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How indie publisher Galley Beggar took on the big guns and won

Galley_Beggar_logo-1_whiteI’m interested in companies and organizations that have a higher purpose than profit. Here’s an example – indie publisher Galley Beggar Press, set up in 2012 by Eloise Millar and her partner Sam Jordison, with bookseller Henry Layte who moved onto other projects in 2013. For a little company, Galley Beggar punches way above its weight – in the last twelve months, it published Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which won the Bailey’s prize for women’s fiction, and Francis Plug’s How To Be A Public Author, which was a big commercial hit.Here’s how Sam and Ellie do what they do.

Jules: Setting up an independent publishing company from your home in Norwich is quite left-field. Why did you do it?

Ellie: Because we’re fucking crazy! It was born out of frustration. Sam had seen quite a lot of his writer friends – really excellent writers – slipping off the mid-list. So we thought there was a gap in the market. Sam’s dad is in accountancy, and he came down to hear the idea. I thought he’d hate it, but he was really up for it, and said the best time to set up a small business is in a recession, because that’s when it’s needed. It’s easier to get a foothold because a lot of the bigger companies are holding back.

Jules: What does mid-list mean?

Ellie: It means authors whose books sell a few hundred copies. For example, Simon Crump, who writes the most extraordinary books, but because he doesn’t sell in huge volumes he’s found it hard to retain the support of the big London publishers.

Sam: Another good example is Ian Rankin, who for several books sold a few hundred copies and got a few good reviews, and then gradually became huge.

Jules: How can publishers make money if they only sell a few hundred copies?

Sam and Ellie

Sam: The idea is you nurture the talent until they get a break. And with writing, it’s a bit more difficult because it’s quite emotional – you feel a book is worth it, that it deserves to be out there.

Ellie: It’s grossly idealistic and unrealistic, but the idea behind Galley Beggar is that the commercialism comes second, and what’s primary is that we think a book is excellent. So even if a writer is six books in, and still selling a few hundred copies, if the seventh book was also excellent, we’d publish it.

Sam: If we like a book, and we think it’s good, we think other people will to. With Eimear’s book, a lot of publishers loved it, but said ‘the public will never go for it’.

Ellie: It’s incredibly patronising.

Sam: Like they think editors have superhuman reading powers which the public don’t have.

Ellie: I think the climate is a bit sunnier at the moment. It feels like editors are more willing to take risks. A lot of that comes from Eimear winning the Bailey’s Prize.

Jules: It’s an amazing story of how that book came to be published: she tried to get it published for nine years, got refused by every publisher, and then her husband happened to come round to your local bookshop in Norwich with the manuscript. And now there are huge adverts for Eimear’s book on the side of buses and it’s won the Bailey prize.

Ellie: It was released in America in October and has gone similarly crazy over there. This is where Sam the cynic kicks in – he gets worried about over-hype.

Sam: I don’t know. I’m just grumpy. There’s been a backlash against it too. If you look at the Amazon reviews.

Ellie: Yes but Amazon reviews are ridiculous.

Jules: And Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author also seems to be a runaway success.

Ellie: Yes, that’s been our fastest-selling novel. We sold out our first print run in a month. Andrew Holgate at the Sunday Times loved it and gave it a two-page spread. And it really took off from there.

Jules: So are you rolling in cash now?

Sam: Not exactly. I was at the cafe in the National Theatre. And there were two literary agents at the next table. And they were talking about who they would submit to. And I heard them say ‘we could try Galley Beggar, they have pots of money now.’  In fact, 15 months ago, we were absolutely against the wall. I was maxed out on my credit card, not much money coming in. And luckily quite a few things came together. We were lucky. Galley Beggar still doesn’t bring in money for us, but it doesn’t lose money for us either. And it brings have all kind of fringe benefits – it’s helped my journalism and teaching career. It’s definitely been a positive financially. That means we can continue to take risks.

Ellie: I’m essentially the 1950s housewife, except I don’t do housework, I edit Galley Beggar books full-time. We rarely pay ourselves anything. Sam’s the bread-winner, and I occasionally have to ask for spending money. We’re still poor as church mice.

Jules: But you’re both on board with that.

Ellie: Sam likes to say, we’re going to sell it and move to the Caribbean. But I know when push comes to shove he wouldn’t.

Jules: Depends on the price doesn’t it?

Ellie: No!

Sam: What would matter more is if we start to feel like we’re treading water and chasing trends. If it starts to feel stale, that would be the point where we do something different.

Jules: What’s it like running a company with your partner?

Sam: We didn’t really think about it much before, we just jumped in and did it. Sometimes it’s 10pm at night, and one of you says ‘we should email the printer’, and the other one says ‘shut up, I’m trying to have a glass of wine’. So in that sense, you can never escape from work. But in fact we’ve found our separate roles quite easily. I really like it. You feel like you’re doing something good together.

Ellie: We’ve both worked from home since 2004, so we’re used to working in the same space. I love it. And I like the fact that within Galley Beggar we’ve discovered we’re good at different things. Sam’s a great book journalist and has loads of contacts but doesn’t like sending out books for reviews, while I do. Sam’s much better when authors get upset – he becomes the hostage-negotiator.

Jules: Of course, you’re a particular type of couple – you share the same passion for books, and share the same humour.

Ellie: Yeah, we do get on quite well

Sam: What turned into our first date was trying to write a Mills & Boon book together. Of course we never wrote it.

Jules: Fiction turned into reality?

Ellie: I would find it difficult now if one of us started to work somewhere else. I’m so used to working in books and working in the same house.

You can find out more about Galley Beggar on their website.

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In other news:

A lotta great links cos I missed last week’s newsletter.
Here’s Giles Fraser on intolerance and burnings in religion and secularity.
Here’s a really moving documentary about Aaron Schwarz, the tech pioneer and campaigner for justice who took his own life last year.
David Brooks says secular humanism needs to get more ‘enchanted’.
Fantastic New Yorker article on the revival of psychedelic therapy.
Here’s Frederic Laloux talking at the RSA about ‘how to be a soulful organisation’.
Here’s Massimo Pigliucci writing in the New York Times on ‘how to be a Stoic’. Massimo got a Stoic tattoo recently, like me (COPYCAT). Mine is bigger.
Here’s the New Yorker reviewing two new books on Seneca.
Is there any higher goal than human flourishing? Interesting lecture from recent Jubilee Centre conference on virtue ethics.
Here’s one of my heroes, Jean Vanier (founder of L’Arche communities for the mentally disabled) on what we can learn from the weak.
This evening – yes this very evening – go to Escape the City School to hear David Jones of Saracens rugby club talk about how Saracens use practical philosophy to help their players flourish. Go to this link and type in the code SARACENSFRIEND for free entry.
Finally, this made me laugh: an anti-feminist twitter troll getting into a three-hour argument with a random-comment-generating spam-bot.
See you next week,
Jules

Peter L. Berger on ‘signals of transcendence’

I love the sociologist Peter L. Berger. For 50 years, he’s been producing intelligent, rigorous and sympathetic work on the sociology of religion. I just got a copy of his 1970 little book, A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, in which he talks about what he calls ‘signals of transcendence’ in modern society – little flashes of light which seem to point to a transcendent reality.

He takes one such signal to be a mother’s love for her child, and the words ‘everything is alright’ – he thinks this is a signal to a cosmic order where everything really is alright. ‘The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality. In that case, it is perfectly possible to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child’s experience of the protective order of parental love. What is projected is, however, itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality.’

He also thinks play and humour are ‘signals of transcendence’, and these are the passages I particularly want to quote, because they’re beautiful. He writes:

Joy is play’s intention. When this intention is fully realized, in joyful play, the time structure of the playful universe takes on a very specific quality – namely, it becomes eternity…This is the final insight of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in the midnight song: ‘All joy wills eternity – wills deep, deep eternity!’ …It is this curious quality, which belongs to all joyful play, that explains the liberation and peace such play provides….When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood. This becomes most apparent when such play occurs in the actual face of acute suffering and dying. It is that that stirs us about men making music in a city under bombardment or a man doing mathematics on his deathbed…It is his ludic [playful] constitution that allows man, even at Thermopylae, to regain and ecstatically realize the deathless joy of his childhood.

This is interesting, and reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow states, and the suspension of ordinary time-consciousness in moments of deep absorption. Play gives us that deep, meditative absorption, that’s one of the reasons we love it – because it suspends ordinary time-consciousness. It’s funny that we construct artificial rules to give us parameters within which to lose ourselves. In that sense, a game is like a religion – an artificial construction to enable moments of absorption and transcendence.

Csikszentmihalyi would insist, rightly, that the deepest absorption comes with excellence – when a person is at play but bringing all of their resources, all their skill and power, to the game, like this beautiful scene from A River Runs Through It. I find this scene moving, because you know Brad Pitt’s character is in trouble, and will die tragically later in the film , and yet the transcendent moment stands out, in defiance of death.

Berger also takes humour as a signal of transcendence: ‘By laughing at the imprisonment of the human spirit, humour implies that this imprisonment is not final but will be overcome, and by this implication provides yet another signal of transcendence, in the form of an intimation of redemption.’

I like the idea of humour and play as signals of transcendence. One could adapt Pascal’s quotation: ‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a laughing reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he laughs at the universe and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.’

But comedy could just as much be interpreted a reaction to the absurdity of our existence and our inability to know what the hell is going on.  Think of, say, Woody Allen’s comic existentialism, or the Coen Brothers’ Simple Man, or even Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – the comedy comes from asking deep existential questions, and not really getting any transcendent response. And yet finding a sort of humorous or absurd acceptance of that.

OK, one last quote from the book I want to share with you:

Human life has always had a day-side and a night-side, and, inevitably, because of the practical requirements of man’s being in the world, it has always been the day-side that has received the strongest ‘accent of reality’. But the night-side, even if exorcised, was rarely denied. One of the most astonishing consequences of secularization has been just this denial. Modern society has banished the night from consciousness, as far as this is possible…Much more generally, modern society has not only sealed up the old metaphysical questions in practice but has generated philosophical positions that deny the meaningfulness of those questions.

How long such a shrinkage in the scope of human experience can remain plausible is debatable. In any case, it constitutes a profound impoverishment. Both in practice and in theoretical thought, human life gains the greatest part of its richness from the capacity for ecstasy, by which I do not mean the alleged experience of the mystic, but any experience of stepping outside the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life, any openness to the mystery that surrounds us on all sides.