I’ve invited a number of people who have published in indie press and gone on to become professionals in the field to write about their experiences. Today’s post comes to us from Paul Collins, who not only knows small press publishing as an author, but as a publisher too. Paul now operates the successful Ford Street publishing house, giving us all something to aspire to!
Paul Collins, with Isobelle Carmody and two students during a writing workshop at Kirwan State High (Townsville)
A publisher’s rite-of-passage
As most fantasy readers know, there’s a 12-point structure to writing fantasy, and that this genre simply emulates our rite-of-passage throughout life. That is, childhood, through to adolescence through to adulthood.
I started out as a very naïve publisher, and over the years would like to think I’ve matured and learnt a thing or two, much like the intrepid heroes in fantasy books.
Having left school at 15 and not read a book till I was about seventeen (none of my family read books), I aware that if I wanted to get into publishing, the best way would be to become a publisher. After all, who was going to employ someone with my background? Nothing much has changed since those days, really. It’s easy to be a publisher. You just need money. I didn’t have much, but had, and still have, a healthy work ethic. I was working three jobs for some years, and most of my life, two. Right now I’m running a speakers’ agency called Creative Net; a publishing company, Ford Street, and I’m still writing full time (www.fordstreetpublishing.com.au).
I was only too well aware that I knew nothing about science fiction when I first started publishing Void Magazine. I vaguely knew Isaac Asimov’s name. So in 1974 I advertised for people to help create Australia’s only (at that time) SF magazine. A fellow waiter at the Breakfast Creek (Brisbane) suggested an SF magazine because there wasn’t one published locally. If he had suggested a mystery or crime mag, I might have gone down that road, too. Regardless, luminaries at the time such as Frank Bryning, A Bertram Chandler, Wynne Whiteford, Jack Wodhams and David Lake, rallied around me to create my magazine.
When I lost national distribution, I started publishing anthologies (the World series) because I could get them distributed. My publishing ambitions finally crashed when two distributors went bankrupt, the second taking all my stock, plus every copy of Chandler’s last book, The Wild Ones. At that point I figured it was all too hard. I instead concentrated on my bookshops (Barkly St, St Kilda and in Brisbane). Meanwhile, my writing picked up and in 1995 HarperCollins published my first fantasy novel, The Wizard’s Torment. Since then I’ve had about 140 books and a similar number of short stories published.
In 2007 I approached Macmillan who were distributing The Quentaris Chronicles, a series Michael Pryor and I co-edited, to distribute books that I intended to publish under Ford Street Publishing. Amazingly, they accepted.
Distribution really is the key to publishing. Anyone can publish books, but getting them out in the shops is an entirely different ball game. I know with e-books people are saying everything is distributed on a level playing field, but they’re not, really. You still need your books visible to the buyer. And how will that happen when your book is just listed as a title on a list of thousands?
There are various ways to promote your book/s, of course. One is by trailer. My latest book, Mole Hunt, has two trailers, one fun and the other serious
I’ve also written about fifteen blogs and been interviewed on numerous online sites. Reviews promote books, as does merchandise such as stickers, bookmarks and posters. Well-established databases also help, especially with bulk mailouts; facebook, twitter and social media outlets such as websites, etc, also help. But I’m beginning to think that word-of-mouth will beat all of these strategies. But again, the book has to be visible, and I’m finding it hard to imagine how e-books will circumnavigate this particular problem. At least with brick and mortar shops, the books are there for people to see. A select “few” when considering how many books are published, but that notwithstanding, potential purchasers can see and feel the books.
Indie press has both advantages and disadvantages when compared with the major presses. Advantages include quick turn-around, individual attention (everyone at Ford Street is A-list – there’s no B-list, for example), a willingness to experiment with titles that major publishers won’t touch. Disadvantages include scant distribution, lack of “brand name”, therefore less chance to make it into the stores, smaller budgets so less chance of major writers sending them manuscripts, and lack of staff for marketing, publicity, editors, etc. My latest relationship with an indie press was with Celapene Press. I’d submitted The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler to a dozen major publishers and it had been rejected. I sent it to Celapene Press and it was accepted within four days. It was published several months later and sold to a book club and was also short-listed for the Psychologists’ Award. Obviously I didn’t make as much money as I would have with a major publisher, but the relationship with this indie press was satisfying in that I received personal attention as noted above. And perhaps needless to say, had it not been for Celapene, the book might never have been published.
There are of course many problems facing the publishing industry right now, not least among them the decline of independent bookshops (Australia is considered healthy with 21% independent bookshops – England has about 7% while the US stands at about 3%); the e-book revolution; readers purchasing books online from overseas; publishers condensing their lists; exorbitant postal costs, etc.
I believe that to survive, independent booksellers need to personalise their businesses, that is, be involved with their customers, know their books, establish book clubs, take risks and purchase books from small presses to differentiate themselves from the chain stores that stock the best-sellers (smaller shops can’t compete here, simply because the chain stores such as Target and K-mart can sell the books cheaper than the independent booksellers can buy them at!); all of which will make them stand out against their competition.
In a nutshell, indie publishers are around because we’re passionate about what we do; we’re definitely not in it for the money.
Paul Collins was born in England, raised in New Zealand and immigrated to Australia in 1972. He lives in a historic bluestone home built in 1851 with his partner, fellow author, Meredith Costain, and a menagerie of pets including a kelpie called Jack and Molly, a red heeler.
His many books for young people include The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler and series such as The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn Wars, The Quentaris Chronicles (co-edited with Michael Pryor) and The World of Grrym (in collaboration with Danny Willis). His latest book is Mole Hunt, book one in The Maximus Black Files. The trailers are available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3S-eKDYqpEs and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4tTn_WXCiw
Paul is also the author of over 140 short stories, has been the recipient of the A Bertram Chandler, Aurealis, William Atheling and Peter McNamara awards and has been shortlisted for many others including the Speech Pathology, Mary Grant Bruce, Ditmar and Chronos awards.
He is currently the publisher at Ford Street Publishing (www.fordstreetpublishing.com). Visit him at www.paulcollins.com.au)