A year of publishing dangerously: how a small independent publisher adapted to COVID19

In 2018 an agent and a publisher announced in the industry trade magazine, The Bookseller, that they were asking their ‘mid list female authors’, those writing their third and fourth books, to write them under a pseudonym, to present their books to the market as new writers. We thought this was outrageous, an erasure of a writer’s previous work and an indictment on how the publishing industry treats older writers. We decided that in 2020 we would only publish books by women because it is in our DNA to develop the writing careers of our authors and so in 2020 we published the second and third books from writers we’d previously published.

And then, well, you know the world stopped due to COVID19. Bookshops closed and our whole publishing year was up in the air. We had arranged launches in bookshops and at festivals, radio and TV appearances, but these were all postponed until, well, nobody knew.

Sales fell off a cliff and we started to panic. A little. We needed to let people know we were here and needed some help. I had a conversation with another small indy, Little Toller, a non-fiction publisher in Dorset that publishes nature writing. One of our bestselling authors, Benjamin Myers, was writing a foreword for one of their books, so we had something in common. I asked Ben if he would write a short story for us, which he did. We edited it, and Little Toller designed the cover, turned it into an ebook and put it on their website and we kicked up a fuss on social media and told the world and his sister about it. We managed to get the industry excited about it too and had coverage in The Guardian and The Bookseller. It was about cooperation and collaboration; two independent presses working together to try and stay in business. Even BBC Radio 4 got excited and interviewed Gracie from Little Toller. We sold loads but perhaps more importantly it drove thousands of people to our website and we had our biggest month of sales, ever, in July 2020, until this year, that is – but more about that later.

More importantly it grew an audience that was interested in what we were doing and so we decided to launch our own Zoom channel, The Bluemoose Deli. We chose the name because unlike the bigger publishers who stack their books high and sell them cheap like in supermarkets, we like to think we are more like a delicatessen: we do not publish that many books but like to think we put a bit more love and care into everything we do. The Bluemoose Deli came into being and so we launched three of our four books via this channel: The Sound Mirror by Heidi James in August, Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal in October and East Coast Road by Anna Chilvers in November. Remarkably, we had more people attend these virtual launches than would have normally happened at bookshops. Our average attendance has been 83 with the highest being 138. We set up links with local bookshops and our readers bought signed copies of these books in their hundreds, which was just brilliant. At these launches we had our editors chatting to the authors about the writing process with Q&A’s at the end. It proved remarkably successful and we have continued with the deli with the launch of Captain Jesus by Colette Snowden in January 2021.

As you can see from what we published in 2020 our acquisition process starts two to three years before publication and last year we acquired seven books which we will publish in 2022/2023/2024 with other titles we are publishing too. Bluemoose is based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire and so all our submissions arrive electronically, not by courier from a post code in London. We do receive books via agents, and we do publish books by authors who have agents, but most of our titles come from writers who do not. But do not worry, we have an agent in Paris who looks after all our books in translation, and a TV and Film agent in London who talks to Hollywood and people with clapper boards. Our submissions are open all year round because we like to be able to read as many manuscripts as possible. We are editorially led and if we think a book has something, we will publish. Our imperative is the story, not the demands of rapacious shareholders. The Big Five publishers have become increasingly risk-averse in their publishing and the publishing landscape is the worse for it. We started Bluemoose in 2006 to find writers and books that the larger publishers deemed ‘uncommercial’, whatever they think that means. Our latest bestseller is Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, which has just been selected by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature as their book for 2021, and we have sold 35,000 copies so far, so if that is uncommercial, I do not know what is?

And these are some of the books we acquired either from submissions or agents in 2020: Fallen by Mel O’Doherty, publishing June 2021; The Happiness Factory by Jo McMillan, January 2022; I Am Not Your Eve by Devika Ponnambalam, publishing May 2022; Shakti by Misha Hussain, July 2022.

I said a stupid thing a few years back: I said you will never sell a book via Twitter. Oh how wrong I was. I sent out a tweet, a call to arms at the beginning of February this year and within two hours we had sold £2.5K worth of books. I think this is because the reading and writing public want stories, different stories to what the giant corporate publishers are churning out.

As publishers we forget that sometimes communicating directly to the people who buy our books is the best way to let them know what we are doing. If the last twelve months has taught us anything as publishers it is that we need to contact and communicate more directly to those buying our books and to work more collaboratively with other smaller presses.

Responses

  1. Great achievement, and good lessons for others to learn and follow.

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