On a windy October night that was strangely warm for the time of year, the skies dark with the threat of rain, I made my way over the bleak Yorkshire hills to the magnificent, majestic Piece Hall in Halifax. (OK, I’ll stop that now. I’m an academic editor, not a fiction author.) I was going to an event entitled ‘How to Get Published Without an Agent or Travelling Down to London’, the venue was The Book Corner bookshop, and my companion was novelist and fiction editor Helena Fairfax.
As an author, Helena had more of a vested interest in the topic than I had. But I’m always keen to support local publishing-related activities, and I welcome any excuse to visit the Piece Hall. The speakers at this event – part of Halifax Festival of Words – were Kevin and Hetha Duffy from Bluemoose Books in Hebden Bridge. They’re fierce supporters of the northern publishing scene and have invested a great deal, personally and professionally, in promoting literary fiction that mainstream UK publishers might not be willing to publish.
Kevin and Hetha gave an entertaining round-up of the various options for getting published. The traditional route is through a literary agent, who then liaises with publishers in the hope of securing a deal for the author. We heard about some of the drawbacks of this system, the main one being the reluctance of larger publishers, who are focused on the profits they have to make for their shareholders, to take risks with work by new authors, particularly if that work is outside established genres or current literary trends.
Submitting to a small independent publisher – Bluemoose, for example – is another option. Kevin and Hetha gave us a fascinating insight into their publishing process. They receive around five hundred submissions (of three chapters and a synopsis) every year, request full manuscripts for around five of these each month, and then eventually publish around three or four titles a year. They have to really fall in love with a manuscript if they’re to publish it (although they admitted that the two of them don’t always fall in love with the same things!).
Kevin and Hetha described some of their publishing successes, including Benjamin Myers’ novel The Gallows Pole, for which Benjamin has won several literary prizes and a not inconsiderable amount of money. Benjamin’s publishing journey has not been an entirely smooth one, his second novel having been turned down by the large company that had published his first novel. Following the outstanding success of The Gallows Pole – his third novel – the rights to Ben’s backlist have now been bought by Bloomsbury. Kevin and Hetha clearly regard this as a vindication of their decision to support Benjamin’s work and of their approach to taking what other companies might see as a risk.
What stood out for me was the emphasis placed on the editorial process. Hetha gave her two key tips for authors.
The company has a small team of editors, including Hetha’s mother, who go through a manuscript until they are absolutely satisfied that it is the best it can be. Editing is not an easy process, and some authors are uncomfortable with it, but Kevin and Hetha are so passionate about the books they publish that they are unwilling to compromise on this. And they’ve come to realise the importance of making it clear to authors from the outset that this is what will happen to their manuscript. Ultimately, if the Bluemoose team are not fully satisfied with the final version of a novel, they could take the decision not to publish. However, they were keen to stress that they would rather work with an author than battle it out over the quality (or otherwise) of individual sentences.
There was a great deal more information here, including a description of other routes to publishing: self-publishing (which has massively increased in popularity in recent years), vanity publishing and print on demand.
From its very humble beginnings in 2006, Bluemoose Books has become a force to be reckoned with – albeit still a small one – in the UK publishing industry. I get the impression they are less and less concerned with trying to compete with the (mainstream) London publishing scene: they clearly have their own fiercely independent vision of what they want to achieve. In fact, in recent times, mainstream agents and publishers have been approaching Bluemoose, rather than the other way around.
This was a really lively and engaging talk, and a great thing to have as part of the Halifax Festival of Words. I’m sure those in the audience who are keen to have their work published will have found it very useful and picked up some valuable tips.
I’m not an author, but I enjoyed Kevin and Hetha’s energy and enthusiasm, their drive to support publishing outside London, and – perhaps most of all – their endorsement of editing as the most important part of their publishing process.