Industry Insider: Freight Books
/by Adrian Searle/
It’s a common refrain from some journalists and writers at the moment that ‘the book is dead’. By this they mean either that e-books and iPads will kill the printed word in a few years and/or that e-books are economically unsustainable: customers expect to get their e-book for 99p and once Amazon and the aggregator (a kind of e-book wholesaler) have taken their slices, there’s little left for the publisher and even less for the author. They point to the lack of competition in bookselling on the High Street. They point to the seismic shifts with the introduction of digital technology that occurred in photography (think of all those factories that made film and all those High Street photo developers that went out of business) and the music industry (think of the death of Our Price and Virgin/Zavvi music chains and the current health of HMV).
I’m not so pessimistic about the state of publishing. Which is just as well as I’ve just set up a new fiction publisher based in Glasgow called Freight Books. My company, also called Freight, has for the last three years published Gutter Magazine, a print-only literary magazine and probably the leading magazine of fiction and poetry in Scotland. We’ve published a few books in the past, including an anthology of Scottish football fiction, The Hope That Kills Us (recently re-released as a e-book), a high concept anthology of new writing from Glasgow University’s creative writing Masters programme, The Knuckle End, and a graphic novel about post-traumatic stress syndrome, Dougie’s War. All three won design awards and Dougie’s War was nominated for Graphic Novel of the Year in Scotland.
Having ‘played’ at publishing over the last ten years, the time seemed right to take the plunge and do things more seriously. By seriously I mean increase the number of books we publish from one to seven or eight a year, establish formal relationships with editors, distributors, retailers, journalists and agents, go to trade fairs, create a proper website (coming soon!), start marketing aggressively, read many, many manuscripts… the list of duties is long. And all to be fitted around a demanding day job as designers.
So why the hell would anyone set up a publishing imprint when London publishers left, right and centre are laying off staff, cutting their mid-list authors, and vastly reducing the number of titles they produce? Well, there’re a number of factors that pointed to this being the ideal time.
With the contraction of London publishing, it’s much easier to compete for good quality work. Publishing, and London publishing especially, over the last fifteen years has worked on the spaghetti model. That is, buy up as much as you can, throw it all at a wall and see what sticks. Many debut writers have had one or two books published in London, not been edited that well, not been marketed that well, not been promoted that well, all with a ‘hit and hope’ strategy. Those writers have then found it impossible to get published after poor sales for their initial efforts, the implication being that it was the writer’s fault, that their books didn’t come up to scratch. That approach has come to an end because of the economic climate – which means that there are far fewer deals about. Now small independent publishers like Freight stand a much better chance of picking up high quality work at an affordable price.
Agents in the past have been guilty of securing unrealistic advances for young writers. When the writer doesn’t ‘earn out’, i.e. when sales of their book don’t cover the cost of the advance, that’s their career effectively over with that publishing house. It takes exceptional circumstances for the publisher to look beyond the first one or two books and see their role as developing talent over the lifetime of the writer.
The time was right for us to establish a new publishing venture because through Gutter Magazine we’ve been introduced to the work of many very good writers, whether previously published or unpublished. Scotland has a wealth of talent just now and, although we recognise that there’s a huge difference between penning a good short story and managing to make an 80,000 word novel work, the future of Scottish literature looks very bright indeed.
As an independent, we’re able to offer a number of things that London companies can’t. For example, good editing. This was one of the first things to suffer in many London houses after the recession hit. Most editorial departments are less than half the size they were a couple of years ago. A good editing job can make a book twice as good. Think of an orchestra of forty musicians, where two consistently play off-key. It’s not the 38 good musicians the audience hears. So many books fail because an editor has not been able to work at length with its author. Central to the way Freight works is placing good editing at the heart of the publishing process.
We also seek to develop careers. We’re interested in playing the long game with the writers we work with. We’re not under pressure to make oodles of cash on each and every book, although because our overheads are much lower than a larger concern, it’s easier to turn a profit. Often a writer only really makes it big after their fourth or fifth book. This is the way publishing worked thirty years ago before mergers and acquisitions turned books into commodities.
Generally, Scottish independent publishing has had a bit of a reputation for a couthy, tartanised approach, rather shambolic and lacking in sophistication. That’s not the way we’ll be doing things. We’re focused on national and international markets. As professional marketers by trade, it’s our intention to be as professional as we can be in all the projects we undertake. Everything we publish will appear both in print and simultaneously as e-books (we’re not intimidated by the e-book phenomenon – it’s just another channel to exploit). We spend a great deal of time and effort on typesetting and book jackets. We’re working hard at building distributor and retailer relationships. It’s a business after all.
The first novel we published was Killing the Messenger by former Saltire First Book winner Christopher Wallace, a political conspiracy thriller and satire on New Labour. It’s sold 2,500 copies in its first three months, which is a great start. If you’ve not read it it’s on special offer on Kindle just now. In February comes Furnace by Wayne Price, an outstanding collection of short stories by, in my opinion, the best short story writer in Scotland today. I adore his work and hope others will too. In April we publish Ramshackle, a stunning and beautiful debut by Elizabeth Reeder. Set in Elizabeth’s native Chicago, it’s a kind of suburban Winter’s Bone. It follows the story of Roe, an ordinary fifteen year old girl, whose father disappears without trace. We are also planning to release Toni Davidson’s second novel, My Gun Was as Tall as Me, every bit as visceral as his stunning and acclaimed debut, Scar Culture. We are re-releasing a forgotten classic of Scottish literature, All the Little Animals, by Airdrie’s own Walker Hamilton, a strange fable about two men who dedicate their lives to burying road-kill. We’ll be publishing an outstanding, witty and moving poetry collection, Fabulous Beast, by Patricia Ace, and an exceptional debut novel, a psychological thriller set in the Highlands, called The Healing of Luther Grove, by Barry Gornell. And there’s more titles in development just now.
Do I have any advice for aspiring writers seeking to get published? Undoubtedly the most important thing is to make your work the best it can be before you send it to an agent or direct to a publisher. That means reading as much as you can to hone your own critical faculties, so that you can judge better its standard and how to improve it. It means editing your manuscript within an inch of its life. It means showing it to people you trust, ideally other writers, especially those who are already published who you respect, and taking on board any comments.
Do as much research into the industry as you can so your expectations are realistic. It’s about being professional. While confidence in your own work is vital, blind arrogance is an immediate turn-off. The writer-publisher relationship is one of mutual dependence, and if either lacks respect for the other then the relationship breaks down.
Don’t start sending out your novel till it’s finished. If a publisher likes the first few chapters all they’ll say is, “can I see more?” If it’s not forthcoming their interest will cool.
Don’t expect to make a living as a writer. Very, very few writers achieve full-time status. Most have other sources of income. The level of success required to ‘give up the day job’ is beyond the vast majority of authors, whether commercial or literary. However, with a bit of sacrifice, it is perfectly possible to have dual careers running in parallel. Being a published writer won’t necessarily make you rich but it may open doors to other interesting and occasionally lucrative opportunities.
Finally, don’t forget local, independent publishers when it comes to your own projects! Scotland has several excellent examples. There’s obviously Canongate, Polygon, Luath and Black and White, who are all very well established. However, as well as Freight Books, there are other exciting new-kids-on-the-block, including Sandstone Press, who recently had a Booker long-listed title, Cargo, who are shaking things up with a really dynamic publishing programme, and Khol Publishing, an e-book only imprint for women’s fiction.
There are undoubtedly advantages in getting a London deal. But there are drawbacks too. In my view, the future’s bright, the future’s indie.
This post is part of our Industry Insider series.