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Meet the Member: Handheld Press
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Posted by IPG

1 What's your company called?

Handheld Press.

2 What do you publish?

We publish stories, fiction and non-fiction. If a story grabs me [Kate Macdonald], I will work hard to find a way to publish it. But even if the writing is wonderful and the presentation is polished, if the story is no good I can’t get interested.

3 What's the story of the company?

It sneaked up on me, but now seems like the most obvious career choice in the world. Back in the 1990s I took my PhD in English literature, on a subject so unfashionable that I was advised that I’d never get a job in academia. So I took a publishing job with English Heritage instead. I was an academic editor there, and later as a freelance, for 15 years. Then the call of research drew me into lecturing, and I worked at several universities as a lecturer, always with some involvement in editing. I even specialised in researching British publishing history.
Then in March 2017 a colleague suggested I ought to set up my own publishing company because I’d published more books as a scholarly editor than as an author. I realised that I really did want to set up my own company to publish books that needed to be published. One year later, Handheld has published its fifth book, and we have seven more contracted titles that will see us well into 2019.

4 How's business?

Encouraging, and sales are increasing exponentially with the help of a hard-working publicity freelancer and a sales rep. But it is maddeningly slow to get into bookshops. Although I’m known in academic publishing as an author and a project manager, I had no track record in trade publishing, so I found it hard to get anyone in the distribution chain to take me seriously. But one good introduction led to another, and now I have a small but strong network. We’re about to launch some very interesting projects with leading names in the industry, and Neil Gaiman is endorsing one of our books. Things are looking good, and will get even better.

5 What do you enjoy about being independent?

Not having to put up with anyone holding me back or telling me off! Although Handheld’s other director, my husband, is extremely good at persuading me that I might possibly be wrong, and that things might be done differently. I rely on his good sense to curb my unwarranted enthusiasms.
I also love being able to work when I need to, and being able to respond spontaneously to opportunities without needing to check in with other people’s plans, or feel that I might be treading on toes or reinventing the wheel, which I have had a tendency to do when working in large teams. I’m much better suited to a one-woman operation.

6 What do you think is the biggest single issue in publishing right now?

Selling books to readers who have to think harder about where they spend their shrinking income. Or stopping the conglomerates from eating up independents and cutting jobs. Take your pick: both are current.

7 What one piece of advice would you give to a fellow independent just starting out?

If you’re an editor, get the best and most reliable designer you can afford. If you’re a designer, ditto an editor. If you’re neither, get both. And then get a bloody good publicity person.

8 What do you get out of belonging to the IPG?

People to whom I can send my stupid questions! I’m making my own network now, but when I began I knew nobody at all in trade publishing, I had no-one to ask, and I was so thankful to have the IPG recommended to me by Mark Pollard, formerly of Pickering & Chatto, who was one of my publishers when I was an academic author. I’ve done several of the Skills Hub courses, which have really helped me understand what I already know and what I am new to. I trained as an editor in the pre-digital age, so although many of the processes are still the same, many are new, and the IPG helps me to identify the gaps in my knowledge and to fill them as I need to.

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