1 What is your job title and company? And roughly how many people work for your company?
It can depend on what day of the week, or even what time of day (or night), but officially my job title is simply director. Sometimes we adopt job titles so that our customers and clients know what we’re meant to be doing—in my case I suppose it’s a mix of marketing, publicity, design, production, IT and bibliographic services. (Admitting to the last is like saying ‘I collect stamps’ on a first date.) Our business is called Salt Publishing Limited, though we go simply by the name of Salt. There are four directors, two of whom are employees, and an extended family of freelance Salteenies. We have no offices and concentrate our paltry funds on our publishing rather than our property portfolio. No one remembers you for your rent and rates expenses.
2 What are your qualifications and working background, and when and how did you take on your current job?
I have a BA in Graphics: Printmaking from Leeds University. I’ve worked in clerical jobs—in plant safety (dire), data management in oncology (grim), public transport design (surreal), and studio management in the British Council (Beckettian)—then moved into publishing at Cambridge University Press, where I became press production director (instructive). After eight years I jumped ship to set up Salt. Like many semi-corporate refugees I worked in consultancy too, helping out at Polity and Cavendish as well as a handful of other independent presses. I served on a few boards including the IPG. Gradually I stepped into Salt full-time and have never looked back. Well, perhaps once or twice.
3 What does your average working day entail?
As with any small independent this varies hugely, which is part of the pleasure and challenge, but it might involve the data management of our in-house bibliographic system (‘I also collect till receipts’), designing covers, creating point of sale materials, wasting all our money (aka advertising), a lot of social media work, typesetting new books, handling sales queries from our team, buying print, hand-selling books in our own shop, working with other retailers on promotional ideas, working with our publicist and editorial teams, creating catalogues, sending out advance reading copies—a wide range of things that can all be thrown into the air by a single phone call from a customer or indeed an author. I used to keep a diary of what I was doing, but it became quite disturbing.
4 What do you enjoy most about your job?
Delighting readers. I can hear some of those very readers putting their fingers down their throats as I write that—but seriously, it’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s all about the readers. It’s why I get up in the morning. But beyond that imperative, there are other deep satisfactions. I like seeing the final product. Seeing a book is an enormous thrill: smelling it, flicking through the pages, handling the cover, easing open the spine, reading the text—and finding the first typo on the title page.
5 What achievements are you most proud of?
Surviving, which is one of those day-to-day, hour-by-hour sort of challenges. Then there are key moments, like winning an American Book Award in 2006 and the IPA Innovation of the Year Award in 2008. We won the Glen Dimplex Poetry Award in the same year with Will Stone’s poetry debut, Glaciation, and Philip Gross and George Szirtes won the CLPE Poetry Award in 2011 and 2013 respectively with Off Road to Everywhere and In the Land of the Giants. And, of course, the incredible shortlisting for the 2012 Man Booker Prize with Alison Moore’s debut, The Lighthouse: a truly extraordinary moment in the history of the press. I have some personal favourites among the books, too, but which conscientious parent would allow such things to slip?
6 What are your biggest challenges?
Finding enough oxygen to keep the books alive. In a world of superabundance you have to fight hard to find readers and, having found them, to entertain them and keep them on your side. But that conversation between the press and its audiences is critically important. If you are not talking to your readerships, then someone else will be very shortly. Of course, the reason for this is to sell books, and when that trails off or, worse, fails, you can be in deep trouble very quickly. Independent publishing is not always heavily capitalized, and at Salt it isn’t unknown for us to be operating on around ten days’ cash. It can be very scary, lonely and brutal.
7 What have you experienced in your job and publishing that you didn’t expect?
Being regularly paid. Jesting aside, I think (sycophancy alert) the affection and loyalty of our readers. This is something that builds up over time. You never take it for granted. It’s one of those things that you can’t always see, as you have your head down, trying to nose forward into new territory all the time—but sometimes you take a brief look around and realise you have these genuine supporters all over the world, believing in what you do. It’s crazy and glorious and humbling—and then you take a breath, bend back down and begin digging again.
8 What is the best thing about working for an independent publisher?
I have always enjoyed trying to see the whole machine: how every piece fits together, what happens next, who does what and why and what the interdependencies are. In a small independent you can really immerse yourself in every part: contracts, ONIX, rights, distribution, sales, marketing—the whole thing. In my previous life at Cambridge I could only really extend myself, understandably, within my own corporate role, though admittedly I did strain to expand this. But step beyond your role in any corporate structure and you will upset colleagues very quickly. You can easily spend an entire career working as a tiny cog in a big company that remains both elusive and confusing. It can be hard to work for the entire enterprise and its goals if you can’t see where you are, or understand how you fit in. I think this is the key difference and perhaps one of the big stimuli for publishers to jump ship and set up their own press. I’m amazed more don’t do it.
9 How do you switch off from your work?
I drink vast quantities of cheap plonk and weep. But seriously, I don’t really switch off. I see this as a significant personal failing, but I don’t think anyone with their own business can really relax. But you do need distractions and a supportive network of family and friends—and an affordable off-licence.
10 What advice would you give anyone wanting to start or progress a career in publishing?
Know why you want to do it. Take an interest in the whole operation. Learn where everyone fits. Understand your contribution and your internal customers. Keep sight of the final customers—readers—and work for them, too. Be a good colleague. Know when it’s time to move on. If the business you are in isn’t offering a real way forward, be prepared to leave and set up your own. Understand there is no longer any long game in publishing: it’s all in the now. Publish what you love, not what you think will sell; there will be fewer regrets. Balance your risks and ensure you can afford your own mistakes; you will certainly make them. Don’t over-diversify your business. Be prepared to change your entire list if the sales dry up. You are only ever three decisions away from disaster, so think hard. Don’t waste time trying to change the publishing world because you won't. Belong. Take part. Join in. Collaborate. Find the right partners, suppliers and, indeed, customers (especially those who pay). Meticulously plan the route to the off-licence.