Discover more from By the Book: Jamie McGarry at Valley Press
Readers' questions: Up close and personal
Advice, politics, and creativity – in C Major
Readers, I’ve experienced a lot of disruption lately, and have literally 200 things to do right now besides blogging – but you know I’d never let you down. I did briefly consider writing up my ‘to do’ list and that itself being the post (with commentary on why all these things must be done), but when I wrote the first draft in my head, it was a little too dry. (I might still do that sometime though, it has the bones of a good idea; would certainly be an insight into the realities of publishing!)
Luckily, I have a few of your questions sitting around at the bottom of the “mailbag”, which should make for a nice straightforward bit of writing (with one fairly sizable revelation at the end). As you’ll see, some are a little personal in tone, presumably from that 8% of readers who claimed to be here just for my personal anecdotes – but who am I to ignore such a sizable constituency? Let’s crack on!
If you could send one piece of advice back in time to when you were starting Valley Press, what would it be?
I’ve thought about this question for a while, and landed on the following, slightly “meta”, answer: don’t take your mailing list for granted. I now believe if you stripped away every other resource Valley Press owns – all the books, all the stock, all the rights, all the files, maybe even the name – and left me in an empty room with the clothes on my back, a laptop and internet connection, I could be back up and running in a week if I still had permission to email everyone, en masse. (Obviously my practical knowledge is quite valuable too, but all of that could theoretically be learnt again; especially after I’ve finished my big “how to” project.)
The Valley Press “mailing list” (a US term of course, but the only appropriate name) has been painstakingly built up week-by-week, month-by-month, over fifteen years, and there’s no way to replicate that quickly. Over time, my interest in/appreciation for it has swung between intense (as at present) and almost zero, and I can’t help but wonder what VP would look like if the email list had been consistently a high priority. We’re currently hovering just below 2,000 free subscribers – after recently shedding everyone who couldn’t handle two long emails a week – but what would our book sales look like if that number was 10,000? It would undoubtedly make a difference.
So, my advice to my past self, and those of you reading this with small press ambitions of your own, is to make building and nurturing a list of committed email subscribers something you think about every day.
On a somewhat related note…
Why isn’t VP as overtly political as some other indie presses? What are your political views, if any?
I’ve always felt that revealing precise political affiliations could only drive people away. The first rule of Valley Press is that “great publishing is for anyone and everyone”, and if I was hectoring one-half of the population on a weekly basis about their terrible views and opinions, they probably wouldn’t stick around for long. VP authors deserve as wide an audience as possible. Ideally, I would want you all to think of the company as sitting exactly in the middle of the political spectrum.
However, there’s no true escape from politics, and if you really want to, you can surmise a fair bit from the kinds of books VP has published. That “first rule” is a reminder to be as inclusive as possible, it’s well-established that I am passionate about climate change, and you’ll notice the subtitle of our recent publication Slipstream wasn’t “On Memory (yay!) and Migration (boo!)” (That’s it for this answer... I’ve already said too much.)
Has an author ever forced you into designing a cover you didn't like, or even that went against their own interests? That part of the contract seems very specific.
I can’t honestly say “no”, but after it happened a couple of times – and before I carefully worded the clause you are referring to (3.6) – I realised such a situation could be easily avoided simply by not sending the author any cover I wouldn’t be happy to see on the finished book.
To those of you who haven’t experienced the cover design process from the publishers’ side, this advice may seem blindingly obvious – but I missed this trick for several years, thinking the author would change their mind when they saw how terrible the results were. Even after I adopted that policy, I didn’t always have the resolve to say “no, I won’t even attempt that idea.” On other occasions, it wasn’t the authors’ fault at all; I sent them sub-par designs I’d already thrown out, just so they could see I was working hard, only for the author to fall in love with them and insist they be used!
Happily (for everyone, in the long run), those days are firmly in the past, and if this short answer saves a few aspiring publishers from similar suffering, the whole blog will have been worthwhile! Talking of suffering…
Do you still manage to read for pleasure, alongside your required reading as a publisher?
Are you able to make time for your own creative work, alongside your publishing commitments?
The answer to both questions is yes, but it takes a fair bit of creativity to fit them in!
One thing I definitely don’t do any more is creative writing. This was a big part of my life prior to getting into publishing full-time in 2011, but after that it very quickly dried up. Now it seems almost unimaginable. I like to think I have as healthy an ego as the next man, but to read 450 books written by other people, all competing for the chance to meet a reader or two, then go “well those are fine, but I still think I can do better” and whip out my pen is beyond me. Of course, I still get to flex my writing muscle here on the blog, which has fully put to bed the urge to do anything more.
As for reading, I used to read a book a week, and was on top of all of the latest (and most of the oldest) fiction and poetry, circa 2007-2010. As my working days became more and more filled with what the questioner called “required reading”, so my appetite for the printed page after work diminished. Luckily this coincided with the rise of affordable, convenient audiobooks, and I find the experience of listening to a book sufficiently different from my working life to still bring me a lot of pleasure. When I’m really into my current “listen”, I squeeze it into every part of the day which doesn’t require my full concentration; this last happened with Going Infinite by Michael Lewis. If you saw me walking around Scarborough last week, headphones on my ears and jaw on the floor, that was why.
I do still have one creative outlet that I make time for – one that very few of you know about at all, and no one knows the full extent of. I am a great lover of music, and enjoy listening to it, thinking about it, taking it apart and examining it (where possible), but I am never more content than when attempting to write my own. It’s an odd metaphor, but putting together the chords, lyrics, melodies etc. for a new song transports me straight back to my long childhood hours building Lego models; it is a creative pursuit, but also mechanical, somehow. (There’s still plenty of actual Lego around of course, but my son gets first dibs and rarely lets me contribute more than a few bricks – still, that is another time I am very content!)
Strangely, I feel more reluctant to “come out” about this than I did about my autism, but now I’ve started I may as well share a few more details. I went through an instrumental/sample-heavy phase a couple of years ago, during which I shared a few tracks with friends, but mostly I write very middling, mid-tempo pop songs in the key of C Major, then put the finished result away in a drawer to gather dust. (I almost always end up in C Major because I love how warm those notes are, and knowing no one will hear the results, there’s not much motivation to push to new frontiers. As such, most of my repertoire could be played on this famous white-key-only piano, and would fit together flawlessly as an hour-long medley.)
The thought of the entire back catalogue (starting from 2004) leaking onto the internet is one of the most embarrassing things I can imagine; so it’s lucky that most of them are only “recorded” in paper notebooks. I do sometimes wonder, however, if it would be cathartic for a few to see the light of day – there won’t be many other benefits (I’m not secretly the next Elton John), but is it a little bit tragic if they all stay in the drawer forever? The encouragement I’ve had from readers since starting this blog has shifted my thought patterns considerably; for better or worse, there’s not much now (outside politics!) that I feel the urge to hold back.
Perhaps we should settle the matter democratically? (That always works out for the best!) Let’s say, if the poll below gets 100 “yes” votes, I will record one of my C Major ballads and share it in a future post. It’s in your hands.
To conclude this question, I think there’s some truth in “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” AND “making your hobby your job is the best way to spoil both”. It’s been a blessing to keep the songs to myself, and to work with books six days a week, but both pursuits have suffered as a result – I’ve not been pushed to improve my music or had a chance to work on it with others, and I’ll never again be able to pick up a book without first examining the print materials, typesetting choices, and a dozen other aspects unrelated to the actual words.
Of course, there’ll not be much fun to be had in any pursuit until I get those 200 ‘to dos’ ticked off – so we’d best wrap things up. As always, many thanks for reading, and if you have any questions you’d like me to answer, you can leave a comment, reply to the email, or write via the Valley Press contact page. See you soon!