Publishing 101: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Friday 3rd March 201. The Society of Young Publishers Scotland (SYP Scotland) held their second conference in the Central Hall in Edinburgh. The first one was tentatively held a year ago, and was such a resounding success, it was immediately decided to hold a second one. Long may it continue! (Apologies in advance, this one is long, even for me. But there’s just so much good stuff to note!)

The keynote speech by agent Jenny Brown, of Jenny Brown Associates, was truly inspiring and uplifting. There was a 4.3% rise in print sales in Scotland in 2016. Publishing is important for Scotland for the promotion and development of a sense of self, as well as being of economic and cultural significance. Scottish publishing is now less fixated on London and more focused internationally. There are a lot of classics to be proud of (Stevenson, Scott, Conan Doyle) but the Scottish industry needs to move faster to respond to successes and pitch the right books to London, as some national interest books won’t make it past the border. We need to listen too, acquiring rights as well as selling. Under-resourcing is a big challenge, as well as publishing too many titles in the hopes of finding a hit. Never forget: the whole industry rests on the dreams and creativity of writers. Yet they are bottom of the pile. Treat them with more respect. Passion costs nothing. Predict fashions. Set trends. Take risks. Innovate.

The Brexit Question

Chair: Catriona Cox

Alby Grainger, owner of comic book shop Little Shop of Heroes, opened by outlining how, after the referendum results, his business costs increased by 26% overnight, as all their stock must be imported from the USA. Finally, they had to let go of a member of staff who had been there five years. Sobering facts indeed. He was keen to stress that no one has any idea what Brexit means economically or socially, but that the social union of the EU is more important to mainland Europe than the economic one, whereas for Britain, the opposite is true. Britain believes the EU will not sacrifice the economic benefits for the social aspects, but Alby believes very much that they can and will.

Brexit panel, l-r: Alby Grainger, Janet Archer, Gráinne Clear, Derek Kenney and Timothy Wright.

Brexit panel, l-r: Alby Grainger, Janet Archer, Gráinne Clear, Derek Kenney and Timothy Wright.

Janet Archer, chief executive of Creative Scotland, outlined how Creative Scotland conducted a survey in August 2016. The main issues concerning publishers were: travel and free movement of people, international exchange and co-editions, the Digital Single Market, funding, and weakening of the pound. She advised people to remain calm, and informed. Only by arming ourselves with information will we be in a position to negotiate. She urged publishers to read and respond to the UK Industrial Strategy 2017, a green paper which states the government is open to a ‘sector deal’ with the creative industries, and states there will be an independent review into the creative industries which will investigate how they can contribute to future prosperity.

Derek Kenney, Sales Director Designate at Bell & Bain, discussed how Brexit has in fact provided opportunities. Some publishers have moved to the Glasgow-based printer as overseas printers become prohibitively expensive. The weakened pound has also created export opportunities. In fact, Bell & Bain are considering opening a US office. It’s not all good news: the uncertainty is bad for business while the divisiveness is bad for society. But ultimately, Brexit has happened. We need to accept it and move forward, dealing as best we can with the consequences. Derek believes that travel, education, and good writing are important now more than ever to create social cohesion and broaden horizons.

60% of EUP books are exported to the USA revealed Timothy Wright ,Chief Executive of Edinburgh Uni Press (EUP), meaning they have also benefitted from the weak pound. However, many of their staff are from outside the UK and they are concerned over their future status. In addition, 60% of university funding comes from the EU so it will remain to be seen what happens in that respect. On the plus side, Timothy said SMEs have advantages over larger corporations in navigating massive changes like this one, and agreed with Derek in accepting Brexit as fact and dealing with the outcomes.

Little Island, being an Irish publisher, brought a different perspective. They have a UK warehouse and export many books to the UK through this. Gráinne Clear, publishing manager, confirmed they took a massive hit in profits from the referendum. She also queried whether the books they produce will be of interest to an inward-looking nation going forward? Will there be taxes, tariffs, customs? Echoing Derek, uncertainty is their biggest concern right now. Bertrams, a UK company, now supply books to Irish libraries, meaning books produced in Ireland are shipped to the UK, then back to Ireland. Currency fluctuations impact heavily on this already absurd practice. A hard border with Northern Ireland is also of concern, particularly to Northern Irish publishers as they rely heavily on the easy access to the market south of the border. On a positive note, Gráinne highlighted how big publishers may now move to Dublin, to have access to the EU. Lonely Planet was cited as one example. Currently there is no real presence of big publishers in Ireland, apart from Penguin who have a ‘tiny’ office in Dublin. She also hopes that Brexit doesn’t ‘reign in’ the positive action on diversity in publishing.

Overall a much more positive spin on Brexit than I was anticipating. Perhaps that is due in no small part to the simple fact that Brexit is completely unprecedented and no one, not even the top politicians, know how exactly it will play out and what will be the consequences.

Delighted with the goodie bag haul at this one! And my purchase of The Jungle. Layout of magazines, books, notebooks and flyers that were in the free tote bag.

Delighted with the goodie bag haul at this one! And my purchase of The Jungle.


Chaired by Catriona Cox, this was a chance for budding publishers to discuss the good, bad and ugly of internships. Refreshingly, most experiences have been positive ones. Although of course there are always some not-so-great experiences that involve much coffee-making, some dog-sitting and even gift-wrapping. We were encouraged to speak up: if you are unsure how to do something, or what is happening, just ask. If you were promised certain experience at the start of the internship and it’s not happening, approach them and explain the issue and query if it will change? Do it in writing if you’re too nervous to do so in person. If you are asked to do something you are uncomfortable with, don’t be afraid to decline it. If it’s illegal please definitely decline it! Sometimes a not-so-great internship can lead to a paid position, leading to mixed feelings on it. But if a not-so-great internship doesn’t lead to paid work, it can feel like you’ve just wasted your time. It ended with the friendly reminder that the publishing industry is small, particularly so in Scotland. If you impress a publisher during your internship, even if they can’t afford to hire you, they will speak of you. They will tell fellow publishers how great you are. Publishers even contact the SYP committee to get an idea of potential employees. So be nice!

Marketing 5×5

Chair: Jamie Norman

Fraser Allen of Hot Rum Cow magazine discussed World Whisky Day, launched by a Scottish student in 2012 which has now become a world-wide phenomenon, how he bought it in 2015 and plans to market it going forward. Mark the date: 20th May 2017! #WorldWhiskyDay

Megan Duffy, Commissioning Editor for Ink Road, Black & White’s new YA imprint, discussed their bestselling author Estelle Maskame. Estelle had successfully built a following on Wattpad and Twitter before getting a deal with B&W. Megan says author branding is hugely important, particularly in YA where the book needs to be brought to the reader. The author brand should be connected to, but distinct from, the books.

Janet Smyth, Edinburgh International Book Fest (the largest and best book fest in the world!) spoke of Booked! which is essentially a year-round campaign. The aim is to reflect the voice of Scotland through different projects and expand conversations and creativity.

Marketing panel, l-r: Chair Jamie Norman, Fraser Allen, Megan Duffy, Janet Smyth, Laura Waddell, and Flora Willis.

Marketing panel, l-r: Chair Jamie Norman, Fraser Allen, Megan Duffy, Janet Smyth, Laura Waddell, and Flora Willis.

Laura Waddell of HarperCollins, spoke of a campaign she headed in her former role as Marketing Manager at Freight Books. The Legend of Barney Thomson was released as a movie in 2015, so Freight re-released the re-jacketed book to coincide. On a miniscule budget, she showed how she increased the reach of the book through a hashtag that coincided with the movie hashtag, through teaming up with the film promoter to give away books, and spreading the book on the London underground. She also discussed some things that didn’t work as well, such as a rather humorous infographic she created on different types of Glasgow haircuts.

Flora Willis, Profile Books gave a jocular presentation about the campaign for Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick. The book was published in the US in 1997 but was not published in the UK until 2015. Flora identified champions of the book and got them on board, such as Alexa Chung. A major Twitter campaign was initiated (#ILoveDick). ‘We reclaimed the dick pic!’ It was a fun and successful campaign, much like Flora’s presentation.

Unbound & The Good Immigrant

Joelle Owusu

Unbound are like a traditional publisher, but with a vastly different ‘commissioning’ process. Every Monday, the Unbound staff sift through the manuscripts they have been sent. Ones they believe have merit are put up on their website, where readers can pledge an amount to fund it if they like it. Once a book is 100% funded, it goes through the normal publishing process of editorial and production. It’s a great idea that allows books to be published that might get nowhere with a traditional publisher, but for which there is a market. Books are left on the site until they are funded (often well past 100%), or until the author chooses to take them down. Average time to get 100% funded is often around 3 to 6 months.

Joelle Owusu writer, and editorial and publicity at Unbound

Joelle Owusu writer, and editorial and publicity at Unbound

Last year’s big success was The Good Immigrant, an idea from Nikesh Shukla to create a collection of essays on what it means to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t want you. Twenty-one British Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voices contributed to a striking book that I must get my hands on.

Joelle discusses her own experience of being ‘other’ in Britain in her excellent essay in 404 Ink’s anthology Nasty Women, and spoke of those experiences in her presentation too. As a BAME writer, if you don’t write about race or religion, you’re often dismissed. Writing about race or religion is often viewed as your ‘selling point’, otherwise, ‘what’s the point?’ However, if you do write about race or religion, you can be viewed as ‘that person always banging on about race or religion’.

Do Book Awards Make a Difference?

Chair: Stevie Marsden

In short, the answer was a resounding ‘yes!’

Heather Collins, Scottish Book Trust: Awards make a difference in getting children to read. Authors get invited to schools more after winning awards. Ultimately, awards are someone’s opinion. Do readers look into who the judges of such awards are? The conclusion was most often, no.

Bob Davidson, Sandstone Press: Awards and praise helped Sandstone discover what they were doing wrong (covers, metadata) and improve. The Man Booker guarantees a sales boost, whereas other awards don’t necessarily. Awards lead to success, some money, credibility, and books on tables in Waterstones, which is where they need to be for discoverability, both by readers and agents. Money aside, validation to yourself and credibility to others are the major boons of awards. Publishers need talent, hard work and luck to get a nose in, as it’s not easy to beat the big publishers on any level.

Gráinne Clear, Little Island: Awards are important for children’s books so parents can distinguish them when purchasing for their children. Sales are not necessarily increased, but it offers reassurance to the publisher that they are doing something right. Small publishers can beat large publishers in awards, but there is a real issue with awards where publishers must pay for entry or publicity. These are more for the organisers’ benefit than the readers’ benefit. It eliminates small publishers that can’t afford to pay, and reduces future output of small publishers that do pay. This is ridiculous and needs to stop. Local and regional awards are very important. The more awards, the better! With declining arts coverage, perhaps awards are a new review system?

The closing speech was from Chitra Ramaswamy, who spoke of the challenges she faced in getting her book Expecting published. Every publisher agreed it was great and unusual but it ‘wasn’t for them’ or was ‘too niche’ (until Saraband). I agree Chitra, pregnancy as niche is indeed a laughable idea. As it stands, I have no desire to have children. Yet I would certainly read her book as an honest, deeply personal experience of something that impacts every living being. It is something that is just not spoken of, yet is perfectly natural and normal.

Whew! It was quite the day. The overall sense of optimism throughout the conference was the one thing that made the biggest impression on me and that gives me hope for the future of my chosen career. I can’t wait for next year’s conference. Huge thank you to everyone who volunteered their time to make SYP101 happen.




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