Starting up a new, small publisher is a romantic thing, of that there is no doubt. The idea of choosing books I love and think other people will love and putting them out there to be made or broken by the market is exciting, a little scary and, so far, great fun. But there came a moment last week when the romance faded away and a rather more prosaic part of the job kicked in.
It came when the first print run of The Church of Fear by John Sweeney was delivered. Now, I don’t have a distributor because being small I want to keep hold of as much of my margins as possible, so distribution (by which I mean getting books to retailers) is up to me. That is why the books were delivered to my house (I also work from home).
At this point those two words, ‘the books’, require some explaining. A month or so earlier I ordered the books. I was optimistic about potential sales of The Church of Fear and because the more books you print, the cheaper each copy is, I asked for what felt to me like a good, solid number (low four figures, if you’re interested). So far, so exciting.
And then ‘the books’ arrived. More than sixty boxes of them.
For those of you who have never carried a box of books before, they are heavy. One book is nothing. Two, very little. Five are more than manageable. But when you get onto single packs of sixteen or twenty and you have more than 60 of those packs, you’re into the realms of really quite hard work. Especially when, as happened to me, the boxes weren’t just outside the house, but actually outside the front gate, on the pavement and blocking it (technically a criminal offence, I am told). The books were outside the gate because I’d ordered so many that they had to be wrapped up in layers of plastic and put on a pallet. A pallet, for those who don’t know, is the wooden base frame which is loaded up with stuff and then moved around by a forklift truck. Our front gate is normal front gate width so it would never have fitted through. Perhaps unsurprisingly I did not have a forklift truck to hand anyway.
And there’s more. The sky was an ominous shade of grey and spots of rain had started to fall. My books, my precious, new, untouched books were outside, on the pavement and committing a crime while sheltered in cardboard boxes which were perfectly good for transportation under dry conditions but wouldn’t offer much protection against a downpour.
The man who delivered them told me he thought the books’ total weight was just over half a ton. He also said, ‘Good luck,’ as he left. It was time to get stuck in.
Half an hour later, a sweaty mess with paper cuts on my hands from the edges of the boxes (Thing No One Warned Me About #37,091), I got the final box into the house, just before the rain started. And then the problems really kicked off. You see, our house isn’t huge and with the influx of new stock I could now barely close the front door. The baby’s pram was boxed in. Getting to the stairs was going to be tricky. I had no idea where the dog was.
Fast forward twenty-four hours and three things had happened. First, we had somehow found all kinds of cunning places where we could stash the boxes while also leaving most of the house accessible. The second thing was that Amazon had ordered a good few hundred copies, which meant a large number of those boxes – the ones most visible and obstructive to our daily life, of course – had been sent out. The third thing was that I needed to send off another hundred to wholesalers, whose orders had been trickling in over the previous few days. And so the conversation between me and my wife went something like this:
Me: ‘Are there any books left behind our bedside tables?’
My wife: ‘No, they went to Amazon.’
Me: ‘What about by the spare bed?’
My wife: ‘Maybe one box but I think most of them went too.’
Me: ‘Under the stairs?’
My wife: ‘None left. Why don’t you use the ones in your office? You can hardly turn around in there because there are so many.’
Eventually I found enough copies. I then had to trundle down to the post office with my giant suitcase stuffed full of books all packaged up (total weight around 50 kilos). I also had to carry the same suitcase full of books (50 kilos again) from home in south London to the book’s launch party in the centre of town, on a day when the escalators at Waterloo weren’t working. And during rush hour.
When I’d finished all this fun and games I was, to be blunt, knackered. I don’t do much exercise these days (because of new baby, new business etc) and it was hard. But I was happy. For the first time in a lot of years I felt like I’d done some proper work. I’ve been a journalist, a PR, a literary agent, an author and now a publisher and none of those ever gave me this kind of rush. Only solid, successful days in the garden which end with my wife saying, ‘It looks so much better now!’ can compare.
So far, then, one of the fundamental changes my working life has undergone in the past few months, since I became a publisher is this: I do a lot more manual labour and that can, I now see, only be a good thing for me, physically and mentally. And, of course, it keeps my margins up.
As the steady flow of books out of the house continues, the good news is my back has stopped hurting and our home no longer looks like a part-time warehouse. The bad news is we’re running out of books, which means pretty soon I’m going to need more. A lot more. Probably low four-figures, if the good publicity keeps up. I’ll check the weather forecast next time.
By Humfrey Hunter.