In the latest in this series of feature-length interviews with independent publishers, we put the kettle on for Jamie McGarry of Valley Press in our imaginary poetry theatre pub somewhere in Lambeth…
Hello, Jamie! What are you drinking?
Jamie: Valley Press is powered by tea – medium strength, with one sugar (if no-one’s looking).
How long has Valley Press been running?
Jamie: This is a question with many answers. I’ve been experimenting with publishing regularly since the age of 6 (I’m serious), I published a book of my own work with the words ‘Valley Press’ on the back cover in 2008, I signed up my first genuine author in 2009, and I registered the birth of ‘Valley Press’ the company when I started to do it as a full-time job in January 2011. So to answer your question – a while?
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Jamie: Do you know, this is the first time I’ve ever been asked that question – not just in interviews, but in the whole last five years. People often don’t think about the practical side; my other half admitted that before she met me, she thought books just somehow turned up on shelves, and never spared a single thought about the people behind the publishers’ logos. That is something we need to work on as an industry – I’m doing my bit, on the home front anyway!
The most important thing I did was research and self-training; I had been fiddling around for my whole life with print and design, but I had an awful lot to learn before I could be an actual publisher, and it took me quite a few months to get all that on board. I’m still learning new stuff about it every week; I think this will be a lifelong education.
When I decided to go into independent publishing full-time, on my own, I had been unemployed for seven months, so any personal resources I had were exhausted … but it was okay, because it meant I had nothing to lose. I funded the first couple of print runs however I could – sometimes with credit cards, to give me an extra 30 days to make the money back – but later in the year I got an £800 grant from the Prince’s Trust, and since then things have just about stumbled along on target.
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Jamie: I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of personal background might lend itself to being an independent publisher – a life filled with books, I suppose, in which case the answer is yes.
The strange thing is, I can honestly say I have wanted to publish books for as long as I can remember; I actually have some prototypes from when I was just 6 years old. I put one on the blog recently: http://emmavalleypress.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/valley-press-friday-digest-5-jamies.html So I must have been literally born to do it!
Where does the name Valley Press come from?
Jamie: At the time I named the press, in 2008, I was living on Valley Road in Scarborough – underneath the famous green Valley Bridge (not exactly underneath, but nearly). So I think it came from that, though it should also be mentioned that the Scarborough Poetry Workshop – a wonderful writers’ group – meet every fortnight in a pub called the Valley Bar, which is also on Valley Road, and I never missed a meeting back then.
Nowadays I live just outside Scarborough, but the Valley Press office remains right next to Valley Bridge, where it belongs, in a building called Woodend (where Edith Sitwell was born, by the way). I think people now assume that’s where the name comes from, which is fine.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Jamie: I could describe what I’m trying to publish, my vision, if you will: poetry that satisfies me technically and intellectually, as a student of literature, but also poetry that anyone could pick up and enjoy, perhaps thinking: ‘hey, this poetry malarkey isn’t so bad!’
It’s a difficult line to tread, occasionally controversial – and sometimes I have stumbled off course – but that’s what I want to do; publish great work that doesn’t exclude anyone.
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Jamie: I’m fairly young, I suppose – 26 at the moment, I don’t know how that stacks up against everyone else. Also, I try to run Valley Press as a commercially-minded, profit-making business, which goes against how most people would imagine small publishers to work (though this is more common than they think). Because the core of the business – editing and selling poetry – is such an arty, generous and unsound commercial prospect, I have to do my best to be ruthless the rest of the time.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Jamie: Around 2500. I’m looking forward to seeing how this figure stacks up against everyone else’s – I suspect not well! – but I aim to double that this year, and again the next.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Jamie: More copies by wholesale/retail, but the profits are much higher from sales through my own website, so it kind of evens out.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Jamie: Each published book has been successful in its own way, but I am hugely proud to have had Valley Press books chosen for New Writing North’s ‘Read Regional’ scheme, both last year – Cara Brennan’s Destroyed Dresses – and this year – John Wedgwood Clarke’s Ghost Pot. I don’t imagine you hear much about this scheme down south (that’s not really the point!), but it’s a wonderful initiative, and really the only significant recognition that Valley Press books have received.
If you are looking for hard numbers, James Nash’s Some Things Matter: 63 Sonnets (2012) and Norah Hanson’s Love Letters and Children’s Drawings (2011) are top of the leaderboard for units sold, but newer books are catching up fast.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Jamie: Almost as important as what’s inside. It’s hugely important, and I sweat over every aspect of each book’s design for many long hours. I am desperate for the books to look legitimate, somehow, so that people can’t ignore them; if you’re introduced to a Valley Press author, and you see their book, I want you to think: ‘this person is obviously worth listening to … think of the effort someone must have gone to to design this.’ I want you to see a VP book and know instantly that someone, somewhere really cares about what is written inside. I can’t stress how much that means to me.
Okay, deep breath! After non-stop experimentation since 2008, I think I’ve finally got a typesetting template that I’m happy with; you can see it by looking at the previews for my October titles, at the bottom of their web pages:
As for the covers, I possess very little artistic flair, so I mostly aim to get the best possible image – whether it’s a photograph or illustration – then just add text in a way that doesn’t detract from it. I spend a lot of time studying the design of books by other publishing houses, to see what they’re doing right (which I can steal) and what they’re doing wrong (which I can avoid), all in an effort to constantly evolve and improve what I’m doing.
Who prints your books?
Jamie: I am a little bit unfaithful in this regard. I most frequently work with a company called Imprint Digital, who are hard to beat for small, straightforward paperbacks – but in the past twelve months I’ve also worked with TJ International, Latimer Trend, and a company called Volume. Each company excels at particular styles of book, thicknesses, and print run lengths. I plan to keep experimenting though, so please feel free to get in touch, printers of the world!
Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?
Jamie: It’s different with every book. Two questions ago, I linked you to my October titles – both wonderful books by wonderful writers, but with entirely different editing processes, which I will now shed some light on.
One of them sent me a manuscript neatly organised in a single Microsoft Word file – it was obvious that they had thought for months, maybe years, about which poems to include and in what order, and then obsessed over each word and comma until every poem was perfect. When the file reached me, I tried desperately to find some way I could add value at the editing stage, but I couldn’t find a thing to change! If every book was like that, I could do fifty a year … but then, I would be missing out on most of the fun.
In many cases, and with the other October author, I am sent an envelope full of poems on all sorts of topics, in all sorts of styles, and I have to work my way through them to find some sort of sense. I love to find a narrative; failing that, any theme or set of themes will do as a structure. Then, when the book is assembled, I work my way through it with the author word by word, comma by comma, over a period of months. But it’s worth it for the sense of pride and achievement I feel by the end, and besides, it’s necessary – not every great author can be as well organised as the one I described above!
What’s your submissions policy?
Jamie: Buy a book from our website, then come right in sir/madam – the door is open for whatever you may have written. Full details are on: http://www.valleypressuk.com/contact/
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Jamie: I’ve covered some in my new FAQ section, here: http://www.valleypressuk.com/contact/faq.html
One thing that particularly irks me is how many messages I get through the website just asking for information on how to submit. It’s right there on the same page, people.
Where do you look for new writers?
Jamie: It’s been a long time since I actively scouted for talent; when I did, I looked on blogs, in journals, hung around at the odd open mic and so on. These days, I have a list of forthcoming publications as long as the Humber Bridge, and I never quite seem to reach the end of it – I would like to one day, though, and get back out there looking for new poets.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Jamie: There are as many routes to publishing success as there are published authors; you need to find your own path through the murky fog of obscurity, to the lighthouse of notoriety. (Avoiding metaphors like that would be a good start.) But if I had to give some advice: be the best version of yourself, and be it in public. If people like you, they’ll bend over backwards to help you move forwards.
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Jamie: Writers get a percentage of their sales, calculated and paid every six months.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Jamie: I do.
What do you think is a suitable second occupation?
Jamie: Anything – something totally different. I’d like to do something outdoorsy and physical. Lumberjack?
Do you make any money from publishing?
Jamie: Here’s my business model:
First, I work out what I need to take home as a salary over the course of a particular year; let’s say, £12000 for the time being (life is very affordable up here in the north!) Then I work out how many books I can reasonably publish in that time, let’s say, one a month. So I would need to make £1000 per book, minimum, for the business to break even.
Every book is completely different, and I dabble in many genres, but let’s say I’m doing twelve poetry collections in this particular year. I can be reasonably confident of getting near to 500 copies sold with an average poetry collection, over a year (occasionally longer), so if that’s the case I need to make sure my minimum profit is £2 per copy.
The minimum-profit sales are usually made to the key wholesalers, who then sell on to Amazon, Waterstones and many independents – it’s typical that they would pay 50% of a book’s cover price, sometimes even less. Let’s say 45%, to make this a genuine worst-case scenario. We must then assume that all 500 copies will go for that minimum (to be safe), and work out a business model from that.
For a decent-length poetry collection, I feel comfortable charging £8.99 at the most. That’s down to £4.05 immediately for a wholesaler, and I give 10% of that figure to my sales agency, Inpress (who deserve it; they do all the work getting these sort of sales!) and another 15% to my distributor (who save me spending all my waking hours wrapping boxes). So from an £8.99 book, I would receive £3.04 in my bank account.
After that, it’s just a matter of getting printing costs down to £1, or near enough, which is a bit of a battle but still doable – and then getting the books sold. But of course, the majority of copies don’t sell for the minimum, and there are ebook sales and the odd bit of freelance design work to throw in the pot; so in theory I can feel fairly secure supporting myself with this plan. It’s expanding the business to include proper staff that poses the problem.
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Jamie: The thought of the state sticking its mucky hands into the world of independent publishing makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. As Di from Candlestick Press said in her Pub Chat interview, the subsidised presses do great and worthwhile work, but the definition of what they are should be clear – there should be ‘independent publishers’ and ‘subsidised publishers’, with a clear delineation between the two. A true independent publisher is a self-sustaining, profit-making part of the economic ecosystem; the fact that Valley Press has always been that is a source of immense personal pride to me.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Jamie: Central Books, of London, and they do a wonderful job. They send them out to a number of bookshops around the country; but if you really want to shop in style, you should hit the official Valley Press website, at www.valleypressuk.com
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Jamie: People have drifted in and out, and there was a time when I was constantly accompanied by a stream of interns; but at the moment it’s just me, working with the occasional freelancer.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Jamie: I’ve got to mention Emma Wright at The Emma Press. We started communicating a couple of years ago, about some trivial issue, and found ourselves exactly on the same wavelength, writing great long essays via email. Now we are as close as two independent publishers can be: we share a blog, the odd event/bookstall, and we speak every week on the phone – usually at 11am on a Friday (we love processes too, and routines). This relationship is so important to Valley Press, and I like to think it is for Emma too; as a self-employed publisher, the chance to regularly talk to someone who knows your business (and the industry) inside and out is invaluable, and has led to all my best decisions and initiatives lately.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Jamie: I don’t think independent publishing is in any kind of danger – in fact, we might just be entering a golden age. As for me, I don’t think I’ve got all the answers yet, but I know I won’t stop until I do.
Do you have anything to add about e-books / Amazon / the Internet that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?
Jamie: You just listed three things that are unquestionably here, and here to stay – there’s no getting around it, no point wringing our hands and dreaming of the way publishing was in 1974. We have to find a way to work with them – maybe even make them work for us. (So, to answer your question, no.)
What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?
Jamie: The classic mistake is to take on too many projects too early. For god’s sake, just start with one or two books, then try six a year, and then work upwards very slowly from there. I constantly find myself taking on far too many books and then being completely overwhelmed – and it’s very painful to backtrack and delay at that point, so I end up cutting corners and pulling all-nighters. Don’t do it, folks.
Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.
Jamie: Anyone can be an independent publisher – the only quality you need at the start is an overwhelming desire to do it, to publish some books to the highest standard you can. Everything else can be figured out on the go … it worked for me!