmatic reasons for using this source, too: Salt Publishing recently looked like they were going under, until they tweeted to subscribers to buy one book each to help keep them in business. The response was incredible, and suggests that the internet may revive the old subscription-based model of publishing. It has also created new forms of literature, such as Twitterature. Penguin are due to publish a collection soon. So from a very basic marketing angle it is imperative that small presses embrace new media, which brings us nicely along to James Johnson.

James is perhaps more fortunate than most; he comes from a graphic design background and so can market, design and illustrate his work. But despite being more than able to self-manage his publication - a science fiction and fantasy story for young adults - it was the collaborative aspect that really appealed and which holds the key to his phenomenal success. About a year prior to publication he began approaching artists listed in digital illustration magazines such as Imagine FX with information about a story he was writing. The aim was to get them to interpret and illustrate these extracts.

Perhaps because of his background, he wrote his novel with the visuals in mind. ‘I wanted to write for people who couldn’t necessarily read that well. Although that’s potentially a controversial thing to say, I’m a lecturer and find students often don’t correctly read a brief - so I’m constantly trying to find different ways of showing that information.’ One such ‘different way’ was to set up a website called Erth Chronicles which enables viewers to browse through the story from various perspectives. Artists then illustrate various scenes or characters which, in addition to being sold, gives the author unique feedback on the interpretations of his work. This has now snowballed and given James so much exposure that he became part of Mam Tor, the publishing collective set up by comic book artist Liam Sharp. This led to James attending conventions ‘with people I grew up with and admired like Bryan Talbot and has already led to being signed up with another publisher.’

A further way of sharing information is through new media. ‘Fan pages are really useful on Facebook because you get lots of people commenting. But you have to be active on forums to generate interest and build up links. Facebook is international, so you need to post a review every three hours because people check at different times of the day. If someone has eight hundred friends and another only ten, they are more likely to read your work. This is where it matters with self-publishing.’

As times get harder and money tighter, collaboration rather than competition seems to offer the key to success. Similarly, embracing new technologies which are cheap and easy to use suggests that there may still be hope for independent publishers to fight back against the big boys who can dominate the market through sheer volume. But most importantly, never give up hope.

James Johnson will be reading at the Broadway Cinema on 25th October 2009 as part of a LeftLion spoken word event (4pm -8pm.)  

Aztec Love Song by Marty Ross will be published later this month by Weathervane.

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now