When we (Al Murray and myself) set up Elsewhen Press in 2011, we were greeted with a degree of incredulity by friends and colleagues. Although we had some experience of traditional media, our background was predominantly in new media. We had dabbled a bit in general fiction but had found it too hard to compete with the dominant handful of big publishers. Why are you trying again, and in a smaller market? asked our friends. It was a good question, but we had some very good answers in 2011 and they are just as good today.
First some background, to help you decide if we were mad, misguided or inspired. We have both been science fiction fans since childhood, growing up with the likes of Clarke, Herbert, Heinlein, Orwell, Verne and Wells. We both read Tolkien as children, listened to Hitchhikers as students and graduated into the world of IT (although it wasn’t called that in those days). Cyberpunk appeared as we launched our careers, and it was counterbalanced by Discworld. We worked hard during the day and escaped into distant times or places in the evenings.
When we first tried in 2005, the only realistic approach was to have books printed by offset litho, which meant a print run of at least 1000 copies and enough storage space to keep them dry and safe until you could sell them. We looked at the early Print on Demand (POD) services but what they produced weren’t a patch on the quality of our printer.
Getting the books to the attention of readers was the real challenge, as bookshops weren’t that keen on dealing with a small publisher of books by unknown writers. Distribution was do-it-yourself unless you could guarantee high volumes of sales (if only)! Marketing, the same. We set up our own online store but the problem then became one of attracting readers to the website. Advertising was an expensive failure. Sales were very slow, we lost heart (and money). If only we could produce eBooks, we thought. But there was still no widely agreed standard for eBooks, so we remained print-only.
By 2010, eBooks were becoming more standardised – albeit two ‘standards’, mobi for Kindle and ePub for everything else. We bit the bullet and created eBook editions of our books, one of which in particular started selling very well. It was a horror story written by Alison. We were encouraged and as a result reached two conclusions: eBooks are a good way to sell books; genre readers are more open-minded and accepting of new authors, new publishers and new technology.
We decided to launch an imprint specialising in Speculative Fiction (with the added advantage that we would be publishing books that we would want to read anyway). Our initial plan was to adopt a digital-first approach – publish a new title as an eBook, see how it sells and subsequently, if it is successful enough to warrant the investment, bring out a print edition.
We asked our printers, Antony Rowe, what would be the smallest economical print run and they suggested we try their new digital printing plant – when they said that it used the same technology as POD, our hearts sank as we remembered the disappointing samples we had seen from POD vendors at the 2006 London Book Fair. But our printers offered to send us a copy of the latest title they had digitally printed, to see the quality. When it arrived two days later, we phoned back to complain that they were supposed to be sending a digital print, not litho – It is, they said. That was a game changer. The technology means that it is feasible to have small print runs, which require much reduced capital outlay and limited storage space. Suddenly, we could be digital-first, but with a print edition following for every book, without waiting to see how well the digital edition sold. That might not seem like a particularly big deal; but I can assure you it is a very big deal for an author (who wants to hold their beloved debut novel in their hands and grin), for reviewers (many of whom will still only review a book if it is in print) and for awards and prizes (most of which only accept submissions or nominations of a print edition). So, since 2011 we have been publishing new Speculative Fiction from (mostly) unknown authors, digital-first with a print edition a couple of months later.
When we first opened for submissions we were, frankly, expecting to have to work hard to find the wheat amongst the chaff. In fact we’ve had almost the opposite problem, there has been so much good material that we have to choose carefully where to invest our limited resources. We pay our authors an advance on royalties – it turns out that we’re quite unusual in that regard amongst small indie publishers, but we want to demonstrate our committment to the author and reassure them that we believe in their book (if choosing to publish it isn’t enough!)
We had discovered, early on, that readers have a strange relationship with publishers. Most readers, certainly in the mainstream, are blithely unaware of the publisher of their favourite authors. The author themself is the ‘brand’. Even if the reader can remember the imprint they have no idea who actually publishes it. Many actively dislike or despise publishers, regarding them not as facilitators and disseminators of good literature but as gatekeepers or, worse, censors dictating what readers should be allowed to consume.So it was with a little trepidation, having become publishers of our favourite genre of books, that we decided it was about time we met our (fellow) readers. Taking our lives in our hands (so we thought) we went along to Novacon, our first ever Science Fiction convention, prepared to feel out of place and possibly even scorned. But on the contrary we were made to feel very welcome, and now have many new friends whom we look forward to meeting every few months at various conventions. Indeed, as well as meeting readers we have made friends with a number of other small independent publishers – always willing to share advice and experiences over a drink in the convention bar!
Readers of Speculative Fiction are probably the most open-minded, inclusive and welcoming group of people. They are always interested in a great new story, whether or not they’ve heard of the author or the publisher. Of course, we’re now a bit better known among regular convention-goers, but even so there are plenty of new readers who come across us for the first time and it is great fun to be able to introduce them to a whole new panoply of storytellers. We have a healthy catalogue of over 40 titles and as a result have established what we, and they, think of as a family of writers – an admittedly large family of some 25 authors and 5 artists (of various backgrounds, nationalities and ages) and that probably makes us Mum and Dad, which wouldn’t be so worrying if a couple of our authors weren’t older than us! In fact one of the most unexpected, and ultimately rewarding, benefits of this whole adventure has been meeting these wonderfully creative people. It is a joy to get together with our fantastic authors at launches, conventions and other gatherings, and we feel privileged to be the first to read each new storyline that is submitted to us.
Life for the poor unfortunate independent publisher is a little better these days. With the technological improvements in digital printing and ebooks that I’ve already outlined it’s possible to produce books with far less capital than in years gone by, which provides the opportunity for a larger catalogue of titles. Selling the books online became easier with the advent of channels such as Amazon Marketplace. But distribution and marketing is just as difficult and expensive. Sadly, many of the technological and commercial advances that have made life easier for independent publishers have made it more difficult for independent bookshops.
Is everything rosy for independent publishers of Speculative Fiction? Not really. There’s still a widespread denigration of genre fiction as not really being proper literature. Even with Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro wading into the debate, there’s still what Ishiguro describes as “sheer prejudice against ogres and pixies”! Of course, the very label ‘Speculative Fiction’ is pretty wide-ranging: in our case it gives us editorial freedom, after all isn’t all fiction speculative?
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed in this blog, we recommend you curl up with a good book and escape into an imaginary world. Where would you get such a book? Try the catalogue of an independent publisher 😉