Written for SYP Scotland blog | Ever wondered what it’s like to set up your own publishing company? Ever thought about doing it, but didn’t know where to start? Our June event brought together a panel of self-starting publishers and Publishing Scotland to give an insight into taking the leap and going it alone.
The panel, chaired by Peggy Hughes, had Marion Sinclair of Publishing Scotland, Sarah Davis-Goff of Tramp Press, John MacPherson of Bright Red Publishing and Stephanie Heald of Muddy Pearl. From fiction to education and theology, we had a broad spectrum of experience to draw from.
So get comfy, because this recap is going to be a long one, and by the end of it, you’ll hopefully feel like you could go out there and start up your own company!
“It’s amazing what people will do for you if you ask them.”
First up, some background information on the publishers. Sarah set up Tramp Press a little over a year ago. They want to publish “fiction so exceptionally fantastic it makes you want to set yourself on fire.” So far they’ve published four books. She previously worked at a large company where “you couldn’t even see books, just windows”, but worked at a small company and got a view of everything, met Lisa, and started talking mutiny. Tramp Press was born, with help from a few along the way. “It’s amazing what people will do for you if you ask them,” she adds.
“My entire career in publishing was a total accident,” says John. He was the commissioning editor at Leckie & Leckie, but in five years with the company it was sold three times. After an attempt to buy it themselves, a number of them left and started Bright Red during the world’s largest recession. But they made it!
Muddy Pearl was launched two years ago, and they publish theology and spirituality books. Stephanie worked in Asia, with few staying in the company as the boss was quite difficult; this meant there were plenty of opportunities. She remembers thinking “I can’t believe someone trusted me with this book!” when she was given her first. She learned how things worked and a few years in had a lightbulb moment on starting her own company.
“Publishing functions and exists on hope.”
So, the first question: what drew them all to publishing? Marion says she had the usual background, an English lit degree. This was the time that publishing degrees were still in their infancy. “I love books,” she says, but thinks the publishing degree gives you a valuable mindset. “It raised my CV up a few notches.”
“I’m just mad into books,” says Sarah. “When I was young I spent too much time on my own with books, then it dawned on me this was an actual profession.”
John reiterates that his move to publishing was a complete accident. “It was just where I was at the time, but once I got into it I realised how much I liked it.”
“I did like reading a bit,” adds Stephanie, “but I was much more interested in storytelling. I love improving people’s writing. I probably like the control as well!”
With such different backgrounds on the panel, a little context on their respective landscapes might help.
Theology was “very strong a long time ago in Edinburgh”. In Qatar, there were no Christian books allowed, so when Stephanie went to the US she remembers seeing a pile of books and thinking “that’s treasure, right there”. Christian publishing had been in chaos, with older publishers going down, she thought people over there really needed that stuff, where there’s such freedom in the UK in this regard.
“Edinburgh has been home to lots of strong, independent educational publishers,” explains John. Scotland has its own curriculum, so the market is quite steady. In the last 5-7 years the landscape has changed because of the new Curriculum of Excellence, but from an opportunity point of view it’s been great. They need creativity in approaching the pedagogy of teachers, they’re big on digital, and it’s an interesting part of publishing to be involved in.
Publishing in the sphere of literary fiction is “super sexy and fantastic,” says Sarah. “I love it.” It’s very difficult, but they started out just at the start of a new wave of Irish writing, so they were lucky. The Irish market is a law unto itself, but it’s buoyant. “We see ourselves half as a publishing business and half as an arts organisation.” They don’t want to publish something because it’s commercial, they want to publish something great and prove a readership exists.
Marion says that Creative Scotland have just finished a review of literature, which should be released in about one month and is highly recommended for everyone to check out. “Anyone can be a publisher,” she says. Publishing Scotland aim to be there for companies from the beginning. “Publishing functions and exists on hope,” she says. You never know who’s going to make it, but they’ll try to support everyone.
“Hope, tea, cake, free wine at launches,” sums up Peggy. Seems about right!
“You will make mistakes, so don’t be afraid of making them.”
So you’re going to start up your own publishing company – what are the key skills needed to do so?
“The business thing is what I found most difficult,” says Stephanie. “Contracts are so important, but ultimately it’s about relationships.”
Four people started Bright Red, so lots of skills were shared. They learned how to run a business, deal with an accountant and lawyer. John’s workload now is about 80% admin and 20% publishing. He recommends getting involved with a small company and that if you’re thinking about doing something, “Just go do it.” It’s technically easy to set up a publishing company, but you need certain personality traits: perseverance, resilience, bravery, self-discipline. “You will make mistakes, so don’t be afraid of making them and just go for it.”
“It’s not rocket science,” says Sarah. “It’s pretty simple. You need exceptional organisational ability, incredible taste and balls of steel. I was fed up of working in companies where bad decisions were being made.”
But who are the key people? Stephanie says the editor and business person, where John adds that the four who launched Bright Red were the publishing manager, director, sales and marketing manager, and commissioning editor. He agrees that commissioning and business people were key. Sarah has an advisory board: IT, corporate, account, solicitors. If she’s stuck she’ll ask for help. “Diversity in your workforce’s skills is important.”
Marion says you could freelance everything if you wanted, and that booksellers are worth their weight in gold, as they’re on the other end of the book-line and have a real insight.
How do you know where to turn for help? “Joining Publishing Scotland would be a smart move!” says Marion. Publishers talk to one another and learn most from their peers, as they’re generous with time and contacts. Time and time again she hears people say, “I can’t believe everyone in publishing is so nice.”
Sarah has a Masters in publishing, but “the single most useful lead in publishing is internships. Six months in a small company is worth everything else.”
“Get a mentor who might have been there,” says John. They’re more than happy to give advice if you don’t know what to do, but don’t go to an accountant or lawyer. “They’ll tell you what not to do, and charge you for it.”
“Use good suppliers and hold onto them,” says Stephanie. You can’t know everything, but nothing beats going into a shop and looking at books; online is not the same as being able to feel actual books to judge them.
“Start small, be modest, plan in advance.”
The final question from Peggy is the one everyone wonders: money. Where does it come from? Stephanie used family money and put it all in. “If we hadn’t had that, I don’t know what we would have done.” Now they need the books to pay for themselves. They also publish with charities, and their networks help in this respect. Those relationships are really important.
“It’s a pain in the neck and there’s no getting around it,” says John. They got a loan from the bank, putting down share capital, which is the norm for most companies. He says start small and try grow organically; there’s plenty of options like crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending. Do as much research as you can. And if you can find a Russian Oligarch to fund you, even better!
“We had funding from the Arts Council,” continues Sarah. “It was enough to publish a few titles. Planning is key. Start small, be modest, plan in advance. Have back up plans.”
“Keep overheads small,” adds Marion, echoing the ways suggested so far. “It’s not difficult to start a publishing company, but it is to sustain it 3-5 years and take it to the next level.” Her top tip is that if you’re not business minded, pair with a business bod. It’s bad if you all love being an editor and no one handles business. Canongate, Black & White, Birlinn – they all had steely eyed business people.
The first audience question cuts to the chase: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?
“Apart from starting…” laughs John. He says there’s so many, the trick is to just bounce back and make sure you don’t make them again. Stephanie adds that estimating print runs is a big one, and assuming that well known authors will sell big numbers of books.
“Picking a fight with an agent!” says Sarah. They were asking more than they were willing to give. She learned, “Try and be sound to people. No one’s out to get you… probably.”
“There is nothing as exciting as finding gold.”
So, how do you access the target market? “If I ever find them, I’ll let you know!” quips Sarah.
“We ran events at my previous job,” says Stephanie. “We’d get readers at the table and ask publishers to donate books. Just talk to people, get people to tell you what they want. Ask people what they’re reading.”
“The market was easy to identify for us,” says John. “We do market research, go to subject conferences, and so on.”
“For literary fiction, you’re trying to be part of the target market yourself,” says Sarah. “There’s tight knit groups of readers talking about the same things. Be part of it.”
You’ve found a market – how do you go about picking that all-important first text? “Word spread quickly when we launched,” explains Sarah. They’d barely set up a Gmail account but they had several submissions within weeks. Writers are always looking for outlets to be published.
“You need to know how to turn down what you don’t want and find what you do,” adds Stephanie. “Really choose hard and be careful. Don’t just say yes. If this book changes me, it’s worth it.”
“I love the slush pile,” continues Sarah. “It’s important for fiction publishers to have one and acknowledge submissions. Treat people as well as possible, because once in a while you’ll find absolute gold.”
“I remember seeing a publisher say that for one month they would be reading their slush pile,” says Marion. “I was shocked. You absolutely have to read your slush pile.”
“There is nothing as exciting as finding gold,” notes Sarah. “It hones your editor’s instinct. Read the slush pile to train yourself.”
When asked how small publishers can compete with large houses on fiction, she answers, “Be really fast! I acknowledge them within 48 hours and get back within a few weeks. Make a positive pitch and you’ll get great work.”
To close: what was their moment of ‘Yes! This was the right decision!’?
Stephanie: “When my first book came off the press.”
John: “Two years ago, we were publishing a lot, and they’d sold out within a few months.”
Sarah: “It was pretty quick. We always said, ‘When we do it, we’ll do it like this…’, and we just did it!”
- Just do it.
- You need at least one business-minded person.
- Ask for help. People in publishing are nice.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just learn from them.
- Start small, grow organically.
- JUST DO IT!
Want more insight? Robert of ThunderStone books gave us an insight into the daily running of a small publisher: Wearing Many Hats: Daily Life at ThunderStone Books.
A fantastic event. If you couldn’t make it, hopefully this recap gave you a little insight into the industry, and if you decide to try start your own publishing company, do let us know!