Kirsty Fox and Bees Make Honey. More than a Novel Idea.
I’ve been self-employed for over twenty years, and responsible for keeping my own business running in all sorts of economic climates. So when someone enterprising announces the launch of a new and unusual venture in a competitive environment, I get very interested.
Looking through Kirsty Fox’s Twitter feed @beesmakehoneycc I saw an open call go out for the ‘Analogue meets Digital’ pop-up shop and knew I just had to find out more about Kirsty, Bees Make Honey, and the pop-up shop.
What made you start ‘Bees Make Honey’ and how did you come up with the creative start-up idea?
It’s been a while in the making. I studied Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University, but when I’d finished the course I didn’t want to carry on at that point with the creative industries. I felt quite disillusioned with the art world. There were a certain clique of people who would likely make it in the industry and everyone else, regardless of talent, would end up doing an irrelevant job. I realise now that’s the wrong attitude – if you abandon the creative industries to an elite minority, you can’t then complain that its rubbish. I’ve also realised a lot of people feel like this, but they still get on and do things the hard way with passion and elbow grease. I’d started my first novel Dogtooth Chronicals during my art degree anyway, so I wanted to continue with my writing. Until last year, I was working in the service industry to make a living. I’ve enjoyed the social aspect of bar work and it has led me to meet a lot of great people. I’m lucky enough to know some very talented people who I’ve been inspired by, but aren’t making very much money from their creativity. I felt there should be more opportunities available for those sorts of people, even if only on a part-time basis. The Internet is such an open resource and has a wealth of information, but also so much rubbish. So I started the ‘Bees Make Honey’ blog, because I thought I could provide some filter on all of that and help people in the right direction. I’ve also found that a lot of people who’ve started up their own creative businesses are very generous and like to give back in terms of advice and stuff. So, that’s where my Creative Start-ups Series came from.
So you started the whole enterprise with a blog?
Yes, it was something to do in my spare time, because I felt something was missing. I also like having lots of bits and pieces on because it keeps life more interesting. It has taken a long time to put together what I wanted and it’s still growing.
What did you do once you had the blog established?
I finished my novel and decided to self publish it. I did it this way because I knew it wouldn’t be an easy book to get published. It’s an ambitious piece of work that doesn’t easily fit anywhere. I also didn’t like the look of how long it would take to get published through the traditional industry, the subject matter of Dogtooth Chronicals is very timely. So it seemed a logical step to create my own press under the name Bees Makes Honey, because I’d already set up a website and had a bit of an audience. The blog had been an experiment in trying to harness some of the power of our digital culture. I realised that publishing was something that I wanted to do because I also wanted to help other writers who had unusual work that needed a home. I think small niche ‘labels’ may well be the future of publishing – I looked at the independent music industry for a lot of inspiration. Most very small labels are a work of passion with their owners not necessarily making a living from it. So the whole sector from artists to promoters has a great DIY attitude, with everyone pitching in.
How did you get the knowhow to begin your own publishing enterprise?
I did an enormous amount of research, but what really helped to get me focused was a business programme I did at the Hive at Nottingham Trent University. I found through doing my financial planning that with publishing, because there are so many upfront costs, it’s quite a high-risk industry, and so it’s very difficult to make a living. I realised I could end up in a position where I would be working an enormous amount of hours on the publishing and still have to hold down a part-time job to make enough money just to live and keep the business from going into debt.
What did you do then?
I started developing the other ideas from the website, trying to work out how I could branch out to other creative areas, because I’ve got mixed interests anyway. I’d quite like to get into filmmaking, I dabble with photography and art, and some of my close friends are musicians and graphic artists. So it’s trying to use all these strands and evolve a creative business for myself that I’m always going to feel passionate about.
How did you get in contact with the Hive?
One of my friends recommended it to me. What the Hive does is take a small percentage of your turnover in the first five years of your business running. So instead of paying upfront, you pay afterwards, and they’ve invested in helping make your business a success. If your business doesn’t turnover a certain amount of money, there is a minimum payment but it’s a low amount over three years. Having done the programme, I definitely think it’s a very good investment in any business. It’s a 13 week crash course and you get to meet lots of different people with very different ideas. You could research the boring, practical stuff yourself – the financials and things like that. But it’s a lot easier to have the support there and have people answer your questions.
So what sort of things do you do in the course?
Everything that you would expect for a short course in business. They get guest speakers to cover things like legal contracts, intellectual property, funding support and tax. They help you to develop a robust business plan. They go into great detail on financial planning, so you know how to predict where you should be as the business grows, and how to handle various dilemmas.
How did the Hive course help you to develop your business ideas?
I started having ideas about broadening out from the publishing close to the end of the course. It was too late to develop them at the time, because I’d already written most of my business plan around the publishing side. With any business you need to do an enormous amount of research and development into the particular specialist area that you are interested in. So, at the time I just thought it was just best to carry on with what I was doing and try it out. Once I knew how things were going I would be in a position to change it, if what I was doing wasn’t working. With the Hive you continue getting support and mentoring as needed, after the programme is finished. I registered with a new mentor early this year and luckily he’s been just the right sort of person to help develop my other business ideas. He’s worked with a lot of social enterprises and that’s what I want Bees Make Honey to become.
Have you needed any funding so far?
I funded the setting up of the business and publishing my book with some money I’d inherited. That’s now dwindling, so with the new ‘Analogue meets Digital’ project, I’m going to various funding bodies to see what finance I can raise, because it’s quite a big undertaking.
How helpful is a mentor?
Very helpful, particularly in keeping you motivated, because sometimes when you have your own business and you’re working on your own it’s not easy. Even though I work with freelancers and friends and can bounce ideas off them, everyone has their own stuff going on. It can sometimes be quite draining and it’s easy to get apathetic when you don’t feel things are working and you don’t really know which direction to take. So having a mentor who can give you objective advice is invaluable when it comes to keeping you enthusiastic.
How valuable has the publishing experience been?
The publishing experience has been useful. I now realise how different all these micro-areas of the creative industry can be. Self-publishing is quite different to other types of independent publishing. It’s been very difficult to find a balance between the two, because I’m working on publishing other writers, but at the same time my book has that stigma attached to it that it’s a self-published book. There are only certain channels that I can go through in order to promote it. For example, I’m excluded from certain book awards. I think that’s been a difficult place to be in, because I’ve been learning how to get the self-publishing side right, but what I actually want to learn is how to be a ‘proper’ publisher. I’m still playing the long game though. I’ve had great support particularly from the people who run Flourish Editing and Ghostwoods Books. They’re responsible for getting Dogtooth Chronicals fit for consumption.
You’re now exploring this new area of creativity and seeing what funding is available. You put out an open call for ‘Memories of the Future – Analogue meets Digital Pop-up Shop’. What is this event all about?
The pop-up shop will be based in at The Corner, which is the new Creative Quarter project space. It’s in the same building where Left Lion Magazine, I’m Not From London, and other small creative businesses have their base. So it’s nice feel we’ll be in the creative hub. The idea is that the pop-up shop will open on the Tuesday selling products from independent practitioners involved in creative start-ups. The theme is ‘Analogue meets Digital’, so there will be an e-commerce site running alongside the shop and this will carry on after the physical shop has closed down. The products will match the theme of the event. We’ll be doing music, film, photography, books and new media storytelling and art where it crosses over into other areas. So, for example with music we’ll be selling vinyl records from independent labels, but you’re also going to be able to download tracks if you want the digital version. In theory we’re going to have the digital and analogue versions being sold side-by-side. It’s designed to be a celebration of both aspects. We don’t think that vinyl or real books are dying out. I think that they’re very special and have a tactile quality, so people are still going to enjoy collecting them. But at the same time the digital side opens up interesting opportunities for writers, musicians and filmmakers, we shouldn’t reject that either.
So there will be physical books on sale at the event?
Yes we’re interested in all sorts of different books from independent publishers – from books which are handmade as art objects, to graphic novels. Bringing everything together in one place and being inclusive of all sorts of different creativity is very important to me, because I think sometimes literary events can be too ‘literary’. Whether or not they intend it, other branches of the creative spectrum get put off and feel it’s not for them. This serves no purpose except elitism. I think particularly in terms of new media storytelling, those that are actually ahead of the game are the people who are into gaming and graphic novels, because they’re developing ways to use the technology at a much faster rate.
New media storytelling is a very interesting area. Tell me more about that.
At the moment we’re planning to have a new media writing kiosk, which I imagine at the moment (although it’s still in the initial planning stage), will look like a little photo booth. You go in and there is a screen which exhibits different types of new media writing. So it’s connected to websites or interactive e-books. New media writing utilises different platforms like social media, the Twitter novel is one of the classic examples, but I’m not a fan of it. A better example, for me, is Hobo Lobo of Hamelin. It was nominated for the New Media Writing Prize 2012, but I think he’s still in the process of developing it. He retells the fable of the Pied Piper of Hamlin in a very unusual way. The website takes you through the story in linear form. It’s like a landscape through the story. The animation’s basic, but effective. It’s really nice the way the story progresses and the method of delivery suits his writing. It wouldn’t work as effectively in the form of a traditional book. Are you hoping that you’ll get some creative cross fertilisation going on? I want to bring together people that work in different areas. New media writing is a good example of this, because writers are often not very good when it comes to anything very technical. I’m a good example of this, because I’ve had to learn a lot to be able to put my blog together and also create an e-book. But I’m just not able to do anything complicated on websites. I’ve also done a bit of moving image work in the past, but I’m really not good with the technical side of it. I’ve found it very helpful to have someone else working with me who understands video editing and using computer programs in the process of filmmaking. In general it’s not a good thing to keep everything in separate categories, because that stops people coming together to experience and discuss each other’s ideas. Sometimes people who are really into music all hang out with other musicians and it can be creatively restricting. The publishing industry does seem to have a very stuffy image, so someone who’s into filmmaking and music will be unlikely to go to a literary event, because they wouldn’t expect it to appeal to them. But these people are into culture anyway, have really good ideas and they’re engaged in storytelling. They certainly read, but they’re an audience that the independent publishing industry probably find quite difficult to target. Before I got into publishing I didn’t come across independent publishers very much. Unless you start going to specific events for it, you’re not necessarily going to find them. Certainly it’s very difficult for independent publishers to get their books in large book shops.
Once the pop-up shop event has finished ‘Bees Make Money’ is going to be the hub for the e-commerce part of the enterprise. How are you going to take this business forward?
At the moment the plan is to continue the e-commerce which will be a boutique shop on the Internet where you can find unusual stuff and a selection of things from independent publishers and record labels. It’s new territory so I’m exploring and testing the market. We’re also trying to build ‘Bees Make Honey’ as an umbrella brand to for creative services, such as graphic design and moving image. We’re targeting innovative areas. Because I’ve been through the self publishing thing, the easiest example for me to give you is that if an author wants to self-publish their book, it needs a really good cover design, and proper editing and formatting. If it’s a shoddy product, it won’t sell. Also in terms of promotion, book trailers are relatively new but are beginning to be used quite a bit. This is something we did for Dogtooth Chronicals and it was an interesting, new area for my friend Phil (who does a lot of filmmaking) to work in. I don’t like to name names, but there are websites out there offering book trailers for £129 which are just laughable. So, it’s trying to find these little niches where things crossover and you’re putting together creative packages for people. At the same time it also means that freelancers can work for ‘Bees Make Honey’ and let go of some of the stuff that they don’t want to be bogged down with. For example they don’t want to have to be chasing invoices or do a lot of the kind of admin stuff that’s involved in running your own business. Our job is to make sure they have more time to do the stuff they enjoy. One of the things with the pop-up shop is that I intend to meet a lot of people working in the various creative fields and see who’s interested in being involved in these sorts of projects. So that in the future we can bring together lots of people who want to do collaborations, as well as providing opportunities for them to put their work out there.