Edited by Akvile Peckyte.
Hazel: We’re interested in what you look for in writing, and books – is there a template for what you like to publish?
Sam: This is a question I’m often asked and can never answer properly. The truth is we don’t really know what we’re looking for. We know when we see it. That’s part of what makes publishing books fun and exciting. It can also be nerve-racking! Because the books you publish have to be good. For instance, Ducks, Newburyport (Lucy Ellmann) which we published last year. You could never say ‘I’m looking for a 1,000 page single sentence epic about being an American housewife in the midwest… ‘ But there are a few things. We just really like good sentences. That’s what gets our attention initially, that’s what makes us pay attention and that’s what we’re looking for. Again, it’s impossible to define a good sentence…
"The truth is we don’t really know what we’re looking for...We just really like good sentences."
Hazel: It’s interesting that you said “from the first sentence it gets you”. Because when I read A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Eimear McBride) I was hooked from the first page.
Sam: There’s quite a few things to say there…Quite often, the thing that changes is the first few pages because that’s (not exclusively) when the author is clearing their throat and finding their way into the book. And as writers will know, often the most difficult thing to write is the first page. There’s a lot of nerves associated with it, and it’s only after the first few pages that you find your way in. So quite often we cut it!
I don’t know if you know the story behind Girl… but Eimear had spent nine or ten years getting rejected by publishers. Partly because of the first page; it didn’t quite work. It was one of the things we spoke to Eimear about, and so she went back and wrote that beautiful first set of sentences in a shopping centre in Norwich on the back of a receipt while pushing a buggy around…
Hazel: It’s almost back of a fag packet.
Sam: Yep really, but she did it and it was great. In terms of experimental…I’m slightly nervous around that phrase. Our writer Lucy Ellman particularly doesn’t like it because she thinks I’ve done it, it’s been published and got results.
Quite often you get sent books where it feels like a gimmick. Someone’s thought of a way to write a book rather than thought of the book and this is how to write it. I know that’s quite a fine distinction, but it’s got to be true to the story and to what the writer is trying to do. Generally, I think there’s got to be real purpose. The key phrase that everyone comes back to is Picasso. It’s a cliche but it’s true, he pushed the boundaries for a reason: he wasn’t just playing with form for the sake of it. It’s the same with writers.
Clare: When you have a book like Ducks… last year and Mordew (Alex Pheby) this year, it seems like you’re actively looking for things that are radically different from each other in terms of genre or the nature of the work? Is that true? I’m interested in the risk as a small press of being pigeonholed, and making sure that you’re not. Or is it just that you pick work that you love?
Sam: It’s not as defined as that but it is hard to follow up Ducks… with another minor version of Ducks... It would be bad for that writer and bad for us. I suppose we try to avoid that, but we didn’t have a plan about what to do next. We were lucky in that the books that came after that were very different. With Patience (Toby Litt) it’s from a completely different point of view and perspective, a completely different style of writing, and Mordew is this epic fantasy so again, it’s completely different. It’s worked really well that those two have come off, but It’s through our good fortune really, rather than any clever planning.
"Quite often, the thing that changes is the first few pages because that’s (not exclusively) when the author is clearing their throat and finding their way into the book."
April: You were talking about when you get a manuscript and it really hooks you. But if you find a manuscript where there’s elements you really like but it needs a lot of work, what’s the process like when you’re working with an author to make the story what it needs to be?
Sam: We have taken on quite a few manuscripts where we’ve worked with the author for a long time to edit and I guess you see that there’s got to be something really special there to take that risk. We talk to the authors before to see how they feel about editing and get a gauge on that about their ideas about the books. It is a big risk in terms of time and effort and everything else, but so far luckily it’s worked. Some of our books have taken years!
In a way that’s an advantage you have with a small press, especially when you’re as small as us, when you’re not getting paid by the hour, meetings and all the other things that editors at bigger presses have to do, when they can only allot a certain number of hours to editing and they have to get a book out before too long or it’ll become a big financial drain. We have much more flexibility in that regard. It’s emotionally, intellectually and financially tiring in a way, but we can think about the time less and that allows us to take on really special books that other publishers might be wary of.
Hazel: So just on that risk, do you do any calculation on that?
Sam: It’s much more gut feel. It’s less calculation and more this is a book that should be in the world, let’s do it. That’s essentially the sum we do. We have turned down books that we think are good, but we’re not the right publisher for. So I’m not saying there isn’t some kind of calculation in it.
Hazel: Is there anything you’ve turned down that you really regret?
Sam: Yes! There are a few books that we’ve turned down that have gone on to do well, but that’s good really, because other publishers have done a good job where we might not have.
Nicole: As a small publisher, I’m interested in how you feel you can enact change through what you publish and how you publish it?
Sam: (Pauses). To go back to the model that we were talking about before, you allow a space for that kind of writing. And the change that I hope that publishers like us have brought about is to enable writers to think: ‘I might as well go for it, because there are outlets for this kind of thing, and I don’t just have to think in terms of what’s going to fit into the established models, and I can try things for myself.’ That’s the thing we really hope for.
The more small presses there are like us out there, the more different outlets there are for writers. The other thing is when you’re as small as we are, there are a lot of fellow independent publishers, and quite a lot of it boils down to the taste of the publishers. Which is a strength and a weakness, but if there’s a lot of different operations, there are a lot of different people’s tastes out there, and a lot of different opportunities for writers to reach them.
One of the things we realised when we were setting up, is that for a lot of the books that we were taking on, the editors of publishing houses had said: ‘I really like this, but I can’t sell it to the public’. As if editors have some kind of superpower of reading that they’re more sophisticated, or the public isn’t going to be able to cope with this work of art, which of course is ridiculous. So we thought that if we like it, someone else is going to like it, and so far luckily that’s been right.
We do have ways of mitigating that risk and by making our tastes financially viable. We have a subscription scheme, which means that 500 of our books are pre-paid every time. That makes things easier and takes away a lot of risks, but we didn’t have that originally.
Aqua: I was wondering what a day in your working life would be?
Sam: Good question. The truth is it really varies depending on what’s happening and what comes in. A lot of it is chasing around thinking, Oh God, I’ve got to do this, and one of the reasons we’ve been able to make Galley Beggar work is that I earn money elsewhere, so we’ve never lost money luckily, but we’ve never made much either. We’re getting there. So quite a bit of my day is spent doing freelance editorial work, sometimes journalism, book projects. That’s the first thing to say. Lots of it is spent replying to emails — or not replying to emails…
At the moment? Things we’re working on…I’ve got this editorial that I really want to get to, emotionally it’s a priority, but practically I can’t quite do it yet. We’ve got the short story prize that we do every year, the reading for that’s coming up.
Hazel: Do you read those yourself, or do you have a panel?
Sam: Elly and I do most of it, we try to look at as many as possible. Part of the point of the short story prize is that it’s a really good way to get new writers on our radar, so we try to have a look at them.
We’ve got a lot we want to do on the website. We have a critical writing class, kind of like a book club, where we go through novels and tear them apart from an editorial perspective and talk about what they mean. We’ve been doing that in London, but that all got blown apart by Covid in the spring, I’ve only just managed to finish it online, but now we’ve finished it, I want to get going on another one. This is the quiet time in a way. We’re finishing off editorial for next year’s books, which is exciting. The thing I should say is that while I’m doing the external paid work, Elly (on top of everything else she does with me) is doing the nuts and bolts, the practical stuff, finances, tax returns and keeping things running in all kinds of ways. There isn’t a routine, we just try to get as much of it done as possible!
"The best way to learn about small press publishing is to do it."
Clare: You started eight years ago, how much of that has come organically, and how much did you know you had to do from the outset? How has the process developed for Galley Beggar? How has the press grown up?
Sam: Organically is mainly the answer. One of the things I quite often say is: ‘If I knew all the stuff I know now when we were setting up, and all the things I would have to learn, I would have been too terrified’. But I also say just do it anyway, you pick it up on the job. The best way to learn about small press publishing is to do it. In a way you learn by making mistakes (or trying to not make mistakes) and that’s what most bigger publishing is about as well.
There were things we knew, and we had pretty clear ideas about branding and that we wanted these books to be recognisable and have a certain feel. We had really strong ideas about the physical objects, being nicely typeset with nice paper, that stayed with us. In 2012, this was swimming against the tide a bit, when people were still talking about ebooks taking over, but we were very much of the opinion that no, we like books. Ebooks are great for what they are, but still, the vast majority of the time I find it far preferable to read a paper book. Part of the way you lose yourself in a book is the way that you interact with a paper book, so we had very definite ideas about that, which have stayed with us. Lots of the nuts and bolts like setting up a limited company, having to set up bank accounts, doing tax returns, etc, we’ve learned as we go along. Quite a lot of the process of making books we’ve also learned as we have gone along. Luckily, lots of other people have been really generous with their time as well, we’ve had help from other small presses like Salt (they’re brilliant), and other people who gave us advice. You don’t have to take the advice. Quite often getting the advice that you don’t take is useful, because it enables you to think about what it is that you do want. That’s the thing with small presses, there is a world of people who want to help you, because we’re not so much in competition with each other like the big five are. In fact, it’s better for us if there’s lots of small presses who are all doing their individual things because it helps small presses build momentum. ‘Together we’re stronger’ is what I always think, it’s good for us to help each other out.
Hazel: Now we’re going to go to our questions received via Twitter.
C.J.Flood: What advice would Sam give to undergrads and postgrads keen to find a job in publishing?
It’s a hard one! The first thing I’d say is don’t despair, especially at the moment. I would understand if there’s a gap in your CV. So keep plugging away is the primary thing. There is this really difficult thing especially with bigger publishing houses; you need experience to get a job, so how do you get experience? It’s always been a problem in publishing that internships don’t pay (or don’t pay very much). Things are getting better in that regard, but it’s still really tough, and quite often, you have to go to London to do the internship, so look out for places that aren’t in London, there might be better options for you — especially in terms of cost of living. If you’re looking in the small press world, a good bit of advice is to develop a particular sellable skill. Like a good typesetter! We absolutely love our typesetter, he’s brilliant — so being that person is great if you have that eye for detail, artistic coupled with almost mathematical way of doing things. Another tip I have is to think about doing things sideways. It’s quite hard to walk into being a commissioning editor, to start working with Ishiguro and start having that kind of life. But you can get into the company in other ways. A friend of mine who grew up in the same village went off to be an accountant. I thought, poor Tom, how boring for him. He was always posting pictures on social media and clearly had an artistic eye. Then lo and behold, he got a job at Macmillan and because he’s an accountant, he knows about figures and knows how the bottom line is; people fear him. I’m sure he didn’t use that in the wrong way, but it gives him an edge and advantage right away. There are lots of things he knows about that lots of people in publishing don’t know about, or are a bit scared of, and he can do these things. The next set of pictures I see on social media are of him meeting Bruce Springsteen…so don’t necessarily think ‘I can’t become a commissioning editor, that’s the end for me’, there are other ways in, other things you can do that will hopefully help you develop a really interesting career.
The other thing I should say of course if you have books that you love, that you want to publish, and strong ideas about them, and you think other people aren’t doing it, then take a punt on setting up a small press. Especially if you’re just graduating and you don’t have family responsibilities, a mortgage and all that stuff, it’s a good time to take a risk. One of the calculations we made when we were setting up was, how much are we going to lose? And it was time, it was a bit of money. But we didn’t have any money! There’s the print costs you have to scrabble together, but not loads. Go for it! You learn an awful lot. You learn a bit about every stage of the process. Even if the small press doesn’t work out, you’ll have done something that looks great on your CV, you’ll have learned loads. The other thing is bookselling. A really good way in, especially now Waterstones have more autonomy in the shops. If you can get a job in Waterstones, there are brilliant people there. If I was looking to employ someone, someone who knew about the other side of things – the selling – would be a real asset. There are great jobs within bookselling and the distribution side of things, so think about those.
Dave Wakely: What does Sam think the greatest mistakes an unpublished / emerging writer can make, and how might they avoid doing so?
Sam: Being rude. You do get men being rude to women within publishing and it’s just awful, don’t do it. People who are rude to Elly who wouldn’t be rude to me, or people who don’t address her as co-director, that kind of thing — just don’t do it. Don’t be an asshole.
"Part of the trick of good editing is not editing."
April: I’m interested in how you read manuscripts, as it’s obviously different from reading for pleasure.
Sam: That’s a really good question. The truth is, every book is different, and every interaction with it is different. Initially, we print out the first 30 pages and read through those. We don’t always get to the end of it. But then if you’re printing out more, you know that’s pretty exciting. I do start making notes — it’s not really a conscious thing, it’s more of a twitch, but once you’re doing that you’re kind of committing to the book in a way. So that’s quite a good sign. The really difficult ones are when you get to the stage of printing it, and you think: it’s good, I can’t not read it all, but it’s not quite grabbing you. Those are the real heartbreakers. As a writer, it must be really hard to hear it’s good, but it’s not for us. It’s really hard to say that. The good side of that is just because it’s not for us, doesn’t mean it’s not for someone else.
On the whole writers who are good, they’ve found us and that’s great. I’m sitting here with a book from Preti Taneja (author of We That Are Young). We were given a few pages of that initially. It was another editor who said, you guys have got to take this on. Reading that was really exciting, realising how good she was at sentences, how ambitious it was, and we had to email Preti and she sent us the rest and it was like, how long can we keep this going? And realising it was like 500 pages. If it’s something that grabs you, you start thinking about editorial. Although not necessarily, some pieces don’t need to be edited. Part of the trick of good editing is not editing. If something’s fine, don’t touch it.
Zoe: I saw the other day you spent £84k on printing this year. Is that a massive jump from last year or is that standard?
Sam: Yeah, that is a big figure for us, but it’s because Ducks, Newburyport did so well, Patience (Toby Litt) went for a second printing, Mordew went for a second printing. Ducks… and Mordew are big books as well. Also, print costs are going up…thanks Brexit! Since 2016, print costs have gone up a lot. That’s something I should’ve said earlier when I talked about small press publishing, unfortunately the pound is worth less now, print costs are higher in Europe — all because of racists. Thanks guys.