Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Industry View - Sam Jordison

Sam Jordison is the author of seven non-fiction books, several of them bestsellers in the UK, and has helped several other writers to publication as an editorial consultant. He is a co-director of an award-winning publishing company, Galley Beggar Press. He is also a journalist who writes for The Guardian and Independent newspapers about books and publishing. He teaches regular workshops on modern fiction at Kingston University.

As a journalist, author and publisher, you’ve been involved in UK book publishing for a long time. What’s your assessment of its current state of health?

Since 2003. Oh God. I'm no longer young.

My view of the state of health of publishing is hard to sum up in a few words. It's complicated and ever changing. In some ways, times are very hard. There's the cancer of Amazon, of course, and all the destruction that has caused. There are the mergers and the slashing of the midlist... But then again, people are still reading and enjoying books. Publishers are still selling them. I like to hope that the loss of independent booksellers has slowed down now and that Waterstones will continue to grow stronger.

I also feel that small scale independent publishers have done a great job of taking the risks that big publishers can't take so easily at the moment. The situation seems to me to be very similar to that of the other pub industry in the UK, the one selling beer. While too many pubs are closing, too many people are losing their jobs and pubcos are doing terrible things to landlords, it's also a golden age for small independents and for people who enjoy drinking quality real ale...

I think the prognosis is okay. I hope it is. But I'm very wary that things are in a state of flux and forever changing and confusing. I'm wary of making predictions.

Do you feel the same way about other media, such as newspapers?

Well! I have similarly confused feelings about the press. I hope that quality papers like The Guardian will start making more money soon. And there are a few good signs among the omens of misery...

In addition to the monthly Reading Group at The Guardian, you run Not the Booker Prize, always interesting and occasionally explosive. Can you explain a little about its origins and pinpoint some of your favourite moments?

The Not The Booker Prize came out of a desire to give Guardian readers some insight and input into the prize giving process. It was meant to be a warts and all exposure of the judgement process - and also an investigation into social media, online campaigning and everything else. Importantly it was also meant to be a good way to find new writers and give them some exposure. The idea was that we'd open up the whole process to readers on our website and see what happened. It's developed a lot over the years and become enjoyably involved as we've done our best to prevent too much funny voting and ensuring that it isn't just the writers with the most twitter followers who triumph.

My favourite moments tend to be reading superb books like Lars Iyers' Spurious or Benjamin Myers' Pig Iron or Simon Crump's Neverland - but there have been plenty of other memorable occurrences. The bad books sometimes stand out almost as much as the good ones (early on a book by James Palumbo managed to find its way into our shortlist, which remains one of the worst things I've ever read). We've also had author meltdowns, crazy things happening on facebook, threats, tears, joy, laughter... It gets quite emotional really.

Galley Beggar Press has published some extraordinary works in the last two years – Simon Gough, Eimear McBride and Jonathan Gibbs were real finds for me – what’s the philosophy behind the company?

Thank you! Our hope is to publish the best quality books that we can find. We believe in good books and good readers. If something is high quality, we believe and hope that people will want to buy it and enjoy reading it. Our tagline is that we're an old fashioned publisher for the 21st century. We're old fashioned because we believe in well-produced print books and taking risks on debut authors. But we also believe in harnessing social media, and digital platforms to enable to do a few different innovative things as well.

And the short story initiative? Another route to discoveries?

Exactly. We've always loved short stories - and early on we set up something called the Singles Club, where we release a short story by a different author as a £1 digital ebook every month. That's helped us launch and work with some fantastic new talents - and hook up with some wonderful readers too. In launching a print line of short stories we're hoping to continue this work.

That said, our first collection is by D.J. Taylor who is already nicely established. Our other feeling is that the short story itself doesn't get enough exposure. We hope to show that we can make a collection like this work.

Galley Beggar first published A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing which went to win The Baileys Women’s Prize last year. Opinions differ on having a prize exclusive to women. What’s your view?

I'm all for it. Partly because I'm all for anything that brings attention to good books, wherever they come from. The more high profile prizes, the better as far as I'm concerned. And the bottom line is that this prize consistently champions fine books.

In case you were hoping for a more political answer, I'd say, the prize does also correct an imbalance. When Angela Carter's Nights At The Circus was published it didn't even get longlisted for the Booker. Something had to be done... Philosophically, I would have no objection to people setting up a bloke's prize as well. But the idea sounds daft doesn't it? And that's very telling...

Let’s talk about your own books. Crap Towns I & II are already favourites, but I’m now curious about Bad Dates and Annus Horribilis. Do you have a fascination with failure?

Yes, I suppose I do. I think failure is very human. There are far more failures in the world than successes, after all... I also enjoy self-deprecating humour. And I suppose writing about other people's failures makes me feel better about my own. Especially when I wrote those two books, I'd spent quite a lot of time failing to make a go of things and being based around by life and circumstances. So it was quite cathartic. (I'm trying to write a book about HG Wells now - he, of course, was the opposite of failure. In fact, funnily enough, I've just written a chapter complaining about how sickeningly successful he was...)

Tell us what you’re looking forward to in 2015 in the world of books.

Is it too glib to say I'm looking forward to being surprised? Obviously I want to read the new Denis Johnson, and Kazuo Ishiguro and I'm over the moon about the Galley Beggar releases we've got lined up. But I'm also hoping for something special that comes out of the blue...

Anything that worries you?

 Amazon worry me.

Reading, writing, publishing, reviewing – surely you have to write a novel? Or perhaps a screenplay?

Ha! I have a few first chapters tucked away. And half a novel that I hope to finish one day. The thing is that reading, writing, publishing and reviewing take up a lot of time. As does writing badly. Maybe if I both win the lottery and get a bit better at not writing badly you'll see a novel...

More from Galley Beggar Press

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