Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Trios: The White Road and Other Stories, by Tania Hershman: The Publisher’s View

Salt Publishing is a tiny independent press which specialises in publishing strong literary fiction and poetry. As is so often the case for independent presses, Salt has struggled to remain in business: but, thanks to the determination of its proprietors and their incredible ability to find exceptional authors, Salt Publishing now has an established and growing reputation for publishing beautiful, exciting books which people actually want to read, including Tania Hershman's collection of beautiful short stories, The White Road and Other Stories. My thanks to Jen Hamilton-Emery, Salt Publishing’s co-founder and publisher, for this piece.

For eight years I did, quite literally, conduct my life from within a small press. Salt, which both me and my husband run, lived in a room off our living room. During this time the walls in the hall took on the colour of cardboard, and our garage and shower room were redesignated as warehousing space. Our every waking minute was spent in the office – before breakfast, last thing at night, in between dinner courses, we juggled sending emails, typesetting, packaging and franking books. Salt was as intimate a part of our daily lives as our children were, though they got less of our time by far.

In June 2008, Salt moved to an office two miles down the road in the next village. We have our house and back and our sanity restored. But I do think there’s something to that old adage ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’ that keeps us going as a small press. Life at Salt is challenging yet rewarding in ways that most conventional employment isn’t. And quite possibly in ways that working in a large publishing house isn’t.

For a small press to survive and thrive, it has to find its niche. Forget trying to compete with the big guys; many of them happily sell shed-loads of books at a loss, aiming for quantity over profit and instead making their money on the selling of TV, film and translation rights. Small presses however have to think smart. They have to become known as the best in their chosen field, and some have done this extremely well, becoming the leading expert in areas such as welding (Woodhead Publishing) and autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishing). For literary publishers however, things are that bit tougher.

Go to any newspaper and look at the book reviews section. Chances are that at least 75% of literary reviews are of books published by corporate publishers or large independents. That is the power of employing a team of publicists with entertainment budgets. At Salt we have a small board and a team of commissioning editors. Two of us run Salt’s operations (Chris and me), we both decide which books are to be published, negotiate contracts with the author or their agent, pull together all the bibliographic data and manage its flow through the various book systems around the world to ensure that every book shop and on-line retailer knows about it, copy edit, typeset, proof, design the cover, liase with the printer and work with the author to promote and market the book. We are lucky that we now have a part-time member of staff who packages, franks and sends orders and review copies – until recently we also did this ourselves and you wouldn’t believe how time consuming or problematic getting books from point A to point B can be. We have a couple of interns who now help us phone bookshops and other places we think would be interested in stocking or promoting our books, as well as working on converting texts into ebooks (all this too used to be us). We load and manage our website, plus our on-line shop and our blogs, Facebook Fanclub (over 3,000 members), as well as do our best to answer emails. And we have three children, ages three, ten and twelve, all at different schools.

All of this is good fun. And a lot of work. It’s work that we hope pays off through people buying our books and bringing in the income we need to keep going. So far, this hasn’t been the case, and although our sales have been growing (until the credit crunch set in, when they dropped by 12%) we have had to rely on various grants from the Arts Council England, as well as odd pots of money from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Australia Council and overseas governments for translation grants. Our particular areas of publishing – poetry and short stories – do not lend themselves to huge rights deals that the big players can negotiate with film companies. We have had several stories and poems on the radio and in anthologies, but not to the extent that we have the luxury of not keeping an eye on the profit margin of our book sales.

Despite this however, we remain positive. Positive that our sales will grow again, once people get over the fear of spending money and we won’t need to rely on those hard-to-get grants. And we continue to be proud of our publishing. Basically, we love our books. We love that we can publish work that we feel deserve to be shared with the world, without having to concern ourselves with whims and fads that the big players have to. Salt’s niche is two of the trickiest areas of publishing but because they are genres that matter to us personally, we are on a mission to make them count. It’s hard to describe the feeling we get when we come across a manuscript that knocks our socks off, or when books arrive in the office, freshly printed, or when an author first gets their book in their hands and loves it. Or going into a bookshop and seeing Salt books on the shelf. Or hearing that one of our authors has been shortlisted for a prize, or, as happened recently, publicly commended by judges of a major award (Tania Hershman by the Orange Prize judges). All of that is why we do it.

Life in a small press? I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Last week we heard how Tania Hershman has promoted her book, The White Road and Other Stories; and next week Sara Crowley reveals how a good bookseller can make all the difference to the sales of a book.

If you'd like to win a copy of The White Road and Other Stories, then answer this question: which magazine's articles inspired many of the stories in Tania's collection? Answers to Tania at You have until May 27 to get your emails to her, after which time she will select one winner at random from all of the entries she receives.


Nik Perring said...

Brilliant post, Jen. Thanks. And Salt are incredibly good.


Jane Smith said...

I was so pleased when Jen sent me this: it just underlined so much of what I've heard of from the small presses. And I'll echo what Nik wrote about Salt. Incredibly good, with a knack for finding wonderful books.

Sally Zigmond said...

An absolutely fascinating and informative post. Thank you Jen—and Jane. It's good to know there are still people out there who care passionately about good writing and good books and work incredibly hard to.

In addition, I couldn't help but notice the difference between clued-up, intelligent people like Salt and those who call themselves indie publishers and who know little about books don't care to learn but rake in the money from similarly clueless writers whilst at the same time whingeing about the rest of the publishing industry.

As in all things, it's an eye for detail, bloody hard work and commitment that creates success. But it's not an instant fix, it's back breaking and it sometimes falls apart. But, on the whole, it's this hard slog (and the ability to sort out the good writing from the dross) that will culminate in the so-called 'lucky break'. I'm thinking in particular of Canongate here.

I have admired Salt from afar for quite some time. My admiration has increased tenfold. I'm off to buy some more of their titles this very minute.

Unknown said...

Excellent post. I'm hoping that independent publishers like Salt will thrive in the new digital age - there's no reason why not. If anyone, the small presses should be able to solve the issue of how to make money out of digibooks and free online content.

Maggie Dana said...

A very interesting piece and fun to read. I always enjoy the background stuff ... the owners working out of a small room in their house with 3 kids underfoot and all in different schools!

Now if only we could get the vanity presses to stop calling themselves 'indies.' I shudder to think of a classy publisher like Salt being lumped in with PublishAmerica and its ilk who're happy to bamboozle unsuspecting writers into thinking they're legitimate independent publishers.

Jen HE said...

Thank you all for your kind and encouraging comments, and to you Jane for the opportunity to write this. It was an interesting exercise; to sit back and take stock of what life is like at Salt - something I don't often think about, I just do it!

Sally - you are right about that 'lucky break' and I just hope it happens before the grants dry up. Your point about it sometimes falling apart is one that keeps me awake at night more often than I care to admit. At least the glass recycling people around here will never be out of work :-S

Dorset Girl said...

Great post. Really interesting insights - I look forward to checking out some Salt titles.

Just one point – film/ tv rights are not usually included in publisher contracts. The author makes money if they are sold and the publisher gains indirectly through tie-in editions and advertising etc - but does not usually get a cut of the film rights.

Correct me if I'm wrong - I started out as a screenwriter and my two agents keep publishing rights and film rights very separate – but I think this is the norm.

Jen HE said...

Dorset Girl - the standard Clarke's publishing contract includes TV, film rights etc.. You are right that agents often do chose to split these out and sell them to different parties - in which case the publisher would benefit from the related book sales, as you say. There's a lot of money to be had for publishers from translation right, territory rights, serialisation rights. But not for poetry and short stories (unless written by a Big Name, in which case, not for your typical small press!).

Antonios Maltezos said...

This is wonderful! So good to read about your love of running the press. It comes through in this post, as does your dedication. Tani's book is next on my list! Long life, Salt!

Nicola Morgan said...

I'm exhausted just reading that! And I thought I worked hard ... Well done and good luck!

Unknown said...

Great hearing about this. Also, loved Tania's book!