Interview: Jamie McGarry of Valley Press

All photographs used with kind permission of Jamie McGarry

Twitter: @valleypress

Twitter: @TheEmmaPress

Read Jamie's first book on the EP/VP blog - Here!

Emma & Jamie's Podcasts: Here!

HJ: “So thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me today. I’m excited about it! I really love your press and I’ve been reading through your story over the past few weeks and how you got to where you are now. Something I really love is how transparent and open you have been about your journey, which is just such a wonderful thing to do as a publisher.”

JM: “That has always been one of the main things at Valley Press. When I started out I noticed there wasn’t a lot of transparency and that it was a very closed world. It wasn’t a very inclusive world or transparent, and I wanted Valley Press to be the publisher that was.

HJ: “And really show what goes on behind the scenes and open it up to everyone.”

JM: “Absolutely yes, it is an on-going battle! Thank you for your support as well, it is very important that people support us.”

HJ: “Yes and I want to buy more of your books! I read ‘All the Footprints I Left Were Red’ [Rowena Knight] and absolutely loved it, so I want to explore what else you have. I’ve also been enjoying Wendy’s newsletters. So I’ve been reading up about you and your steps into publishing. I saw your very first step into that world was when you were six years old and you stapled together your first book, and I was curious what the book was?”

JM: “It was kind of a version of the Gingerbread Man. It was a short story with only a few words per page and a picture. It was about a fellow who made a turtle out of jelly, like out of a jelly mould. Then a fox ate the turtle, but then because I guess it was a sugary bit of jelly, the fox then had to go to the dentist. It was quite a bleak story actually. It is on the internet somewhere!

HJ: “Awesome, I’ll have to search for that! That is quite a dark story for a six year old!

JM: “Yeah yeah I guess it is dark isn’t it! I started dark and then I’ve lightened up as the years have gone by.”

HJ: “Okay so do you find time to do your own writing amongst all this publishing work? The fact you have produced poetry books while the head of such a successful company is astounding to me!”

JM: “The disappointing news is that I did stop creative writing when I went into full-time publishing. It wasn’t a sort of decision, the ideas just sort of stopped coming to me.”

HJ: “Oh no! Well sometimes it is better to accept that rather than forcing ideas and getting stressed over it.”

JM: “I think there is only so much you can do. If you are creative all day, then creative all evening, it kind of gets a bit much. You also don’t need an outlet anymore.”

HJ: “You want to chill out and relax when you get home.”

JM: “I still write articles, so I think that still counts as writing!”

HJ: “Totally counts! So after six months of unemployment, you decided to try and run a publishing house. I was curious as to what your fears were when you started out and what you would have to do differently if you had the opportunity to do it all again?”

JM: “Well I didn’t have too much to lose, as when I started it in 2008 it was very gently. I was a student at the time and I did one book in 2008, one book in 2009 and then maybe two or three in 2010. So it was a really slow start and I carried on slowly, even after Valley Press became more of a business. I published about six books in the first year and I was living at home, so I didn’t have to worry about paying the rent. Now I feel like it is quite higher stakes and I feel a lot of responsibility on my shoulders now. But at the start, it wasn’t that scary to do and I just brought it up gradually. Now what I would do differently from the start would be to pay the authors a fixed amount per copy sold. I had been paying them a percentage of the income from their book and the admin of that takes quite a lot of time as you can imagine. I didn’t notice it at first, but as time has gone on keeping a separate account for over a hundred titles is quite a task to keep up. I am trying to undo that now and switch everyone across to a fixed amount per book. It is quite a specific advice I suppose.”

HJ: “But very useful advice. I’ve been really enjoying your articles on publishing and business plans. And you had to write a follow up to your original A One-Page Business Plan for a One-Person Publishing Company because you were peppered with questions?”

JM: “That’s right yes”

HJ: “They have both been wonderful for tips and tricks! Were there any other things you would have changed other than the fixed amounts?”

JM: “Other than paying authors the fixed amounts...I have been changing my business plan and the workflow that goes into publishing a book. I think I’ve changed it every month since we started and probably completely re-written our publishing contract it from scratch every year incorporating the different things I’ve learnt about. It seems to be every February, I’ve just done it for this year and included all the more efficient things I’ve thought of. That is what you get by being experienced, that’s the advantage.”

HJ: “You gain that knowledge about how the best way to go about things, such as the contracts or the financial side.”

JM: Yes and I’m not keeping these things secret either. I am thinking of publishing the workflow and the contract on Medium, so that publishers can see it and use it. I mean that is a big challenge with my transparent views. According to my beliefs I should put those out there, I should share all this hard work with the world, but then there are drawbacks to that as well.

HJ: “Yes, what is ‘too much’ information, what is ‘too much’ of a behind-the-scenes look.”

JM: “I wouldn’t want to share certainly information about how well each book has done, that is one thing I have drawn the line at. It could be: either if they hadn’t sold many copies it would be humiliating for them, or if they sold lots of copies then it would be humiliating for everyone else.

HJ: “It would definitely create some complications!”

JM: “What I’ve decided to do is to make my current workflow and contract available at the end of this year once I’ve already changed everything. So I’ll put the old version up so people can look at it and I can say ‘oh I’ve changed all that now’. A bit of distance will help I think.

HJ: “It sounds like a cunning plan! So how did you attract the attention of charities like The Prince’s Trust and I think you are also Arts Council funded? And was that an easy task or a challenging one?

JM: “Well The Prince’s Trust their whole mission is to support people who are young, particularly if you are unemployed, and want to get into business. The best thing I ever heard about starting a business is that: some companies get funding to start with and then they use it as a runway to take off. But it’s not actually about taking off, it is actually about making that runway as long as possible and make sure it never runs out! It’s just about creating the longest run way possible before you take off.”

HJ: “And then you are going to fly and hopefully stay in the air!”

JM: Exactly and I really feel like we are getting close. We really need one bestseller to do that. With the Arts Council, what I’ve always done with them is meet up with the local rep or whoever is responsible for it in my area and I’ve asked them what they were looking to fund, what would they like to be funding at the moment. Then I found a way for us to do that or interpret it in a way that fits their goals and so on. Find out what they want and find a way to give it to them, that is always a good way to approach the Arts Council. Different areas will have different goals and things that they want to support.

HJ: “So it is worth for anyone who is going to down that route to research their local arts councillor, find out who they are and what they are looking into...”

JM: “Attend seminars, workshops and try to meet the people. Get to know the humans!”

HJ: “I saw that when you started out you designed your own bookcovers on a 2005 software you bought from a fair and I was wondering whether you still do that or do now have a team to do it? How has it changed if at all?”

JM: “Maybe I shouldn’t reveal what software it is in case it’s not allowed, but it is an old, old typesetting programme, which is still a popular brand. I am still using that software, fortunately the world of print doesn’t seem to have moved on from the PDF.X1A or the standard PDF, that is still what everyone wants.

I still do a lot of the bookcovers and I think if you look at the Valley Press covers 90% are still ones I’ve done I think. I do work with a couple of freelance designers and I do that when I think the book needs something more than I can deliver. I work best when the author has a very clear idea about what they want and ideally they have some images to go along with it as well. So if the author knows what they want and they can describe an image, even if they don’t have one, that is where I step in and I’m quite good at realising their vision. It hasn’t changed much of the years. The book you mentioned, All the Footprints I Left Were Red, that wasn’t done by me that was done by Rosa, who worked with us from October 2015 to October 2016. She did a great job! She tried to copy my style – which has become the Valley Press style – of a cool image and then simple text.”

HJ: “Which is fair enough, they have proven very effective! How did you form a partnership with The Emma Press? What started all that?”

JM: “When they started, I saw a press release in The Bookseller. I saw her first design and I was like WOW! I could really tell this person was going to be a really big deal, I think I knew that even before Emma did. I think Emma is – in terms of raw publishing talent – I don’t I’ve met anyone that could compete with her. Her books, the illustrations, just so much care goes into them. There is a whole level of commitment and even though I am very committed to Valley Press, there is something about Emma and her press that is really extraordinary. So I messaged her and we got talking about it, then we kept communicating and it became a regular thing. We ended up having a weekly phone call every Friday morning. This happened quite quickly and it went on from about 2013 to the end of 2017. We are still going on now, but now what we’ve started doing is recording every other one. Have you heard our podcasts?”

HJ: “Yes I have actually, that was going to be my next question, where the idea of the podcasts came from!”

JM: “Emma just thought we could be sharing these conversations with the world and that other people might value them as well. We just record our usual phone calls and then edit them. But we find we’ve sort of ended up playing to the listeners, so now we tend to talk about a specific topic and it will be anything we think weighs on publishers minds, like how many books can you do each year? So we kind of have a theme for each episode. The one we just did, which we recorded yesterday, talked about whether you should pay for submissions, competition fees and buying a book so you can submit work. That got quite emotional at times! We try to answer the question. It is still in its infancy. There are only five episodes at the moment”

HJ: “That will give me a chance to catch up! I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on submission fees, particularly in poetry circles. I’m a poet myself and I go to different events, probably not as much as I should, and the subject of paying for submissions has been quite hotly contested at times. They argue that they can’t afford to keep doing that and money shouldn’t be a part of it. But on the other hand, we need to contribute to keep small presses and zines going, they need that money in order to continue to exist. They need that money so they can run, so people can send in work and get published, so it all works around itself.”

JM: “Yes and I think it is even more simple than that. We can all go around publishing and paying for our publishing, but paying for the time to read the submissions that is the problem.”

HJ: “Yes and you’ve come up with the wonderful ‘buy a book to submit’, which I thought was brilliant when I first encountered it. I was like: Yes! That makes sense to me! Then they are actually reading the kind of things you like as well. We always have those people who will submit without reading the submission guidelines, so this way not only do they get to read the kind of work you like but your sales figures go up too.”

JM: “I think it is good idea and it helps us keep the numbers more manageable than they would be otherwise. If it was truly open and it just read ‘send us your manuscript’, I can’t begin to think how many submissions that would be. A terrifying number! We had about 900 over a twelve month period, which we closed recently and when we closed it, we still had 300 unread. But they are opening again soon. It goes to show the ‘buy a book’ thing is okay, I think some people are still troubled by when you have to pay like £30.00 to enter a competition. That is a bit scary to most people, but I do get a lot of good feedback about the buy a book thing. In my memory it was invented by Emma of The Emma Press, she is certainly the first person who told me.”

HJ: “So credit to her then!”

JM: “She doesn’t want to be remembered as the creator of that. She was saying that in the podcast and claimed I was the creator.”

HJ: “Dual ownership then [laughs]”

JM: “And yet there are some people who are happy to pay competition fees, but don’t like the buy-a-book thing.”

HJ: “To me the buy-a-book thing works out well. With a submission fee, you can pay it, submit and then not get accepted, you don’t get anything. But with the buy-a-book method you are actually getting a book out of it, you still have something to show for your submission and you’ve supported a press while doing that. It is a beautiful supportive way of submitting to me.”

JM: “I’ll definitely be keeping it up and I’ll think we’ll see more presses taking it up as time goes on.”

HJ: “Yes I’m certainly going to borrow it when Selcouth Station gets to that stage, because that does just make a lot of sense to me. You are getting paid for the reading and you are promoting your author’s work as well.”

JM: “I think it does get more reasonable when you have more books, especially when you have over 100 like we do. Asking someone to pick a book to buy out of a 100 is not such a bad thing. You can definitely find something you would like to read. But if you are starting with one book and you have to buy that particular book, then it becomes more of a burden I suppose.”

HJ: “It becomes: why do I have to buy this particular book? Is it because it isn’t selling well? It raises questions.”

JM: “I think it has to be a choice of at least six I would say.”

HJ: “I think it’s such a wonderful method and piece of advice. I think if more presses did that, even zines or magazines where you buy a copy and quote the pay reference number. Then that would be a much more....I keep wanting to use the word ‘organic’ but I’m not sure if it is the right word...The writers are feeding the presses and the presses are feeding the writers and it keeps going round.”

JM: “It is like an ecosystem isn’t it?”

HJ: “Yes ecosystem. That is the word I wanted! So changing topic, on your one-page publishing plan you suggest hiring freelance editors, which is great advice and an outside look is always vastly important. I certainly prefer not to do it alone. I now have a volunteer who will be working on the manuscripts and it is giving her experience as well. But how did you go about finding those editors and selecting them, what do you look for in a good editor?”

JM: “I never have too much trouble finding them. By the time I started looking for them, because I used to do all the editing myself, I was getting cold-calls let’s say from editors all the time, because that is how they find work. Also many of the authors I’ve published were intelligent literary people who could do with a few extra pounds, so they were the natural choice to start with. It’s all part of the ecosystem I suppose. Then I’ve just picked up a few extra people over the years. I don’t think it’s necessary that a small press should have freelance editors, but for me it is not the thing I feel most confident about. By default I would hire a freelance editor and by default I would design the cover myself. But if you are more comfortable with the editing than the design, then it could be the other way around. So you might want to do all the editing and then find a freelance designer.”

HJ: “That is kind of what I’ve done this time round, in that Sandra, my volunteer and I are doing the editing, checking into the authors to read the changes and then I’ve had three self-employed, indie illustrators do the covers and try to increase my ecosystem to support artists as well as writers. It does mean it has been a bit more expensive than it might have been! I am really excited about all the different ways that small presses are producing books right now and how that is effecting publishing. It is like the mainstream publishing route is now not the only way and we have now all these different ways small presses can publish and look after their authors that might not have been seen otherwise. It is an exciting time!”

JM: “It is the golden age of small press publishing.”

HJ: “We should announce that and tell everyone to go set up their presses now.”

JM: “There are just so many more writers than publishers, so many more presses are needed. That is another reason for me to give out as much information and support as I can. Out of those 900 people who wrote to us, we can only probably help about ten, so someone has got to go look after those 890 and share them between us.”

HJ: “I love how everyone at Valley Press, The Emma Press and other presses like Dead Ink and Penned in the Margins, they are all so supportive of each other. I love that community partnership you’ve all got, you share each other’s social media posts and point to each other’s events. I think that is such a beautiful relationship to have.”

JM: “And you will soon be part of it too, Haley.”

HJ: “Aw I guess that is true! I would certainly like to be, though we are still tiny and haven’t produced anything yet. But I would love to get to that stage and continue to support everyone as much as I can. Getting back to your press though, I read that you have a team of readers who help you with the submissions you receive and I wondered if you had a criteria for those who are considering applying to be Valley Press readers?”

JM: “I would take literally anyone to be part of our reading group. Literally anyone can be part of it, I can’t think of anyone we would exclude as long as they are interested in books. But then if you weren’t interested in books I doubt anyone would sign up to read three a week!”

HJ: “Wow is it three a week? Is that the typical reading amount?”

JM: “Well Tess sends out three a week and whether they read all three is another thing, they are not always free and people do what they can. Tess is the heart of the submissions, she reads and oversees everything that comes in, and then she organizes the whole process.”

HJ: “So for those who are encountering you for the first time, do you want to pitch your projects and let readers know what is coming up?”

JM: “We’ve just done our first graphic novel, which is quite exciting and I’m very proud of that! It is one of my favourite books. Whenever anyone asks what my favourite book is, it is always the most recently published one or the one I’ve most recently signed up. So now we have a few different strands. We have the new stuff, because I always want to try new stuff to keep myself interested. I don’t know what will be the next thing, but I’ll know it when I see it. The newest things are more picture books or graphic novels, which we have one more of coming out this year. We also have this Chinese publishing, where we are publishing all these greats of Chinese literature in translation. We’ve done two of those and you can easily spot them on the website, as there is a theme to the covers. The first one was green, the next one is going to be orange and the third will be red, which will be out in May.”

HJ: “And how did you start the Chinese project, how did that all kick off?”

JM: “It is quite a unusual story actually. In 2012, I went to give a talk to the WI in a nearby village near Scarborough. One of the ladies there, well her son was living in China and involved with a University, which is a literary university that had collected all these Chinese authors. So one time he was over here visiting his mum, he was saying how he would like to be involved with an English publisher and she was like: ‘Oh I know this nice young man over in town.’ So he got into contact and now we have seven books out. The moral there is: do as much as you can, you will never know what will be the result.”

HJ: “Yes because you wouldn’t think a talk with the Women’s Institute in Scarborough would lead to Chinese authors from the other side of the world. That is quite incredible!”

JM: “They are supposed to be absolutely enormous in China. The next book we are publishing is by an author called Jia Pingwa, he is supposed to sell like millions of copies of his books when they come out in China. And it all started with this little WI, so it was a surprise!”

HJ: “A lovely surprise! And quite an amazing journey as well.”

JM: “Yes and as well as the graphic novels and this Chinese project, we’ve still got all these other books to come. With got non-fiction, poetry and novels. One of the novels we’ve got coming up was a big hit in South Africa and it made it onto the curriculum there. So we are bringing it to the UK. We are getting more international and just starting our journey into the world.”

HJ: “That’s incredible! And what submissions do you find you get the most of when you have an open call?”

JM: “We still get mostly poetry, which seems to be unavoidable. I think it is because we started out as a poetry press and that was my main interest at the time we started. Then those poets told other poets. There are not many outlets for poetry in presses. We’re not into a lot of experimental poetry. I think of the Valley Press poetry in these terms: Think of a literary professor who has been studying poetry for years and then my Mum, someone who reads whatever she likes, the person on the street. If a book can reach both of them and make them both happy, that is the definition of the Valley Press book. Apart from that there isn’t really any rules, apart from useful books. We don’t do textbooks. We’ll publish any book that is not useful. Also useful books become useless over time. So it is entertaining books that appeals to both ends of the spectrum.”

HJ: “So what is the best way for would-be readers or submitters to Valley Press to follow you? The newsletter?”

JM: “The newsletter is a great way to keep up to date with Valley Press. It is sent out fortnightly now instead of weekly, which is easier to keep up with. That will be advertising internships or submissions, anything like that it will all be in the newsletter. And we will be opening up for submissions again soon. Also if you are looking to buy a Valley Press book, do move down the list and you will find the perfect book for you. I believe in keeping them all in print for as long as humanly possible.”