Sam Jordison, tell us a bit about yourself. Are (were) your parents great readers?
Yes, my parents were very encouraging. Always recommending books and passing things on to me, reading to me as a child, finding new things for me to read, feeding my Roald Dahl habit . . . My Mum was a librarian too.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Depends how you define start! I started out writing books and working as a journalist (mainly writing about books) – and those experiences led me into publishing. But I’ve wanted to be around books ever since I realised I couldn’t sing and would never be Mick Jagger.
Has your vision from when you started Galley Beggar five years ago changed?
Not really. Our hope has always just been to publish the very best quality books we can. I guess the thing that has changed is that we now hope to really be able to nurture our writers and keep publishing them, and keep doing the best editorial and production jobs we can for them . . . So we’re looking at careers as well as individual books. But that was something we aspired to quite early on. I suppose the change is that we have a track record now, so don’t have that element of surprise or coming from nowhere. But I still feel and hope we offer something different.
How do you balance originality and profitability?
We are here for art and joy and excellence. Everything follows from that. The first and biggest question we ask about a book is whether we love it. If we do, we feel we have a duty to try to sell it. So far, that strategy (for want of a better word) has gone OK. But we know we’ve been lucky. And to help us ride that luck, quite a lot of what we do is about minimising potential losses and keeping things sustainable . . . And one day we hope to make profits. But you can’t tell your grandchildren much about the bottom line. You can tell them you published Plaything by Alex Pheby and We That Are Young by Preti Taneja and all our other books. You can tell them about the brilliant writers we know and what it feels like to bring something unique and wonderful into the world . . .
What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
Honestly, it was probably the first Famous Five book. I also have a very vivid memory of reading George’s Marvellous Medicine [Roald Dahl, illus. Quentin Blake] and showing my Granny the awful things that happened to the Granny in that, hoping it would make her laugh too.
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
We find this part of the process really hard. And quite often we have to turn down books we think are good – but just don’t quite love enough. But that’s a decision about the books rather than the writer . . . We always hope that the next one might grab us.
On a smaller scale, I guess there are things that work for us when writers first get in touch., One of the most obvious is that if writers care about the books we’ve already published and like our other authors, we’ve already got something in common . . .
Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to industry changes?
Hmm. There are quite a few issues to separate out here. The technology is fine and useful. But the way it is used by Amazon, for instance, has been disastrous for publishers. It isn’t so much a question of adapting well to ebook readers, it’s a question of trying to stop Jeff Bezos getting a monopoly and misusing the technology. So far, we haven’t had much luck.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
No, I hate reading them. Which answers the second question really. In lots of ways, ebook readers feel like a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. A paper book is good technology. It’s practical and pleasurable to engage with a printed book. Ebook readers don’t feel as good or look as good. They have some uses. They’re useful for reading manuscripts, they’re word searchable (although books have advantages when it comes to flicking through and finding things by feel) and you can change the font size, which is great if you can’t see too well. Otherwise, books are better every time.
Your views on marketing and distribution? And on social media?
We’re small – so a lot of our marketing is based on our brand, our ability to get reviews for our authors and positive word of mouth. We have excellent distributors (Turnaround) but we know that getting books into shops is a fight. Social media is fun and can be enlightening and I think that’s the best way to engage with it. We like chatting to and hearing from our readers.
How important is funding for independent publishers?
We have found getting the right kind of funding very difficult. It could potentially be supremely useful, if the UK had a model more like Canada’s, where publishers get money to be able to carry out their work more effectively. At the moment, that doesn’t really exist here.
Your favourite literary journals?
The Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books The Literary Review, 3AM magazine, The Guardian Review.
What do you think the future holds for publishing now that the US has entered the A.T. (after Trump) era? Turmoil, opportunity, growth, or downhill all the way?
I’m very bad at making predictions. I at least think there will always be good readers out there. It’s up to publishers to keep on finding them.
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing and translation in your view?
It’s an unmitigated disaster. Brexit is a clusterfuck on an unprecedented scale. It’s already nuked our bottom line as print costs have risen. It’s done huge reputational damage to our industry. The uncertainty is impossible – we don’t know where we are going to print our next few years’ books, for instance. It’s a nightmare for foreign sales – and for being able to justify keeping hold of international English language rights. It’s making it difficult for writers to come to the UK. It makes me sick with worry and sadness. If things don’t get better, we’re seriously considering moving our business away from Daily Mail island and working somewhere where citizens of the world are made more welcome. I guess lots of other people feel the same too.
Your favourite qualities in a person?
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Erm, I don’t really want to talk about faults in people. But in writing I can forgive everything if the author is a genius and can carry you with them. Dickens breaks just about every rule for instance, and I can always tolerate him because he charms me right through everything.
Your chief characteristic?
I think you’d have to ask someone else that.
Your chief fault?
Your bedside reading?
I read manuscripts and the books I’m reviewing for The Guardian, on the whole. And there are the books I read to my daughter. Those bring me a lot of joy.
Your favourite prose authors?
Am I allowed to name people on the Galley Beggar list?! Otherwise, I guess lots of the usual suspects. Denis Johnson, Hemingway, Don Delillo, Penelope Lively, the Brontë sisters. I don’t know, it’s hard to write these lists without missing people off – and without sounding a bit of a nob for including someone ridiculously high falutin’. I really love Proust, for instance, but am always a bit nervous about saying so . . . But still, I guess I just have. Proust is incredible, after all.
Your heroes and heroines in fiction?
Lyra from the Philip Pullman books is great, isn’t she? And Hermione Granger.
Your heroes and heroines in real life?
Still Hermione Granger.
Who would be in your dream book club?
Also, Hermione Granger. And J.K. Rowling too. I imagine they’d have a lot to talk about.
Never trust a hippy.
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