The Ivy, Irish Man and BlueMoose.

by Kevin Duffy

I am and have been a sales rep for 23 years for a variety of publishing houses that range from the commercial, Headline, to the academic, Kogan Page. I now represent Anova, which is an illustrated non-fiction house. Having won a national writing competition in 1998, I thought that it would be only a matter of time before I was drinking cocktails on the sun drenched beaches of The Caribbean.

Not so.

I was invited down to London to be wined and dined at The Ivy by a well-known agent and an editor from Macmillan. To be honest it didn’t go well. I felt like a Northern oik who’d been brought down to perform for the metropolitan elite. I was very judgemental when I met triple barrelled ladies who lunched. I should have known better but I was very nervous. I was being interviewed for my all time favourite job, writer, and I didn’t want to mess it up. I did. As I made my way to the loo realising my dream of being published was slipping through my hands I decided I need a memento from The world famous Ivy and decided to take something from the toilets. As I was about to put a small monogrammed facecloth in the pockets of my jeans, a wardrobe sized member of staff said in an Eastern European accent, "We don’t do that kind of thing in here sir." I put it back and left.

Move on to 2001 and I was signed up to Darley Anderson as Colm O’Driscoll. I’d read in The Bookseller that all the big money was going on new Irish writers. I spent a year talking to them as an Irish writer before being asked to go down to London to sign a contract. Jaysus, I thought, I’ll have to tell them I’m not Irish and I’ve been spinning them a line. I pressed the doorbell at their HQ and when I met my agent said. ‘My name’s not Colm and I’m not Irish.’ Fortunately they saw the funny side of it, laughed and called me a ‘Con man and a rogue.’ They also said I couldn’t be 41, my real age, and that I had to be 37, as the press didn’t think you could be a new writer and over 40!They pitched my book Anthills and Stars and Hodder were going to publish it. They said it was like ‘Father Ted meets Chocolat.’ Excellent. Get the cocktail umbrellas out. That is until the Commercial Director told the Publisher he didn’t think he could sell 20,000 units, so they decided not to publish.

I started to rant a lot. My wife told me to stop moaning and do something about it. So I did. We remortgaged the house and started Bluemoose Books. Our first two books were my novel Anthills & Stars, which looks at Hippies moving into the Calder Valley at the end of the 60’s and The Bridge Between by Nathan Vanek, which looked at Nathan’s life as a meditation guru living in India for 25years and then his move back to Canada to look after his ageing a dad, a judge. We’ll be publishing our fifth title, Falling through clouds by Anna Chilvers in January 2010.

Although I’d been involved in the selling of books, to produce and market them is a different skill altogether and we’re still learning. From buying blocks of ISBN’s, sending the correct bibliographical information to Nielsen’s and getting the advanced information sheets to the library supplier’s three months in advance of publication. Jacket design, printers, and setting up accounts with the wholesalers and Waterstones. Dealing with Amazon. And most importantly trying to get review coverage. If nobody knows your book is out there then how the hell can you sell it?

As a small publisher it is virtually impossible to get review coverage in the nationals. Their thinking is if it comes from a small indie it must be rubbish, because if it were any good the mainstream publishers would have gobble it up. Which of course is nonsense. Roddy Doyle self published the ‘Commitments’ and I believe he was a Booker winner. The Internet has stepped in and made it possible to get new books reviewed and noticed. If it weren’t for the likes of Scott Pack reviewing The art of being dead and other online literary review sites, then it wouldn’t be the success it is. From there it was chosen by Exclusively Independent to be one of the books of the month trailed in Independent bookshops up and down the country.

This will stir the nest up a bit. Perhaps the very model of the advance is a thing of the past. The whole publishing business model needs to be looked at, because agents won’t sign up new writers unless they think they will sell tens of thousands of copies. They have been told by publishers that because so much money is being spent on celebrities, they are not going to take a punt on a new writer unless they are sure they can sell hundreds of thousands of copies. This means that they will all follow safe publishing rules. Only publish what works. Copy the generic styles that are working and you will make money. Go outside these very limited boundaries and you are taking too much of a risk. It’s the old supermarket mantra. Pile ‘em high and sell’em cheap. It worked, but it’s not the future of publishing.

It seems the only people taking risks these days and publishing writing that doesn’t follow a standard form are the Independents. Tindall Street, Myrmidon, Route, Legend Press and dare I say it Bluemoose Books. I think it’s very patronising of the publishing industry to think that the British people are not ready or willing to take a few risks with what they want to read. It is possible for small independents to make their mark. I am so proud to have published Stephen Clayton’s latest book The art of being dead, because it is important that brilliant stories by significant new writers are allowed a voice. And the public, even in these trying times are voting with their wallets and buying books that don’t conform. And long may that last.

BlueMoose books can be found here.
And Kevin's blog, The Moose that Roared here.

Photo credit: Geof Wilson


Paul Burman said...

Spot on. All power to the Indies.

Jen P said...

Great fun. And I love the 'change the nationality and age to be a perfect debut author' ideas. A great story.

Jane Turley said...

Very entertaining article with a lot of truth in it.

I would just like to add that I would definately read a book that was cross between Father Ted (which I loved) and Chocolat (Diplomatic silence.)

The thought of an Irish Priest serving After Eights as Holy Communion rather tickles my fancy.

Stella said...

Would an Australian accent be of any use? I think I can fake my way through one.

Unknown said...

Kudos to you, KD! The closest I came to getting a novel published was when it was cut from a catalog. I did not go on to start my own independent publishing company, however. I boo-hooed and wrote a much better novel, which has been deemed "unpublishable" by big and small.
Btw, I went to RC school with a few "Kevin Duffy"-s. Each belonged to a family that hailed from Ireland and was saving their pennies to make a pilgrimage to the home land.

Note to Stella: An Australian accent might help, but so would a Texan drawl--that's my guess.

Stella said...

Oooh! I can actually do the Texan drawl. I think. Texans would probably detect me in a moment. Then again so would any Australian. Ah well, it's something to think about...