Pigeon Park Press. Small but Perfectly Formed.
Pigeon Park Press is an example of the possibilities now offered by new technology to enterprising individuals who want to run their own publishing company. Certainly it is still not for the faint hearted or those shy of work. There is no doubt that a small publisher must have a very professional approach to the business, because the finished product must look as good as books turned out by large publishing houses; if they are to compete in an unforgiving arena. Even so, many are taking the plunge and making things happen. Pigeon Park Press has, so far, made modest but encouraging progress for a relatively young business, by publishing books in several popular genres.
This is the first of a two-part interview; the second being about collaborative writing and Pigeon Park Press’s exciting new 10 to 1 project.
Why did you start Pigeon Park Press?
I’ve been writing full-length fiction for about 15 years, but apart from briefly having an agent in the 90s, I’ve never had any success publishing full-length fiction. Yet it’s completely different with the short story market. Across the years, I’ve sold short stories all over the place, which I find strange because if you ask the average person whether they read short stories, you’ll generally find they don’t. So the short story market is alive and well, yet the impression I get as an outsider to the large established publishing companies, is that they are currently very wary about signing up new novelists. So what I find interesting is the number of authors, including some well-established authors, who are going down the self-published or small press routes.
It was my co-writer of Clovenhoof and co-founder of pigeon Park press Heidi Goody, who said ‘Let’s self publish’. As I was still snobbish about this way of publishing at that point, I said ‘Oh no. If the book’s good enough, traditional publishers will take it’. Even so, Heide convinced me to go down the route of self publishing and set ourselves up as a small press.
So where do you think your press fits into the publishing arena?
As a publishing enterprise, Pigeon Park Press, based in Birmingham, is currently a local publisher. Our authors are currently Birmingham writers, but this is only the tip of the iceberg, because there are a lot of writers across the Midlands area. Yet all the mainstream publishing largely seems to be in London. So I get very excited if there’s anything to do with publishing going outside London. For example it’s great to belong to writers’ groups in Birmingham, or go to literary events in both the West Midlands and East Midlands. There are also events such as AltFiction, organised by Writing East Midlands, which is held in the Midlands and showcases writers in science fiction, fantasy and horror. So yes Heide and I did set Pigeon Park Press up to promote ourselves initially, but we also, wanted to promote other local writers as well.
So what is the Pigeon Park Press doing to promote local writing?
One of the things we’re doing at the moment is running regular spoken word events, in the Birmingham area. There’s usually a big turnout for that. I think the reason for this is that Birmingham writers don’t very often stand up and shout ‘Look at us, look at us. We’re doing this’. So if you set something up and say ‘come join us’, it’s surprising how many people turn up.
We’ve run two spoken word events so far in the Birmingham area. We did a Halloween event to launch Clovenhoof , a book I co-authored with Heide. She read an extract of the novel, a comedy in which Satan loses his job as Prince of Hell and is exiled to the horrors of English suburbia. We also had other authors come along to do readings. Some of them were self published authors such as Katherine D’Souza (Park Life), James Brogen (The Narrows, a Birmingham based fantasy), Mark Faulkner (Flux, a fantasy horror) all of whom are doing some excellent work. Lots of writers and poets came along to share, which was a positive thing, as not all of them do many spoken word events.
For me, the success of spoken word events is the networking opportunities. You meet fresh people and you are interested in what they are doing and they’re interested in what you’re doing. You have shared audiences and it’s that kind of thing that I believe leads anyone involved in publishing on to new places, it’s important to grab those opportunities where you can. The fact that we packed out venues with people who came along purely to listen to the stories, and they went away having enjoyed them and wanting to know about the next one, shows that we’re doing something right. It also means there’s an audience out that’s absolutely craving this sort of thing and wants more.
We’re looking forward to doing another spoken word event in January ‘Stories in Winter’ at 6/8 Kafé in Birmingham where, once again, I hope we’ll pack out the venue and get some fresh working authors coming to see us and share their stuff.
We’re also running and facilitating some writing workshops in the local area. Heide and I have delivered some collaborative writing workshops in Birmingham which we’re also bringing to Nottingham in February. We’ve also got a sitcom writing workshop, hosted by an industry professional, early on this Spring. I’m very much looking forward to that one.
What sort of books does your press publish?
The only criteria Heide and I set out with was that we want to publish books that were fun to read. There are many small press publishers who are literary publishers, which is great. But commercial fiction small presses publishing genres such as fantasy, horror and comedy are in short supply. One of our authors, Tom Aston writes international techno-thrillers. The kind of stuff that could be described as ‘airport thrillers’. So actually if you can’t break into what is already a crowded market in the traditional publishing sector, there are that many small press publishers who take on that kind of writing. This approach has worked very well for him and he’s had quite a bit of success with his novel The Machine.
So far, because we are a small press, the whole process has always been a collaboration and I think many people like us work the same way. At the moment we haven’t opened the floodgates to say ‘Send us everything you’ve got’ purely because we’ve tended to work with authors with whom we’ve already got some existing relationship, or know well. It’s not that we have a completely closed door, it’s just that it makes it so much easier working closely with someone you already know.
Why do you think authors might want to approach you?
What people get through coming to us is that relationship, that sense of community, that comes from working with others to promote your writing. Take Tom Aston for example who has kept all the profits we’ve actually made through the sales of his books. Tom, in return, promotes other books we’re producing. That’s how we function, more as a co-operative than a traditional publishing business. We do hope that we eventually will do very well, but we don’t exist to make lots of money because that’s not going to happen. We’re here to promote writing and local writing as part of a community of others doing the same. Our strength is that we actively work within the writing community supporting each other and keeping each other going.
I think there’s an argument to say there is nothing that we don’t necessarily have anything that other small presses don’t have. There are a lot of other great small press publishers out there, often functioning in niche markets; be it fantasy, science fiction or horror.
So what’s the advantage of coming to someone like you, rather than self-publishing?
Self-publishing can be exactly the right thing for some people, however the self-publishing market is problematical when you consider that 90% of the electronic self publishing market is dross. On the other hand there are people who are perfectly good writers, but unable to package their book. I have seen some wonderfully written books that have been presented so badly it’s impossible to read them. Book design is a very important issue. Proofreading is vital and the lack of competent proofreading, makes for a poor final product.
The service we provide is the skill sets in those important areas. We can produce a good-looking book and, in the same way as a traditional publisher, we have a sound quality control system.
Even if you want to self publish, you must enter the business like a professional. There are some brilliant self published authors out there who do just this and they are certainly worth studying, to see how they operate. They’re not only great authors but they also know how to package a book. That is very important, because the electronic book market is essentially saturated. There are hundreds of thousands of titles out there, selling for very little. How are you going to get your title noticed? If you went back in time five years and self- published, you could almost guarantee yourself sales, because you were in a very small market. These days it’s incredibly tricky to be noticed. Our press has only been running a few months and our titles are already starting to get noticed. This is because we’re working hard at creating the appropriate networking links.
So even as a relatively new press you’re able to generate good networks for your writers?
Absolutely. However, I believe that a big factor in our current success is because we are an approachable and friendly publisher. It’s a matter of somebody going out there and sticking a flag in the ground to say ‘Here we are. Come to us’. Other local publishers are doing the same thing and we’ve been fortunate to meet some of those people and they’ve been generous with advice and support.
Traditional publishers are adapting the way that they do business, and we’re finding our own way. These are interesting times, and very democratic. There’s a lot less of a chasm between large and small presses than there has ever been – everyone’s trying to sell books in a world that has changed enormously in the last two years.
One of the things I find most embarrassing is actually trying to explain to people how small we are. We are a miniscule publisher within a vast industry. But nonetheless I believe we can provide a focal point and networking opportunities for writers. People are starting to come to us. We were invited to be speakers at the Loughborough University literary salon and a lot of people came up and asked us to tell them about the industry. We had to spend a whole evening saying, ‘Sorry but we’re only a tiny publisher.’
So what you’re saying is, that it’s an exciting time to be a small publisher?
It’s fantastic. The event at the Loughborough literary salon was about ‘Survival in the Digital Age’. Our opinion along with everybody else’s was not so much surviving the digital age as looking for the opportunities. It’s a fantastic time to be in writing. If we tried to start off as a small press eight to ten years ago, we would have published some small print books. Maybe we would have been able to sell them in some local bookshops or book fairs and that would have been it. It would have been unlikely that anyone would have heard about books, or that we would have been reviewed, either on sellers’ websites or magazines across the world. So at the moment it’s a fantastic time to be in writing. The market has totally opened up. Anyone can succeed, but it’s working out how to succeed. I think of myself more as a publisher than a writer now. Succeeding now in an open market is not just about writing, you have to understand marketing, promotion, networking and all those things that go with it. As a writer, in terms of getting an audience, your chances of getting an audience of never been greater. Your chances of finding a paying audience may be no better than they were before. But the chances of finding someone who wants to read your work and is interested in it has never been better.
Take me through the process of what happens when you accept a writer’s work.
As we are a small, newly established press, we’re concentrating on working with writers we have a good relationship with. These are people who we know through writing groups or who we have met at literary events. So we’re currently closed for submissions.
When we’re looking to take a new writer onboard, we’d explore what aspects of self publishing suit them. We make sure we talk through the whole process with them, because, as I’ve already described, there’s an awful lot to do in terms of self-promotion if you going to do it properly. This is really very dull, but it’s what is important if the writer is going to get sales.
Once someone has decided that they want to remain an author we’d work out how to split the duties of packaging, promotion and sales. If someone has talents in one or more of those areas then we’d definitely want to make good use of their skills.
At the moment our main criteria is quality of writing. Is it a good book? Is it a book that will sell is slightly less of a factor. I think for us, if a reader buys a Pigeon Park Press book, they want to be sure their buying a quality product. So we have to ensure across the board there is quality control and consistency.
The working process is then the one of editing. We’ve use a number of different models of editing. We started by using the beta reader process, rather than a professional proofreader. A beta reader is volunteer who is prepared to read a manuscript and comment on it. We used about twenty beta readers, then collated thoughts on the book. Because it’s such a lengthy process getting to a general consensus so we know what needs to be changed, as the press develops one of us will have to become a full-time editor, or we will have to start engaging the services of a professional editor. The editorial process is a crucial part of book production and can take as long as the writing process. Once the novel is through the editorial process, the proofreading starts.
We do the proofreading both electronically and using hardcopy manuscript and engage about five or six professional proofreaders per book. These are people, who have had a wide range of experience in the publishing field, both academic and fiction, on an individual basis. As soon as the novel is finished we format the manuscript into Kindle and other electronic versions, so they can be shared. I have great respect for the proofreading profession, because both Heide and I have gone through a book, thought we’d found everything, but the proofreaders still pick up loads of errors. As Pigeon Park Press grows, proofreading, like the editing, will be one of those things we will have to farm out more and more because otherwise the few people involve in the process of production at the moment would be overwhelmed.
After this we package the book. This is the point where we argue the most, because there are complicated issues, like having to engage cover artists, because the appearance of the book can make a big difference to how well it sells. It’s very tricky and sometimes we do go back when the book’s up for a reprint and change the cover. Our big advantage as a press is that we both know how to put a book together physically, both in terms of books that go out in print and electronically. We like to think that you can’t tell the difference between our books and large publishing houses. Many self-published books look home-made from the moment you pick them up and I feel that this does something to a reader’s desire to buy it.
We have gone down the route of print on demand for some books. It does work, but for some of our books, especially Clovenhoof and the Tom Aston book The Machine we actually engaged a professional printer, to do print runs. This is where money has to be invested. Printing books is a lot cheaper than it used to be. Even so the investment can be substantial, to the tune of hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. But if you going to sell books through traditional outlets (and we do have bookshops in Birmingham that sell our books), then you’ve got to present the book in a professional package.
One of the things we were discussing at the Loughborough Literary Salon was that the things you traditionally do to launch a book don’t necessarily have a serious impact on sales in the same way they used to. Launch events and launch parties are great fun, but ultimately have very little influence over sales. Live reading events are also great fun, but again do not have much impact on sales. Social media on the other hand, as a way of getting the word of mouth around electronically, has a huge impact on sales. Although it’s not the usual method of getting promotion, I would argue that the biggest promotional tool that you will ever have is when someone like a publisher or a successful author picks up your book and says they like it and lets everyone know they like it. That’s when these things take off.
The big thing we offer to our authors, as a small press, is the considerable network we have built up; and it’s growing all the time. This word-of-mouth social media network and greatly helped by regional bodies such as Writing West Midlands and Writing East Midlands, who helped promote us. Their events are very useful.
So our advice to authors who are considering being published by the press is that if they can do all of this themselves, then that’s what they should do. However I think a lot of people just like to stay as authors, and concentrate on the writing. Otherwise you also have to be a salesman and public performer. The idea of writing books and living as a hermit somewhere and just sending them off doesn’t really happen anymore.
What is the quality of a book that is being produced by print on demand?
I’m happy with the quality of both print on demand and engaging a traditional printer. We published Clovenhoof through traditional printer. The Million Dollar Dress was produced by print on demand and looks good. But there are still things about print on demand that I’m not happy about. Another issue with some of the print on demand companies is ISBNs (International Standard Book Number, and is a unique commercial book identification code). ISBNs have to be purchased. Print on demand companies, certainly the ones we’ve previously gone through, do not give an ISBN without then demanding what is essentially a publisher’s cut of the book profits. This substantially increases the sale price of the book. When we’ve used traditional book printers we applied our own ISBNs. We also bought ISBNs for our e-books.
An ISBN is vital because it’s how, within the distribution industry, your book is identified. There are also now apps for phones, for example for Goodreads and Barnes and Noble that enable a potential reader to scan the barcode and see all sorts of information about the book. We feel it’s also one of those hallmarks of a proper book.
So purchasing ISBNs and physical printing are the two things that really add to the cost of producing a book and we can’t really reduce those costs.
With the titles that we hope will sell more, we process the book through this more traditional printing model. Although I’m talking about small press runs of a few hundred rather than thousands. That is when the gamble comes in.
Fortunately with Clovenhoof, our sales have been very good. If Clovenhoof had been our only book, it would have put us very much in the black right now as a publisher. As it is we’re only four months in from starting and we’ve started to see genuine profits already. This type of profit only happens when we have a certain type of book that sells well electronically and in paper formats. It certainly makes us very happy. If you imagine you were picked up by a traditional print publisher they would do a run of several thousand copies and if you sold those you would think you were doing well. With a book like Clovenhoof we are at the point where we have sold nearly all the first run. So we feel that we’ve done as well as if we had gone through a traditional publisher. Interestingly its success was largely due to word-of-mouth and that’s the kind of marketing that all writers and publishers love to have.
Iain and Heide will be appearing at the Nottingham Festival of Words, running a workshop on collaborative writing, Weaving Words With Others. Saturday 16 Feb 2:45pm to 4.45pm. Newton Building. Nottingham Trent University
You can follow the Nottingham Festival of Words on Twitter @Nottwords or #Nottwords.