LWC talks to Lucy Owen of To Hell With Publishing

1/What’s your job title? I’m not sure if I have an official job title. I’m commissioning fiction editor but the reality is far more sprawling than that.

2/ Why did To Hell With Publishing decide to publish first time writers? We decided to publish first time writers because we could. The market is getting more and more cautious when it comes to unknown authors. We are small and can therefore take the time to search for, edit and publish debut fiction without seeing it as a risk. Most debut novels are a slow build and need people who are willing to keep publicising and marketing it long after the publication date and they usually need a careful and attentive editing process.

3/ Are you looking for anything specifically for the list? The fact that we publish one novel only by each debut novelist is enough of a focus, within that our taste is eclectic and surprising. I always like it when you know the author is stretching themselves and also when the premise feels like a natural choice for the writing style, not a gimmick driven or academic concept.

 4/Who are your favourite authors? I’ve never been good at Nick Hornby-esque top-ten lists of things. Those that spring to mind are who I’m currently thinking about and enjoying. David Vann read this week at our independent bookshop, To Hell with Books and he blew us all away. Evie Wyld, Petina Gappah and Max Schaefer have all written recent debuts that are excellent in very different ways.

5/Do you consider writers without agents? We do consider authors without agents. In fact Grant Gillespie, who we’re publishing in May, is without an agent (but probably not for long). Grant’s novel, The Cuckoo Boy, is in production at the moment. It’s a disturbing, beautifully observed novel about a boy who is adopted by well-meaning parents but their alchemy is all wrong. The parents are concerned with what is normal, the boy shows no signs of ever following convention, and the result of this ill-fitting match is disastrous. There’s a dark, Abigail’s Party type humour that runs through it too which I love.

6/What are you working on at the moment? We disagree with those people in publishing who say that a publishing house should just focus on product and know their place. We want to form ourselves into a hub that can not only focus on product but also on making that product accessible in as many diverse ways as possible. Our aim is to self-sufficiently produce, market and sell our books and everything we do is focused on strengthening these three elements so we can take on a competitive market. We will never be totally self-sufficient and we don’t want to be. We want to have a strong, multi-functional core to our business but to shoot out links to the rest of the industry. Despite our name, we’ve never been about rejecting publishing traditions but we are young and small so we can take a fresh look at some of the well-trodden ways of publishing and choose not to go down some of the paths that seem to waste money and energy.

7/Excluding ebooks, how do you see the industry changing over the next five years? I think the industry will have to re-evaluate how they reach readers. Unless you happen to be an author who is fully backed by a big publishing house you just can’t rely on the conventional ways of marketing and publicising. There’s been a burst of new literary nights which seem to be doing well. We definitely feel that events are a strong way of marketing both the company and the authors we publish. We run a monthly night in London on Denmark Street. It’s free, there’s good music, the readings are from a wide range of authors (such as Ruth Padel and Inua Ellams) who we respect and support and the drinks are cheap. We feel strongly that the arts are at their most powerful when they combine forces. We often mix up readings, fine art and music and it never fails to deliver a less pressurised and more creative experience which people actually enjoy, rather than the stoic ‘this is good for me’ feeling that some readings can evoke. We’re all about guerrilla marketing; anything that catches a potential reader’s eye and helps spread word of mouth. It doesn’t take much in the publishing world to make a splash. The beauty of the book world is that it is a slow and rooted industry but that can also be its most frustrating quality. If, however, you’re willing to shake things up a bit, the results can be very effective.

8/To Hell With Publishing publish a mix of special editions and first time writers, how does that work? We use the standard model of traditional small presses in that we publish limited edition, specialised books in order to fund new literary fiction. It means we can work with authors in a way that doesn’t threaten their mainstream publisher and, most importantly, we enjoy it. Limited editions have a completely different design requirement and force you to take a fresh look at book production.

9/One top tip for a first time writer would be…… A top tip for a writer is not to try and hit a trend. Don’t let your premise or your style be swayed by what has been commercially successful for others. It will stink of compromise from the first page.

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