Running an indie press can seem like a very glamorous pursuit. Publishing the works of writers you love and bringing their words to the world. Ah, the romance!
But, there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes to set up and keep an indie press going.
Valley Press, based in Scarborough, is one such indie press that relies on a lot of hard work and passion to survive. I spoke to its founder, Jamie McGarry, about what it’s really like to run an indie press.
Hi Jamie. Thanks for talking to Book and Brew. So, tell us where it all began and why you set up an indie press.
I’ve made books and booklets all my life, since I could first fold a piece of paper – it must be in my DNA. At university, studying English Literature, I started using the words ‘Valley Press’ on them to add a hint of professionalism; at that point I lived on Valley Road, next to Valley Bridge, and frequented the Valley Bar, so the name seemed obvious.
The first books were written by me, and I also produced volumes for a couple of local writers – if you scroll right to the bottom of our books page, you can still purchase those two (from 2009 and 2010). When I graduated, I did the big sell on all this experience and tried to get a job or internship in the publishing world…six months later, I’d got nowhere, and I was even turned down at WHSmith, despite having years of bookshop experience and there being nine jobs open.
That happened just before Christmas 2010, and it pushed me into going self-employed as Valley Press at the start of 2011. As for ‘how’, I worked dawn to dusk every day on the project, learning and doing, and built it up one page at a time; now I’ve got more than a hundred titles in print.
If I do a talk, I summarise this by saying: ‘I couldn’t get my foot in the door, so I made my own door’ – which usually gets a murmur of approval.
What is your average day like?
I spend three days each week doing what I think of as the ‘real work’, the tasks that turn books from a Word file to a finished product (editing and design) pretty much 9-5 with a lunch break. I spend another solid day just clearing my email inbox – I can’t imagine how many days of my life I’ve spent on Gmail – and the remaining day is half meetings/phone calls, half doing what I call ‘shallow tasks’, fiddly little jobs that are best dealt with in a batch.
I’m hoping to find an assistant soon to help me with the admin, which will shake things up a bit. My wife used to handle the emails (and still dabbles), but we now have a five-month-old son, so she’s got her hands full…
What’s your favourite part of running an indie press?
It’s got to be making authors happy. This week I was able to tell someone in person that we’d be publishing their book, and see their face – and then at the weekend, their ecstatic post on Facebook with 100 people congratulating them in replies below. I also love witnessing the moment they first lay eyes on a finished copy, and (on slightly rarer occasions) telling them about an amazing piece of national publicity we’ve lined up.
I also take a lot of satisfaction from producing beautiful objects that will, hopefully, be around for generations, and seeing the backlist grow with each passing year. Oh, and I get to meet lots of interesting and lovely people. It’s a great job!
What are your top tips for authors looking to submit to an indie press?
There are plenty of options out there, so to succeed you need to find the press that’s exactly right for you. If you can figure out each editor’s taste in literature (even vaguely), you’ll avoid a lot of time sending stuff to the wrong people.
Also, as most indie presses are run by very small teams, you can get a foothold by establishing goodwill for yourself with the people involved. Buying books, reviewing them, coming to events, even just the occasional retweet – it all gets noticed, and appreciated, and when submissions time comes around it will be remembered (even if only subconsciously).
What advice would you give to people interested in setting up an indie press?
If you want to survive in the long-term, brush up on your business skills. (See next answer for one useful tip.) It’s about art, of course; but to keep the art going, you need a little bit of science.
What do you wish you’d known at the start?
This is a bit boring, but learning to accurately track and cost my time made a huge difference. It took years for me to realise that spending an hour doing something is like spending £30 on it, but once I understood that (really quite straightforward) concept, I was a lot more careful with my working hours and things started to fall into place.
What keeps you motivated?
My wife, my little son, and fear of failure – of letting them down. This is no hobby; I’m the breadwinner!
What are the key challenges facing indie presses in 2017?
Getting our books noticed when there’s so much competition for readers’ attention; not just from other books, but from the sheer cacophony of modern life. That, and the deep discount, sale-or-return orders that have become the norm in the book trade – I know that arrangement keeps a lot of my colleagues on edge. Indie publishing is not for the faint-hearted.
Have you ever been tempted to jump ship to a big publisher?
A couple of years ago, I applied for some entry-level publishing jobs with an up-to-date CV emphasising my achievements at Valley Press (which I think aren’t too shabby). I didn’t want to ‘jump ship’ (not consciously, anyway), but I did want to see if that was an option. Can you guess what happened? That’s right – no phone calls, no interviews, nothing. It’s tough out there.
What’s next for Valley Press?
I have an exciting project in the pipeline involving some Chinese authors, details to be announced in a week or two. It will add a whole new dimension to Valley Press; we’ll never be quite the same (in a good way!)
I’m also trying to expand the team. I appointed a Director of Publicity recently, who is doing a fantastic job, and am hoping to add another couple of people before the end of the year. Any kind of expansion feels like a risk, but I also feel a responsibility to keep growing, to publish more books and sell more copies of them – and I’ve gone as far as I can by myself. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
Wow! Jamie’s story is so inspirational and proof that following your passions can lead to great things. It involves a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication but the rewards are evident in the pride and love that shines through when Jamie talks about his work.
I can wait to see the exciting new developments at Valley Press and see this wonderful indie press grow from strength to strength.
Follow the latest news and releases on the Valley Press website.