A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
VL: We begin the Vulpes Libris theme thrortnight* on alternative publishing with an interview with someone who’s been and actually done it. Some weeks ago I reviewed Peter Kennedy’s first novel, Fishermen’s Tales. I’d come across it because he’d sent an email to the Book Foxes saying ‘here is my book, this is a sample section, would you like to review it?’ The sample interested me, I liked the novel very much, and we got talking. I asked him first to tell us how he had got his book published.
PK: Initially I sent, as advised, three finished chapters to agents and publishers. I sent between 15-20 letters and seemed to be getting a standard rejection reply. I wasn’t disheartened and would have continued sending them indefinitely until a work colleague suggested I self-publish. It was a lightbulb moment. Obviously I was aware of self-publishing but I’d always considered it vanity publishing and wanted the confirmation that an established publisher bestows, but I had a realisation that Fishermen’s Tales was a home-spun, DIY, cottage industry project, with a grass-roots vibe and would benefit from a home-made, underground aesthetic. These tales came from the streets, the people, part of an oral tradition passed down through generations by word of mouth or parchment – I wanted the book to look and feel like it had been hand-turned in dimly lit basements, bath-tub gin for the working classes, like Russian samizdat smuggled out beneath the noses of the authorities. The novel became a project that included musical accompaniment and theatrical performance and I felt that it could only be realised to my specifications if I had strict control over the publishing process … so, that, and the fact that no publishers wanted it!
VL: How did you go about choosing a self-publisher? Why did you choose J Publishing? And then, when you got to J Publishing, what did you supply yourself, and what service or product did you buy with their package? Did you have to bargain, or ask for things they weren’t going to offer straight up?
PK: I looked at some of the online publishers like Lulu, Ibris (I think it’s called) one or two others whose names I can’t remember and they seemed like the kind of deal I wanted – no strings attached. I had/have such a strong faith in the quality of my novel that I didn’t want to be tied to any profit-sharing schemes. The idea was that I’d self-publish, sell my books by hand, generate publicity and draw the attention of a bigger publishing house … that’s still the idea! I chose J Publishing because I liked the woman who ran it – she was nice on the phone, seemed very personable. I felt I could talk to her and trust her – that’s important to me. I went to meet another small publisher in the City [of London] and he took such a formal, businesslike tone that I felt relieved when I got out of his office. He seemed to think that the availability of my books on Amazon was key, and I didn’t. I thought it sounded like a sales pitch and that I’d sell most/all of my books on a one to one basis. I didn’t ask for anything from J Publishing, I saw them as a printing service. The woman who runs it did mention the possibility of them paying for the publishing costs and sharing the profits but I said I’d stick with a no strings deal. I can’t remember the figures exactly, but I bought 350 books at 119 pages. I didn’t bargain; I just paid what they asked for. I trusted the woman and it didn’t seem like their profit margins were big. By the time I got the book I’d already devised my publicity and marketing campaign and didn’t expect J Publishing to get involved. I had to persuade them that the cover had to be exactly how I specified and petitioned them to take the white ISBN thingy off the back – unsuccessfully. One other thing – getting the books from them was a tortuous/torturous process. They were about three months over deadline. I’m not sure if this is usual for the self-publishing industry but it caused me no end of frustration and panic.
VL: That’s interesting: one of the other BookFoxes ordered your book from the Book Depository, and they too took forever to get the order together, but I don’t know if they were struggling to get the book from J Publishing, or had simply lost their own stocks. It arrived eventually.
Do J Publishing do any distribution or despatch as part of their role? Where are the books kept? If someone orders the book, are there other companies like Book Depository who ‘fulfill’ (bleagh) the order? How many did you choose to take yourself for direct despatch? I’m also interested that the publisher offered to do a profit-share. In an earlier publishing era that would have been seen as a sign of confidence in the quality and saleability of the book. Did you read the offer like that?
PK: Yeah, I read the offer like that. I pitched my book to her and I can get quite enthusiastic. I don’t know anything about Book Depository. I assume you can order the book from J Publishing’s website and I think they said it could be ordered at Amazon, but I’ve never felt the need to check. I got 350 books … 200 of which are still in the cupboard. I don’t know if J Publishing have any at their place. I never imagined I’d sell many books to strangers contacting the publisher. It’s hard enough selling them to people who’ve just seen me perform, shook my hand, told me my writing’s beautiful, my reading is atmospheric and then walked away without thinking about buying one. To be frank the ‘business’ aspects don’t interest me. I’m satisfied I’ve given 100% to the writing and now I’ll control the factors I can control and hope that happenstance is touched by the same magic as the stories.
VL: I’d like to ask about your vision of the book carrying its own hand-made DIY physicality. Did you get a sense that to make the physical object of the book look and feel the way you wanted, you would have to go solo, and take control of the production process? Was design choice ever offered, in the other companies you investigated? Non-standard sizes and paper cost money, so if you could have had any budget, how would you have wanted your ideal Fishermen’s Tales to look?
PK: The design was crucial. It was a physical embodiment of the whole Fishermen’s Tales project. I had two book launches on beaches – one on the banks of the Thames out the back of the Prospect of Whitby pub and one on the Fish Sands in my hometown of Hartlepool. I wanted the book to look like it was designed to be read by ‘wary seditionaries’, huddled round campfires (I never did build those fires … next time) muttering incantations, conjuring up restless spirits. Your review referred to the Notes on the Text which offers the conceit that the tales were gradually unearthed from various sources, like the Grimm Brothers tales, or the Bible – that’s how it felt, like literary excavation – that’s why I didn’t want my name on the cover or the title (but they made me put it on the side … I was persuaded that it was commercially suicidal not to). The monochromatic colouring was intended to reflect the Manichean battle between good and evil, the chiaroscuro between dark and light – one of the novel’s recurrent motifs. I wouldn’t have bothered with any company that didn’t give me control of the design. I didn’t want a conventional cover. Though I would welcome collaborating with a professional designer who was appreciative of my ideas. I’d love to be inventive with the page size and paper quality, have that fabric style cover, include some abstract black and white artwork. I’d really like to have black edging to the pages (so the whole thing looks like … black. That if you touched it, it might suck you into another dimension, essentially like ours but with a slight flange).
VL: I just thought ‘ink! way too much ink ….’. Can you tell me what the publishing landscape looks like to you now, now that you’ve had a go and explored a bit? Do you want to publish again? And if yes, would you try the same route, or try something different? Would it depend on what you wanted to publish?
PK: I’ve got ideas for another novel but if Fishermen’s Tales doesn’t get picked up then I don’t think anything will. I’ve put about eight years into this project and on one level it’s the story of my life, it’s my destiny. I doubt I could ever write something of this quality again. I must confess that the over-riding factor regarding my publishing decision was – I had no other choice! If Penguin called me tomorrow I’d soil myself then sign!
VL: How about your writing support system? ‘Traditional’ signed-up authors have the right to call on an agent, an editor, a publisher, maybe even a publicist, when they need technical or professional advice or services, legal advice too. Who do you lean on or draw from to help you with that kind of support? I don’t mean creative inspiration or making cups of tea, but the specialist stuff that belongs to the world of publishing: do you read up on it and do it all yourself?
PK: Some days I think ‘it’s only a matter of time before I’m crowned the King of Bohemia!’ and other days I think ‘are you mad! They’re never gonna let someone like you in! Fantasist!’. On those days I wish I had a team, or even a partner, to remind me I’m not delusional. My wife does her best, but I’m not even sure she believes it. I know next to nothing about the world of publishing. While considering self-publishing I learnt a little about the process from internet sites and chatting with people at writers’ groups. I used to be a journalist so I have an understanding of publicity and press but it’s finding the time alongside my day job as a teacher to pursue almost infinite speculative avenues that often result in dead ends.
VL: How are you promoting Fishermen’s Tales, and with what success?
PK: I generated coverage in the local press both here in London and in Hartlepool by performing on the beach but it has been harder to secure reviews. Maybe journalists are too over-worked, but the novel is concise and can conceivably be read in one night. I contacted several literary bloggers but Vulpes was the only one to respond. I read around London regularly and am trying to secure slots at literary and music festivals. I formed The Dark Arts Circus and I’m always looking for suitably ambient venues for the collective to play – crypts, caverns, derelict houses, abandoned churches, disused lunatic asylums. I see Fishermen’s Tales and Dark Arts Circus as a multi-media project that will also involve theatricals, lighting coordinators and video installations one day as well as music and storytelling. Meanwhile, I continue my day job as a secondary school English teacher and I’m planning my next novel – an hallucinatory descent into Britain’s Kafkaesque education system!
VL: Thanks, Peter, for telling us your story. We’ll be watching your career with interest!
* thrortnight: three weeks, not two, because we simply had too much material for a measly fortnight
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.