Spotlight on Publishers: Handheld Press

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Harriet talks to Kate Macdonald

Harriet: Thanks for agreeing to do this for us Kate. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of Handheld Press and what prompted you to start the company?

Kate: Setting up the company crept up on me. I’ve been a literary historian, an editor in civil service technical publishing, an academic editor, an academic and an entrepreneur, at different times in my working life. The common factor in my academic research and teaching was finding wonderful stories and telling people about them, in fiction and in life. I published my own research as an academic, but I published far more of other people’s work, as the editor of books of collected essays, as a series editor, as a commissioning editor. Yet it took a research colleague to say to me in passing that he thought I really ought to set up my own publishing company. That was on a Friday, and I thought ‘Nah.’. But by Monday morning I had sketched out the business plan and company ethos with my husband, and I’d found the name. It all seemed quite straightforward from that point, because I knew what I wanted to publish, and I knew how to do it, more or less. In hindsight, of course, that was a huge leap to take, but at the time it felt like a natural progression of my career.

H: You offer an attractive mixture of reprinted fiction, non-fiction/academic, and modern. What’s the unifying factor of all your offerings?

K: Stories are the most important factor. Storytelling is no. 2 on the list, because if a story is not told well, no matter what it’s about, it won’t be read, or enjoyed. But the story itself must be worth telling, and worth reading, because if it isn’t, nobody will buy the books.

H: How have you gone about finding the out-of-print titles you publish?

K: Most of the titles that I’ve published I already knew about, and so they were on my wishlist. Some — such as Gerald O’Donovan’s convent thriller Vocations, and Ernest Bramah’s Edwardian science fiction novel of a tyrannous Labour government, What Might Have Been — were introduced to me. Some I discovered by accident, like The Akeing Heart, which was originally self-published. I’ve been researching the fringes of twentieth-century British literature for over thirty years; this is a field I know well, and love. But I also love feminist science fiction, biographies, and books about sailing, and hope to be publishing books in these genres too. I have to love the books I publish, because I have to be able to enthuse about them when I write the marketing copy, and instruct my sales reps, and burst into bookshops urging them to buy ten copies right now. (This doesn’t often work, but you have to try.)

H: One of the strengths of Handheld is the beauty of the presentation and the cover designs. How important has this been to your company?

K: Outstanding design is essential for book covers that will grab the potential buyer’s attention, and by ‘buyer’ I mean the buyer for the shop, as well as the book buyer in the shop, or online. Getting the business branding and the cover designs right were the first two challenges in setting up the business. I’ve got a good eye for graphic design, and I do all the picture research for covers, but I relied on two experts for Handheld’s visual identity. One of my relations by marriage, Andrew Boag, just happens to be a leading typographic designer whose work I really like, so he did me Handheld’s original open book logo. Next, I needed a book designer, so I invited myself to visit Sally Mortimore of Three Rivers Books, a publisher in Reading where I was living at the time, to ask her searching questions about spreadsheets and distribution networks, and asked her advice about a designer. She very nicely sent me to her main freelance designer, Nadja Guggi of Messrs. Dash + Dare, and we hit it off immediately. Nadja and I work at the same speed (fast), and communicate well. We even live near each other now that I’ve moved to Bath, but we don’t often meet, we just fire off emails to each other when we’re working together, sharing the production work of choosing the cover image, getting the cover design right, and working on the layout. Handheld could not work the way it does without a designer I trust completely, and I am so lucky to have found Nadja so early in Handheld’s life.

H: Like most publishers today you are offering both print copies and ebooks. What has your experience of the ebook market been like?

K: Pretty underwhelming, to be honest. I don’t read ebooks myself: they hurt my eyes, and I’m a paper person. I can easily spend 10 hours a day working online, so I don’t want to read online for pleasure or relaxation. But ebooks are important for accessibility, and for travelling. Handheld books have to be available in Kindle format since Kindle dominates the ebook market, so I have to use Amazon, even though I object to their failure to pay fair taxes and their atrocious working conditions. I also publish in ePub, distributing them through Smashwords, but I sell hardly any through that route, and have asked Kobo about switching to them. So at present ebooks are an underdeveloped format for Handheld because I don’t have the time to research the options and find a better distribution deal. I will be distributing Handheld books soon through ProQuest, as pdf library ebooks, but, again, I have to find the time to upload the files!

H: Can you describe for us a typical day in the Handheld office?

I lie awake for the time it takes to move from deep sleep to full-on energy mode, and I’m often working during that time: it is extraordinary how many forgotten tasks, new ideas, clever wheezes I think of in bed. I’m usually at my desk (downstairs: it’s a very short commute) by 07.30. I do try to get the news-checking, personal stuff, browsing and email-reading done by 09.00, but it can go on to 10.00, depending on what I’m organising in other areas of my life. When I feel hungry I have breakfast, then an early lunch at 12ish. I don’t drink coffee or tea (have never liked hot liquids), and drink water at my desk all day long. I also try to bike to the gym first thing twice a week (it’s usually just once), and I have a regular Pilates class at 08.30 every Thursday that I will not miss.

I have no regular routine or pattern of tasks, but I spend roughly half the day on marketing and publicity, unless I’m working on a book that needs a complete day of focus. My usual day unfolds with the most important things being done first, and the interesting things being slotted in around them as light relief, for interest, or because I feel like changing pace. I tend to clear up matters arising from emails first, then turn to the To Do list, then go back and check my work diary for other things that need to be done. My husband does the book-keeping and costings, and all the straightforward ebook conversions (the tricky ones get outsourced). I make all the design, editorial and marketing decisions, and talk money matters through with him. As well as Nadja, I have a strong network of freelances who help me with publicity (Judith), contracts (Tom), and accounts (Monica), and I pay my sales agency and a distribution company by commission.

My daily work diary records everything I do, because without this I will never realise the extent of what I do, or notice the progress that we make, or remember to do things that I’ve flagged for later. Here’s a typical but busy day from the last month:

Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  • Paid the bill for printing Kingdoms of Elfin.
  • Paid the bill for converting the ebooks into Proquest-ready files.
  • ProQuest have approved the test pdfs, need to upload them.
  • Sent the completed Gardners promotion form for a discount offer to booksellers for The Conscientious Objector’s Wife & Kingdoms
  • Did the press release for Kingdoms.
  • There’s a blogger’s review due for Kingdoms, Judith to chase.
  • Emailed a US fantasy convention about an ad for Kingdoms in their programme.
  • Chased up the missing user guide for my new contactless card machine.
  • Wading through Judith’s publicity emails about processes etc. Need to discuss what my sales reps want generally, as a weekly despatch from me.
  • Talked to Judith about op eds opportunities for So Lucky
  • Sent a Word file of the final Introduction for Kingdoms to the Sylvia Townsend Warner Journal. To send them a review copy also, waiting for address.
  • Uploaded Kingdoms Kindle link to the Handheld website.
  • Chased Scottish Field about serialising a story from Kingdoms.
  • Sent sales reps a summary of publicity achieved so far this past fortnight
  • Sent link to Kingdoms page to the Arthur Rackham Society.
  • Sent The Bookseller the Advance Information sheet for Save Me The Waltz and a cover jpg for paperback preview pages.
  • Resubscribed to The Bookseller digital with IPG discount
  • Began editing the Notes for Save Me The Waltz.

H: What books are you excited about publishing in the coming months?

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

K: All of them! Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin comes out on Hallowee’n, and has been getting a lot of love from the fantasy community. Neil Gaiman’s endorsement for our edition has been a massive boost (we are framing his email to us). Nicola Griffith’s So Lucky has the potential to blow up the thriller market with a brilliant #criplit story that takes you right beyond fear and frustration in becoming disabled, to the empowerment of finding your community and fighting back. Handheld is publishing the UK edition with three exclusive essays that the US edition doesn’t have. And in January we are republishing Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me The Waltz, which is causing ripples of excitement wherever American women writers are treasured. I’ve just finished writing the Notes, and have learned so much about ballet and 1920s Paris dance.

H: What makes a book a great book for you?

K: Story, and storytelling. Quirk and edge, and the road less travelled. Women’s stories, houses’ stories, stories about gales and cheese and red sunsets on mountainsides and how to dress well out of sackcloth. Characters with intelligence and attitude. A great book will bring me back to it, again, and again, and again.

H: And finally, what are you reading at the moment?

K: Walter de la Mare’s 1921 novel The Memoirs of a Midget. It’s been republished by Telegram, and I am so jealous that they got there first, this is exactly the kind of sideways glance, dangerous emotions, enchanting fantasy novel that Handheld wants to publish. Its imaginative empathy and invention are so exciting.

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