Death of an Indie Press
I've been cogitating this blog post for a few weeks now. It's not an easy one to write. It's quite mean, in some ways. Perhaps that really means truthful. Either way, here it is. Truth bombs incoming...
I made the decision to close my tiny indie press Louise Walters Books, in June this year. In the end, it was an easy decision to make, in many ways. Eventually you have to stop doing the thing that's hurting you. In my case, banging my head against a very hard and unforgiving brick wall. Or should I say a glass ceiling... perhaps even a class ceiling. Whatever it was, it was hurting, and I had to stop it.
I started my press in 2017 with a great deal of naive optimism. I think you must have naivety and optimism to even think about running an indie press. I knew what I was looking to publish - literary and intelligent fiction, with something to say. My watchword was talent. I was looking for talented writers, and they weren't difficult to find. There are tons of them out there. Many can't get agents, or book deals with the big publishers. So they turn to the indie presses...
And right away there is the first of many misconceptions in the wider publishing world: that the indies mop up the Big Publishers' cast-offs. Not so. The false assumption is that big corporate publishing is a meritocracy. It is not. If there is a meritocracy in publishing, it's the indies that operate it. Not the big guys. They are just out for maximum profit and will publish anything, anything AT ALL, if they think it will make money. Hence the celebrity books, the ghost-written stuff, the endless piles of shitty formulaic books so beloved of Waterstones, and a fair few indie bookshops too. Books that no self-respecting indie press would touch with a barge pole. It's not snobbery. Far from it. It's a desire for quality, the drive to make a difference, wanting to publish great writers who deserve to be published. Talent.
Anyway, soapbox rant over. It's 2017, I'm turning 50, I have a small entrepreneurial streak, and 20 grand to spend. I want to run my own publishing company. I brought out a couple of my own books as practice runs, and off I went. It was fantastic! Picking which books to publish, making announcements (we were in The Bookseller, don't you know) and then the best part: editing. Working with such a talented bunch of authors was incredible. Editing my seven authors at LWB will always be one of my life's great privileges.
I set up my own website, which did not come easy to a technophobe like me. I went to the London Book Fair. My first few books didn't do much sales-wise. They also didn't get reviewed. (Despite printing 100 proof copies and posting them out here, there, and everywhere. It wasn't cheap. I eventually had to stop doing that.) Book bloggers were fantastic though. Great people, book bloggers, giving so much of their time and enthusiasm.
With huge excitement I entered as many prizes as I could with all my eligible titles. I knew a prize shortlisting was realistically going to be the only way I could break through. (Waterstones refused to stock any of my books. I understand it. They only have so much shelf space. But does quite so much of it have to be devoted to the big publishers?) One major literary prize, and I won't embarrass them by specifying which one, got back to me to ask if I was a legitimate publisher. Did I pay to publish the books? Were they print-on-demand? E-book only? (I had read the rules before entering.) I replied with great politeness, in the face of great condescension, but perhaps I should have just told them to fuck off? The outcome would have been the same: the brilliant book I entered, Diana Cambridge's Don't Think a Single Thought, wasn't long listed. I entered it into several prizes, and sadly it got nowhere. It deserved to be huge, piled high on tables in Waterstones across the land. It would have sold like hot cakes. This is the inescapable frustration with running an indie press. You have vision, but nobody else can - or cares to - see it.
Bookshops. Oh, bookshops! Some were absolutely brilliant, and stocked my books, and promoted them, gave me advice... Blackwells in Oxford, Mostly Books in Abingdon, Book Corner in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, are just three who were very kind to me and my press. Some individual Waterstones shops also carried some of my titles. I won't ever forget the support some bookshops gave. Sadly, too many others didn't want to know. My particular favourite was one who I shall not name, to save their blushes. I got talking, while I was shopping there one day. In those still-optimistic days, I carried a couple of my titles around with me wherever I went. I showed the bookshop owner one of my books. They almost recoiled in horror. They didn't touch it. Flustered, they asked me to e-mail them. Which I did. They never replied. Genuinely, to this day, I still think they misunderstood and couldn't grasp that I was bona fide publisher. I think they thought I was that horror of horrors, a self-published author. Which I am. But it wasn't one of my books I was trying to show them. (It was Helen Kitson's The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson. A fine novel by a fine writer.) But bona fide publishers perhaps don't show up in little indie bookshops, chat, buy books (yes, I bought books from them that day). Publishers are in London, and they are posh, and elite, and unseen, and they are the actual publishers. Not common upstarts like me.
The disregard for my press and my professionalism was hurtful. It really was. Publishing is the least professional of all the professions. I noticed this from quite early on in my writing career. Nobody in publishing is a "professional" at all. That's the truth of it. A private education gets you into the "proper" London publishers. That's about all you need. That doesn't mean there aren't some great people working in publishing in a professional manner. There are. And I was one of them. I set out to run my press in the most professional way. I paid huge attention to my editing. The authors and I went through a meticulous process. My aim was zero tolerance for typos. I'm proud that two or three of my books are flawless in that regard! I paid my authors on time, four times a year, I communicated with them clearly. As a writer, I know how all too often writers don't get paid. Sometimes by indie presses, and sometimes by the big guns. I have that T-shirt. Different post, maybe, but I pride myself in never not paying my authors, and I absolutely have never ghosted any of them. That would be unprofessional. Wouldn't it?
Anyway, back at the ranch... my 20 grand had pretty much been spent, and until almost the last book I published, in 2022, I still thought I could make it; break through, somehow. I hired PR for £1500. Yes, you read that right. In addition to that fee I had to post out (and print) review copies. We ended up with two articles which my author wrote, in minor publications; and a promise of an article, which my author also wrote, in a more major publication. This never materialised. We had a blog tour, but I could have organised that myself. To say the PR was a disappointment is an understatement. Lesson learned. Too much of publishing is going through the motions. Too much of mainstream publishing is lazy. Indie presses aren't, indeed can't, be lazy, yet we come up, over and over, against a huge wall (or that bloody ceiling) of apathy, blandness, and no originality of thought whatsoever.
I was working my socks off on freelance editorial work all the time I ran my indie press. It was exhausting. I worked almost every day for six years. My marriage suffered, my time with my kids was greatly reduced. I regret so much the time I gave to publishing and took away from my loved ones. I started to drink too much. I was also missing writing my own stuff. This all contributed to my decision to stop indie publishing. It simply wasn't worth it, in the end. Coupled with the effects of Brexit, lockdowns, the ensuing cost-of-living crisis, the increase in paper and printing costs, and the hideous discounts and returns system in the book world (both deeply frustrating), I stood no chance.
Now I focus on my freelance editorial work and can pay myself a salary. I won't get back my 20 grand in savings, but that's OK. All publishing is a gamble and mine didn't pay off. But it was a deeply personal loss, and I felt it in every bone in my body. I failed. My husband says that isn't so. He says I was failed. I don't know. The outcome is the same.
The awful thing is that I worked, and worked, and worked, and nothing happened. Hard work does not achieve anything in publishing. That is another myth in the industry, along with publishing being a profession at all. Mostly it's a well-off person's playground, gambling other people's money, and it's well-off people scratching the backs of other well-off people. My little press didn't stand a chance, but it was real, and it had heart, soul, passion, and energy.
To all those who supported us at Louise Walters Books, I thank you sincerely. Every sale, every review, was a thrill. To all those who didn't, please think about the kind of publishing landscape you actually want. Stop kow-towing to the big publishers and get on board with the indies. There are still many left, some thriving, some not, publishing great books. Use them or lose them.
Finally, most of my authors' books remain available in audio, so it's not too late to discover the great things we did at LWB. And one author, the immensely talented Laura Laakso, has been offered a book deal with another indie press for her urban fantasy series. It's going to be huge, I know it. I knew it all along. Watch this space! I'm going to continue to work as Laura's editor, which is about as perfect an outcome as I could have wished for.