For me, independent publishers are the people in the industry who are prepared to take risks on new authors and books where the larger players either don’t wish to venture, or they can’t see there being a return on. Each month in 2018 I am aiming to highlight some of my favourite independent publishers, along with some of their books that I have loved and also to have someone from the publisher answer a few questions.
The publisher for months Profile is Salt Publishing. Based in Cromer, Norfolk, Salt have been been in business for 19 years this year and are committed to the publication of contemporary British literature, poetry and short stories. The first books published were poetry and they soon became a force to be reckoned with as the awards piled up. From 2011 they branched out into fiction and have critical aclaim there too with shortlisting and winners in the Polari First Book Prize, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award , the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Awards. They are good at finding the authors who most mainstream publishers would never consider, and bringing the stories to life that you wouldn’t get to read otherwise. For example The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times, not only has a stunning cover, a disturbing and unerving novel set in Epping Forest or the unreilable narrator in The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased). I have just finished The many this weekend which was longlisted for the Man Booker. It is a haunting novel of a seaside village that is full of suspense as an outsider moves into a house and disturbs the fragile equilibium.
Christopher Hamilton-Emery was kind enough to answer some of my questions below on behalf of Salt Publishing:
Can you tell me a little about the history of Salt?
Well we started things back in 1999, in Cambridge. In the early days, it was mainly poetry, and mainly experimental poetry, often with a transatlantic flavour. We published a lot of Australians, too. We quickly diversified into literary criticism and literary companions, poetry, memoir, novels and short stories. There was this rapid expansion in the Noughties, at one point we were publishing around eighty titles a year. Like any publishing business we began with some narrow editorial imperative; if you are lucky enough to survive, you broaden those out – I’d say we were a small independent trade publisher now. We started developing our fiction list about seven years ago and at the same time, began plans to draw the list back. In the main, we publish British novels, about fifteen books a year, but we’re redeveloping our non-fiction and poetry lists, too.
How is the company organised today and how many people work for you?
There are three directors: Linda Bennett, Jen Hamilton-Emery and me. Nicholas Royle is a commissioning editor. Emma Dowson is our publicist. As in all independents, we all double up in roles – Jen commissions fiction, Linda commissions crime, I commission poetry. But this is the core team of five people.
What is the company philosophy when it comes to selecting for your catalogue?
I suspect each of us would provide a slightly different set of concerns in answering that question. There are perhaps three questions: Is it good? Can we sell it? Will readers love it? Each of us might attend to those questions in a different order and with different priorities, and we may add things in, loyalties and prejudices, hopes and dreams. Wearing my director’s hat, you don’t have a business if you don’t address paying readers – so I tend to start and end with this in strongly mind. Yet it’s not all about sales. A great book can be persuasive in several ways.
How do you go about choosing the titles to be included in your portfolio?
Each editor is free to choose what they most passionately believe in. We are great advocates of editorial judgement. There are cases when we might debate whether we can make a title as successful as it deserves to be. And I’d be wrong to imply that there aren’t financial constraints. But each editor is part of the Salt family and understands what we are trying to do and what resources we have. There’s pragmatism to match the passion.
Tell me about your process after selecting a book for publication
We start work on a book anything from fifteen months to nine months in advance – sometimes earlier, working with the author in developing a text. Then there’s contracting, editing and revision. Copyedits and line edits. Lining up your contacts and fans, working out the marketing plan, the publicity plan. Cover design and cover reveals. There’s a lot of administration sorting the bibliographic data, loading the buyers and suppliers with information. There’s a lot of talking to people: finding endorsers and supporters. There’s the typesetting and proofing cycle once editorial is finished. Prize planning and getting proofs out. Publicity copies to reviewers, bloggers, vloggers and booksellers – some on long lead times, some short. Pre-sales: planning titles in to key selling cycles and briefing the sales teams. Catalogue production. International sales. Rights sales. The book fair and festival planning. Author events. Excerpts, features and interviews. Social media campaigns. More prize planning. Networking. Drawing upon the author’s own publicity through their websites, online presence, friends and colleagues. Looking at influencer marketing – who will love this book. Seeding reviews with readers. Giveaways. Competitions. Tie-ins. Radio and TV. Point of sale materials. Bookshop marketing. Special sales. Then, in a kind of crescendo, we publish. 80% of the sales and marketing effort happens before the book hits the shops.
How much effort goes into the design of the book, for example the cover design, font selection and so on?
A great deal. You can’t formally announce a book without a cover, so it has to happen as early as possible and there’s a team involved in getting the right solution. Yet I’d say that the author is a key player – no book will succeed without the author, and the author needs to believe in the cover. It might not be the one they had chosen, but it must be the one they settle for. If you publish a book with a cover the author hates, its biggest advocate won’t support it. It’s both an emotional and commercial matrix. We think we get it right most of the time. Never underestimate its importance. Try to avoid bringing too much compromise. Don’t illustrate the book but create a powerful metaphor if you can.
Are there any up and coming books that you are publishing soon that we need to look out for?
All of them! However, if you want a glimpse of our range I’d say Samuel Fisher’s The Chameleon, Bee Lewis’s Liminal, Alison Moore’s Missing and Philip Whitaker’s You would give you a flavour of 2018 – but I am quite serious, they’re all worth seeking out.
What debut authors are you publishing this year?
Mark Carew, James Clarke, Samuel Fisher, Bee Lewis and Martin Nathan.
How did you come across them?
In each case, our editors went out and found them –through teaching, workshops and lectures.
What title of yours has been an unexpected success?
Success is always unexpected, I know that sounds arch but it’s true. You have a sense of which titles have the largest sales opportunities, and you have evidence for those insights, but prizes can swing things dramatically and we have had considerable success with literary prizes – a key part of our business strategy, you may say. No one can know the full effect of prizes. There are always dark horses, something that readers respond to in a way you hadn’t foreseen. In fact, I’d say that every year, there are some real surprises. That’s part of the pleasure of publishing.
What would you say were the undiscovered gems in your catalogue?
Each of us would answer this differently: Pinckney Benedict, Gerri Brightwell, Charles Yu.
How do you use social media for promoting books and authors?
We talk about what we do, about how and why we do it, which books we’re working on. We share our passion and hopefully our humour. We try to be honest, relentlessly honest. We try to be inclusive and open – let people into our working lives. We’re certainly not precious. We try to be visual. We try to be informative. We try to be, er, interesting, sometimes perhaps controversial. Social media is the coffee machine natter with folks. There are some more formal components, creating memes around releases and events. A change in register and tone makes for a more interesting voice. We start early and keep going. Social media is also a kind of afterlife for books. Never stop talking about them.
Is working with book bloggers becoming a larger part of that process now?
Yes, a blogger can break a book in ways traditional media largely controlled ten years ago. Like all media, some bloggers have a larger presence and impact than others. Some bloggers have become vloggers and changes in how we use new media have seen changes in how blogs work. Once upon a time, people would leave the world of social media to visit a blog – now the blog has to appear within social media. The discussions move to where the audience is. Presently, this lies within Facebook (for depth) and Twitter (for transient moments). It’s interesting to see vloggers increasingly collaborate and we’re seeing the emergence of a form of coherent broadcasting. We may yet see the emergence of channels of combined book reviewers creating an effective schedule of programmes.
What book do you wish you had published?
After Me Comes the Flood. What an author to have in your stable.
What does the future hold for Salt?
Financial exasperation, commercial seizures, all the usual moans and groans – yet alongside this ‘publishing weather’, the old complete conviction that we can make a difference to readers’ lives. Homilies aside, we have an important collaboration as co-funders with Galley Beggar Press and the Writers’ Centre Norwich/National Writing Centre over the next three years. We’re excited about that. There’s the careful development of our non-fiction list. And hopefully the resurgence of our poetry publishing. As Blake says, ‘The most sublime act is to set another before you’.
Thank you to Chris for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer those questions for me. I really appreciate it. Salt’s books are available from all good bookshops and their most recent catalogue can be seen here. I would urge you to buy them from an independent bookshop if you can as this support them, the publisher and of course the author with one purchase.