I wonder if our readers have any idea of the complicated machinations of publishing! Take this excellent book, PAX 1934-1941. It is always exciting to get a new manuscript to read, whether it comes from a literary agent or other recommendation, and there is always a story behind the story; the writer with the experience and drive to attempt to break into the literary fortress with a new bundle of words is never boring. At the same time, it is rare to find that one is reading a work of real distinction; of some genius, scholarship, individual thought and above all, literary talent. That is the moment of honeymoon, both for the publisher and the writer.
It is a long honeymoon. The editing, the planning of the cover, typesetting, printing is all hugely creative. I have not come across any demons in this process. Every writer, and in this case I am concentrating on our latest – Michael Holzman and his book PAX – has been a delight to work with. Our type setter, Ian, is resourceful, patient, clever. The cover comes together. Everyone who sets foot in the Hopcyn Press librarycumoffice is asked for a reaction. Doubts are opportunities. Outcomes are thrilling. Enthusiasm and cries of pleasure when you show a book cover to a fellow editor – Sam for instance – or email the Advance Information sheet to Gill Hawkins in sales and she actually approves it - are intoxicating. You send out the requests for estimates to the printers – so many pages, our brand paper which is 80grams cream bookwove standard; how to marry the need for proofs with the decision to have a hardback product which resolves itself with a paperback proof edition of 60. The complex juggling of different printers estimates, page numbers, printing costs, editing decisions, titles; so far the primrose path. Friends and family who see one at work think it is hard, but not at all. It is complicated, and intense and creative, but any work which has limited, or no built-in frustrations can be great to do.
And so here’s the rub. Did I say built-in frustration? Just listen to this:
Books must sell, and be read in the big wide world. What happens with Hopcyn Press when it comes to selling? We have an experienced and highly professional sales operator, a professional distribution network, an excellent ‘product’ (as they sometimes call a book) and an acknowledged presence in the libraries and trade organisations. BUT Hopcyn Press is a small publishing house, and fairly new (4 years). We are independent. None of the established conglomerates (Random House etc) own us. As, of course, we do not take any contribution from writers towards the publications, funds are restricted, and specifically do not run to separate personnel for Publicity. The bookshops do not risk associating with small publishers unless that publisher can get them into some sort of an arm lock. The fact that they take a fifty percent (yes 50%) discount on every book they stock, AND reserve the right to return any which are not sold, makes no difference.
Money will makes a difference. Those tables which display 3 for 2 are available to publishers for cash. It is a complex and quite well-intentioned series of calculations which cause the bookshop to let down the drawbridge for this or that publishing house or book. With or without the sweetner, limited access will be perhaps given in response to good reviews, but in the absence of spare cash and a big publishing house, even brilliant reviews (and of course, brilliant authors) can be virtually ignored.
Then, reviews. Newspapers and magazines have a similar ultra-cautionary approach. We sent out 60 proof copies of PAX, each with a carefully written personal letter, often to reviewers who are friends of friends, and although the latter do acknowledge that they have received a book and even thank one for it, it is very difficult to find space and opportunity. The publisher stands to gain about £1.50 gross profit on a book selling to the public for £19.99, but just let us sell it, and we are not complaining.
I have two rescue packets up my sleeve for PAX. One is the Booker Prize. We have submitted PAX and it has been accepted. If only it is long or short listed! And two: let a few thousand people read this blog, and feel interested enough to see what a small publisher in league with a very brilliant writer, can do, and buy PAX now by clicking on the cover shown on the Home page.