Questions by Karen Langley
2020 has in many ways been the year of independent publishers; print books have been fighting back against the march of the e-book, and recently any numbers of smaller presses have championed books from neglected women authors, nature writers, translated literature and the like. The personal approach of such publishers has been welcomed by readers during a time when isolating oneself has become the new normal.
A recent arrival on the scene is Renard Press; an indie launched during the pandemic year, the publisher focuses on bringing out beautiful editions of intriguing works. The initial titles have included Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and booklets featuring works by authors like Tolstoy and Willa Cather. The driving force behind Renard is Will Dady, someone with considerable experience in publishing; and he was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for Shiny New Books.
Karen: Will, welcome to Shiny New Books! Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you originally got into publishing?
Will: Thanks, Karen! I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to work ‘with books’, so I enrolled on an English Literature with Creative Writing degree, hoping I’d work out what I wanted while I was there. I really enjoyed the intense creative-writing workshops (and I think the ritual humiliation that comes from reading your words aloud weekly is vital to learning some humility!), but what I really loved was the cross-section of classics we studied, and I suppose it’s really that which sent me towards publishing. I studied proofreading by distance learning during my degree, and after graduating, I took on a marketing position for a small academic publisher and I managed to get an internship with a tiny independent publisher whose raison d’être was making beautiful books, and it’s really there that I developed my love of the book as an artefact in its own right.
Karen: When and where did the idea of setting up on your own come from?
Will: It has more or less always been the plan to set up on my own, honestly – I hate being told what to do! I was very lucky in that internship to find a role model who encouraged me to think of myself as a ‘publisher in the making’, rather than an employee, so I’ve been working towards setting up my own list almost as long as I’ve been in publishing. I’m also quite fascinated by the history of publishing itself – I often cite Virginia Woolf as a ‘publishing hero’, because I think she really created the blueprint for what I see as the very essence of independent publishing. Being able to address what you see as ‘holes’ in the literary canon, playing around with bookbinding, being vocal about values – it’s what’s driving the renaissance in the indie scene today, and it’s very motivating!
Karen: I get the impression that you’re the driving force behind Renard. Are you very much a one-man band or do you have a trusty team alongside you?
Will: Yes, I’m Renard! But I think it’s incredibly important that ‘no man is an island’, and I’m lucky to have a veritable army of supporters and helpers who are all too ready to give me their opinion (and eagle eyes) at the drop of a hat! I’ve also found a wonderful support network online, and there have been many kind people offering their help. And, of course, we have wonderful sales reps (Signature) who keep in touch with bookshops, efficient, ethical distributors (Central Books) and brilliantly adaptive and speedy printers (CPI), who love a challenge!
Karen: Launching a new press during a pandemic is a brave thing to do and of course you couldn’t have foreseen the virus when you began planning. How has the current ‘normal’ impacted on Renard’s early days?
Will: Yes, it’s been an interesting experience…! A lot of people were away from their desks during the first lockdown, and I wasn’t getting very many replies to emails, so I just cracked on with things – website, design, etc – and the silence was actually quite handy, in that I wasn’t disturbed while I taught myself basic accounting or played around with code on the website. On the other hand, not having a backlist to keep us ticking over, and bookshops being closed means we don’t get orders, which is difficult – so our subscriber programme has made a huge difference, and is essentially what’s keeping us going. That so many people have placed orders or subscribed has been truly moving – I’m bowled over by their kindess and support. There are also some very kind booksellers who have supported us from the outset – and while they’re struggling, too. I know I’m not alone in looking forward to the New Year, and I hope it’ll be kinder to everyone who works with books!
Karen: What drives the choice of books you publish?
Will: An interesting question! I’m slowly preparing a broad cross-section of genres – essays, fiction, poetry, playscripts – because I think it’s important (and, indeed, enjoyable) to read widely. I think classics publishing is a bit like ‘curating’ – even more so for a company with a subscriber model – so I like to plan as though the reader will read all of our titles, and I think in terms of books complementing one another. Of course, there are other things to take into account – we’ve committed to keeping the gender-split of the authors in balance, for instance, so we don’t end up with one of those lists we’re all familiar with, consisting almost entirely of white male authors. Beyond this, I personally like to explore authors’ lesser-known works, so if I enjoy a book I go hunting through their bookshelves, as it were, to find things that have been forgotten – when people say things like ‘I love Animal Farm, but I’ve never read Orwell’s essays,’ I feel like I’m doing something right!
Karen: The range of authors you’re intending to release is impressive, from Virginia Woolf and Aphra Behn to modern writers like Iain Hood and Emma Zadow. You’re also producing a variety of formats from luxury editions through paperbacks and hand-bound pamphlets. As you’re responsible for Renard’s designs, am I right in sensing that the production of books as beautiful objects is important to you?
Will: Absolutely (and again, thank you for your kind words) – I think ‘variety’, or ‘diversity’, answers most problems! Publishing has been told many times that it’s about to become irrelevant, but it is still here, going strong. While I don’t think publishing as a whole is going to become extinct, it’s pile-’em-high paperback publishing that strikes me as the most easily replaced by, say, Kindle, or whatever the next Spotify-for-publishing platform is that rears its head in due course. What I could never personally sacrifice, and I think this is the same for most bibliophiles, is a beautifully produced book, and so I like to think of our books as artefacts – I want to be proud of them for the production values as well as the content. Of course, it’s important to think about the environment in production (we spent ages agonising over our sustainability policy), so any choice we make in production has to satisfy us that a) the materials will happily last a century, and b) the production is not coming at the cost of the environment.
Karen: You offer a subscription service, a model which is being adopted by a number of indie publishers. Could you tell us a little about Renard’s subcription, and how important do you think subscription options are to indies?
Will: Our subscription model is really the beating heart of Renard – and I think if you look at the indie publishers making waves at the moment you’ll notice they all have a strong subscriber base. Back to that hero of mine, Virginia – the reason she was able to publish some of her more adventurous works was because Vita Sackville-West published her work through Hogarth Press, thereby giving them financial stability. The ‘subscriber model’ so associated with start-ups is, of course, nothing new – I was just writing a note about Mudie’s Library yesterday! – but the advances in technology mean we can offer variation, we can communicate instantly, give discounts, etc. Renard’s subscription offers a first edition every month (we usually publish a book a month, but sometimes there’s a choice), a tote bag, a discount on the rest of the list and the chance to win a ‘deluxe edition’ each month – a hand-bound copy on premium papers, usually in hardback with endpapers, ribbon, headbands, and other little touches. When I was setting up the subscription I was very aware that my first subscribers would be family and friends, so I’ve packed in as much value as possible, and, although it’s still early days, it seems to be very well received. For Renard, it’s invaluable having this support – financially, it’s making our early days viable, but more than that, it’s part of who we are, reminding us to make the best books we can!
Karen: Do you feel there’s an appetite among discerning readers nowadays for committing to support independent presses?
Will: I think independent publishing and bookselling have faced more threats than many industries in recent years, and live in constant battle against the various giants – I think a lot of readers recognise that and value the myriad small presses and local bookshops offering a human touch, a different point of view, a wider list. It’s a difficult time to be in business, but I’m just blown away by how online communities (particularly bookish Twitter) mobilise to support indies. Bluemoose put out a tweet asking for help and overnight received £2K of orders. Galley Beggar were left £40K down when the Book People went into administration, and a crowdfunder got them back in the black overnight. I think this is testament to the fact that people care about the independent scene, and want to support and save the presses committed to broadening the scope of publishing.
Karen: Which part of being in charge of your own imprint is the most satisfying?
Will: The freedom to play around with formats and projects is perhaps the most rewarding. Recently, for example, I proposed a Christmas Card Classic to the Three Peas (an amazing charity helping refugees in Lesbos) – the idea being that one could give a short book instead of a ready-for-the-bin card this year, to spread a little cheer (and raise some funds for the Peas) at the end of a rather gloomy 2020. Being able to drop everything and crack on with a new project at the drop of a hat was great fun, and is doing some good, too! (440 books so far and counting…)
Karen: On a personal level, what kind of books do you enjoy reading in your spare time?
Will: I tend to like reading things I don’t read for work – so I like to get lost in contemporary fiction and non-fiction, mainly. I don’t read as many of the ‘big books of the year’ as I perhaps should do, but like finding something out of the blue. I subscribe to a lot of publishers’ newsletters – Faber are particularly good at tempting me, and I’m currently recommending Kae Tempest’s On Connection to anyone who will listen! I’m also part of On Reading, with some good friends of mine, Clem Koenig and Bella Pearson, a podcast about (you guessed it), so I have a stack of books to get through from podcastees, who talk about the books that mean the most to them. My partner is a hoarder of old books, and we have heaps around the house, so I like discovering new names that way, too. So I suppose my reading is very like my publishing – a bit of everything, as varied as possible!
Karen: Looking forward to 2021, what’s next for Renard Press?
Will: Good question! We’ve set ourselves quite the challenge for the year ahead, with a very ambitious programme, so job one is delivering on that. Classics-wise, I look forward to expanding some of the collections/series – the Virginia Woolf collection, Orwell’s Essays, the Oscar Wildes – and to ‘rediscovering’ some more lesser-known names. We’ve kickstarted the contemporary fiction and playscripts lists with two incredible titles, and I look forward to adding to these, and I have plans in the works to start a new poetry list, too. But let’s hope for a proper launch party before too long, too!
I’d like to thank Will for taking time away from his hand-binding to answer my questions! You can find out more about Renard books and their subscription offer here: https://renardpress.com/subscribe/
Karen blogs at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.