Today Hana Johnson – the director of our sister project, the We Are Cardiff Press – tells us why she decided to get into publishing. The Press’s debut book, The 42b, is available for pre-order now, and its official launch party is on 5 November.
You can read a preview chapter from the book online here.
On Friday, I did an interview for a WalesOnline story about the launch of the We Are Cardiff Press and our debut book.
The reporter asked me why I decided to set up the Press, and I began to describe the hundred reasons why I wanted to get into a dying industry.
Here are the five top:
1. I love books
Words have been my closest friend since I was about six years old. I used to get told off for reading in the bath and making the pages go all crinkly, and staying up until 3am reading Point Horror when I had school the next day.
I tasted razor-sharp suspense reading Rebecca for the first time, and fell in love with Edmund Dantès on a 26-hour south American bus journey.
I’ve been on adventures with Graham Greene, Paul Theroux and Alex Garland.
I’ve weed myself laughing at White Teeth and Alexei Sayle. I discovered injustice reading 1984 and The Killing Fields.
I recoiled at Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, and read Roald Dahl’s short stories over and over and over.
My bookshelves strain under the weight of unexpected buys, swaps, gifts and mysterious acquirements.
I can’t imagine a day when I won’t buy books. My house would be empty, for a start, but I’d have no presents to give people, no more afternoons wandering the damp depths of Troutmark and nothing to accompany me on long journeys.
Many of my friends feel the same, and even though book sales have been plummeting for years, I think there is still a place for beautiful, physical books in our lives.
And so, the idea for our first book was born…
Coincidentally, book sales are actually up this year, so there may be hope for the printed word yet!
2. I wanted to contribute to a new kind of publishing
I received an offer for a publishing deal for our debut book, The 42b, in 2013. It was yet to be written, the illustrations were undrawn, and we didn’t know whether it would be any good.
The publisher told me that they could ‘turn around’ a 30,000 word book in three days – that meant editing, formatting and designing a cover. The unit price of the printing was suspiciously low, and the contributors would receive a tiny royalty for each copy sold.
It was tempting: easy, fast, on to the next project. But the publisher handed me a copy of a book they had recently launched… and they had spelled the author’s name differently on the cover and the spine. ‘Mistakes happen, it’ll be corrected in the second edition’, they told me.
The cover looked like it had been made on Microsoft Publisher, using Clipart from 1998.
It repulsed me. I hate seeing books with bad design or terrible marketing – the Lousy Book Covers website is almost too much for me – the grammar, the designs, the audacity…
The eleven people who had agreed to write and draw for the book are passionate about writing and art. They spend their free time writing stories, giving feedback to other writers, re-writing their work, attending creative writing classes, and submitting their work to journals and publishers and websites. They know that there’s no big money in writing, but they do it because they love it.
I wanted a publisher that cares about the work as much as we do. Someone that aches over a perfect cover design, proof-reads it a million times, and promotes it with all the intensity with which it was created.
And so I thought, ‘I can do this better’.
The Duracell bunny that is Helia Phoenix set up We Are Cardiff five years ago, with the intention of telling a different story of Cardiff to the one written in the tabloids at the time. She saw all the creative and cultural vibrancy of this city and created an outlet to champion it.
I came home from that meeting with the publisher and told her that I wanted to set up a small press to publish Cardiff’s best writers, artists and photographers, and I wanted to call it the We Are Cardiff Press. She said (as she always does) – ‘YES!! GO FOR IT!!!!!’ (with a hundred more exclamation marks). She also wrote eight blog posts while we had that conversation (or thereabouts).
After throwing the idea around with some incredibly talented and wonderful friends, and after getting inspiration from small presses such as Tiny Hardcore Books, the We Are Cardiff Press was born…
I decided that it would be completely non-profit – all the contributors work for free.
Any profit from the books will go into the Press to fund the next project, and to run writing workshops to help new people contribute to our future books.
We decided that we would only print what people wanted to read. If people didn’t want to buy the books, we wouldn’t print them: that’s why we are running a pre-order campaign to judge the level of interest in the book, and then print the right number of books.
I made a conscious decision to not apply for funding from the Arts Council or Literature Wales. This project takes up a lot of my spare time, and if I had to fit in writing applications and funding evaluations, I wouldn’t have time to write, edit, or promote our books. It also means that we’re free to do whatever we want with our books – we are not confined by funding restrictions.
3. Writers deserve to have their work showcased and nurtured
Typically, writers aren’t good at self-promotion; they need encouragement and exposure and confidence. Large publishers reject work without telling people what’s wrong with it, so it’s impossible for work to improve without feedback.
Creative writing classes such as Briony Goffin’s are brilliant spaces, where writers feel safe to read their work out loud without the fear of ridicule. The work written in these classes deserves to have a wider audience, if the writers want it.
People write for different reasons: some genuinely aren’t interested in publishing, they do it for themselves. Some want to make a career, and some want to create a legacy that will live in libraries and bookshelves for years to come.
There’s an opportunity for small presses to take risks on alternative, challenging literature that the larger publishers don’t consider marketable. We know that some work will have a niche market, but does that mean that it should only exist online?
Online publishing is fantastic, but it can be short-lived.
When we click ‘publish’ on We Are Cardiff, we instantly reach over 35,000 people for the moment that the piece flashes in their inbox, on their Twitter feed or Facebook timeline. But it risks being missed or forgotten.
By publishing the very best work we discover in printed form, the slow-burn of old fashioned books spreads slower, but lasts longer.
We may only sell a few hundred copies of our book, but a copy of it will sit in the British Library, the National Library of Wales, and Scotland and the Bodleian in Oxford. And, after only two weeks and minimal marketing, we’ve already received orders for The 42b from unexpected places – France, the USA and Scotland!
The acclaimed literary critic and writer Peter Finch recently told us that he is ‘so impressed with the way [we] are going about publishing and selling The 42b’. He said that it is ‘the best approach’ that he’s seen ‘in an age’. And he speaks as a former publisher, bookseller and a present day writer!
The best advice I’ve read on starting a small press is:
- ‘I made the mistake of starting a small press and so can you’, by Spencer Madsen of Sorry House;
- ‘Lessons I’ve learnt from starting a micropress’, by Roxane Gay of Tiny Harcore; and
- ‘The best time to set up a radical press is during a Tory term’ by Kit Caless, of the excellent Influx Press.
4. The We Are Cardiff community is capable of amazing things
As soon as I put a Batsignal out that We Are Cardiff wanted writers and illustrators for a new book, I received about 20 pitches for stories in a month.
While setting up the Press, I’ve realised the incredible strength of the We Are Cardiff brand and team. People and organisations want to support and grow the creative community in Cardiff, and it’s exciting.
A few examples:
- the Cardiff chapter of Urbanistas gave me such valuable feedback, contacts and advice;
- Dan at Porter’s, where we are holding our launch party on 5 November (more info on Porter’s next week) has bent over backwards to help us arrange our event;
- Abbey Bookbinding is an amazing Cardiff-based, family-run printer; Darren has spent hours perfecting the print of our detailed cover design, and providing brilliant creative advice; and
- I also got excellent guidance on the Press’s legal structure and finances from Branwen at the Wales Co-op Centre.
We found performers and musicians to play at the launch within days, and people have volunteered to proofread the book and give advice on stuff like distribution and ISBN numbers. Just look how gorgeous the book is:
Due to Helia’s incredible marketing skills, James’s design and video ideas, Alice’s events management expertise and Lisa’s proofreading, the book and the Press has come together in people’s spare time.
I also have to give a shout out to our developer Matt Harris, who made our gorgeous online preview chapter. He’s the only person who doesn’t live in Cardiff, but we figured Bristol is like an honorary Cardiff 😉
5. Our ideas are endless
As soon as we launch our first book, we’ll begin taking submissions for the next one. I have at least a million ideas, but here are a few:
- a book of portrait photography and personal stories of refugees and asylum seekers in Cardiff – how they got here, what they brought with them, and how they’ve made Cardif their home;
- a book of recipes from chefs in the city. There has been an explosion in pop-up food in Cardiff, from Hangfire to Lia’s Kitchen, and it would be fantastic to bring together the best dishes that this city has to offer; and
- a collection of street photography, paired with poetry or a piece of writing.
We can’t wait to get started.
Let’s bring books back!