How indie publisher Galley Beggar took on the big guns and won
I'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: 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?
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.
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,