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Those darn publishers

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Back in July at YALC we spotted a trend on the panels: many authors said they couldn’t answer sticky questions about what the industry will and won’t tolerate in content terms because these were ‘questions for the publisher’. There weren’t any book publishers on the panels and so some questions went unanswered. I don’t think it was a case of passing the buck but a genuine observation that certain decisions are ultimately commercial.

About a week later, I was sent and/or stumbled across a huge range of blog posts about the woes of the writing profession and the bad behaviour of us darn publishers (I am guessing this was coincidence as opposed to the whole industry suddenly going to hell in a handcart for unknown reasons). A report into the Scottish literature and publishing sector followed – and much reporting on it – describing Scottish publishing as something with which I struggled to identify. And the Edinburgh Fringe Festival apparently carried a reminder somewhere in its programme to everyone I have ever met to come and quiz me about the industry any time I tried to go and take in a show at the Traverse, Lyceum or anywhere else in town.

This all got me thinking about how we view publishing in the wider world. It’s quite a complex profession – our tiny indy’s team of 8 FTEs will at any given time be commissioning writers and illustrators, editing, typesetting, proofing, liaising with printers and shippers in multiple countries (and occasionally Port Authorities, insurers and other assorted agencies when, as has just happened to us, something goes wrong), chasing distribution slip-ups, arranging invoices, speaking to customers both in the trade and direct, speaking at Festivals, conferences and events, selling rights to dozens of territories, making co-editions work, producing school resources, catalogues and point-of-sale materials, keeping accounts, managing job costings, paying royalties, sending out review copies and press releases, clipping reviews, tweeting, facebooking, writing meta-data and so on. Oh and we fly up and down between Edinburgh and London all the time in an attempt to arrange face-to-face time with colleagues, authors, customers, sales agents and others as often as possible.

‘See you in September,’ my mother said to me at the end of July. She lives six miles away but she had seen my Book Festival/London schedule.

I’m not moaning – I love it. I count myself privileged to get to speak at Children’s Books Ireland or edit a book by Anthony McGowan or be on a panel with Frank Cottrell Boyce. I have a soft spot for our shippers (hey, Paul and Ian!), our printers (especially Gary and Mike, and lovely Grace all the way over in China) and I’ve had itchy feet all my life so the travel invigorates rather than frustrates me. Job costings, margin and contribution are interesting, sales budgets are a good discipline and I love a good fact to shake my head over, such as the ratecard I recently saw for shelf space with major retailers.

What I don’t enjoy is when someone who has not the first clue of how any of this works ambles over to me at some event with a clever idea for how publishers could do everything better. ‘Why don’t you take all your books out of the shops and sell them direct instead?’ is a common one, or ‘why use a distribution warehouse; why not do it yourselves?’ I don’t think this happens to staff at M&S or John Lewis, although I could be wrong. In case you’re wondering, I make an effort to smile and explain the concepts of unit costs and underwriting a print run or how big a pallet actually is in real life, but really I want to say ‘Why do you want to know? I don’t expect you to explain dentistry to me in twenty words so I can tell you how to do it better, do I?’

I readily admit a few things:

a.) When it comes to publishing, I can only really talk to the context of a small indy. I’ve never worked in a children’s division within a biggie. But I know a lot of people who do, and in my experience their attitudes and level of care are no different from mine.

b.) Sometimes we/I mess up. We are human beings, and messing up is a function of human beings. My policy is generally to admit to the snafu and apologise and of course to attempt to ensure lessons are learned and the same thing doesn’t happen again. And to be gracious when I’m on the receiving end of someone else’s snafu, of course, too.

c.) Sometimes I/we are frustrated by our own limitations. We would like to do more; being aware that we could do more and frustrated that we can’t is our basic state of being. Often this is because we are limited in terms of resource (human and financial), sometimes it’s because the logistics don’t work and mostly it’s because there are simply never enough hours in the day. (If you’re thinking ‘stop writing blog posts, then’, rest assured that it’s 11pm as I write, no one is around to discuss range promos in Smiths, and blogs aren’t just a handy place to ramble but an element of SEO strategy).

But (of course there’s a ‘but’) I think it’s important that we remember that publishers aren’t in charge of the world. We aren’t even making the biggest margin in the book business. We mostly do it because we love it, and despite what a number of writer-bloggers seem to think, we don’t control public spending patterns or knock off at five every day while expecting freelancers to work all the hours God sends. Lots of us live and breathe it, rock up to YLG or YALC on the weekend, head to the Children’s Book Circle or EIBF after hours, buy and read children’s books in our spare time, tweet whenever Twitter’s awake, bend the ear of anyone who’ll listen about children and reading, and so on and so forth.

One of the blog posts I enjoyed recently explained, ‘whether it’s your day job or not, writing kind of sucks. It’s laborious. It preys on our insecurities. It can be hard to find time for and hard to stay focused on’. Totally unlike publishing, then. I mean, it’s not like we spend hours upon hours tweaking layouts and jackets, only to have to start all over again when a group of booksellers or a buyer or a sales agency tells us what we’ve done is no good. It’s not like it upsets me when we put our hearts and souls into a book and the sales are… fine. Just fine. Exactly as they might have been had we just listed the ISBN on Neilsen and left it at that. But we, like authors, travel in hope. We can’t force anyone to buy a book but we can communicate our passion for it. We can’t change all of society’s issues but we will gamble with our own money and money others trust to us to publish a book that says something we believe needs to be said, whether or not we are sure society will reward our efforts by buying it. And at the end of the day, in common with most of the world, we accept that some bits of our job are not so fun and that’s why they pay us. If I really hated publishing I’d do something else; if writing so distresses the writer quoted above, I suggest that he should consider a change of direction too.

I should say that Barrington Stoke’s authors are a joy to work with and, if the feeling is not mutual, they have the courtesy not to write blog posts about us. Thanks to them for that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my long-term writing partner has had a burst of energy and decided it’s high time we get writing again, so I have some complaining about publishers and TV producers to get geared up for”¦

Mairi Kidd is the MD of Barrington Stoke and our accessibility editor. On the blog she writes on books, literacy, dyslexia and the publishing industry in general.

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