One of the truisms of life is that you never know what a chance meeting might deliver. A couple of years ago a writer came to one of my NaNoWriMo meetings – three or so years on, that writer, Fiona Wallace, is about to launch a fascinating new magazine, and because we’ve kept in touch in the intervening years, I’ve been able to observe at first hand how somebody sets up a new publication. The whys and wherefores are fascinating, and Fiona’s agreed to answer some questions for me.
Why start another literary magazine?
Bottom line? Because I was pissed off. Everyone whining about what Waterstones and Tesco’s were up to in the books market, yet no one with the balls to stand up and do something about it. What independent presses need is not miles of newsprint bemoaning the state of the industry, they need to have their books reviewed somewhere other than in a couple of two inch boxes on the back page. This implies to the customer that this amount of attention is all that’s worth giving to the independents, so no wonder they go out and buy the latest ‘me too’ book from the front table in Waterstones.
What’s makes The Small Press Review unique?
Several things, in no particular order:
We review fiction and poetry. Non-fiction barely gets a look in. This is the reverse of what you will find in all the major literary publications. One of the paradoxes of the literary industry is that the profits are driven by fiction, and yet fiction makes up less than 20%, and often less than 5%, of books reviewed. This, I think, is for two reasons. One, it is easier to review non-fiction—you’re dealing with a factual base, and there are no end of academics willing to review a book in their field. These reviews rarely spend that much time on the book itself; they are an opportunity for the reviewer to show off their knowledge and impart it to the reader. That’s all well and good for non-fiction, but a fiction reader generally wants to know two things: What’s the book about? Will I like it? Secondly, the reviewing ‘industry’, like the publishing industry until recently, is a male dominated field. And it is solid fact that men tend to read non-fiction, while women tend to read fiction. So fiction has traditionally been ghettoised in the reviews, with genre fiction a ghetto within a ghetto.
We ask all our reviewers to sign a declaration, which can be viewed on the website. This gives information about any knowledge the reviewer has of the writer or publisher prior to reviewing a book. I’m realistic about this; the fiction publishing world is a fairly small one, and poetry smaller still, and it’s unavoidable that reviewers, writers and publishers will trip over one another, especially as some do all three jobs. But I feel it is important for the reader to know about this. It’s a piece of information that is so often withheld—Private Eye does a wonderful article each January noting the links between all the people offering their Christmas book recommendations. I got so cross about how many ‘backscratch’ reviews there were, that I no longer even glance at these sorts of lists. They are meaningless without the background information.
We do not have author photographs in the magazine, except in relation to interviews. When you sit down to read a book, it’s the words that matter, not whether the writer is pretty, or from a particular ethnic group or under a certain age.
What’s the best thing about being an editor?
Seeing it all come together—I hope!
Seriously—one of the best things is having something to offer, at last. I can attend launches and talk to publishers and writers with a view to giving them space in the magazine. It’s an interesting position to be in, and you quite quickly learn to assess what a business is like. The majority of small presses scrape by financially, and yet a few have been quite sniffy about what I’m trying to do, which is essentially offer them free advertising via reviews of their books. Others have practically bitten my hand off, and that sort of reciprocal enthusiasm makes it feel worth doing. I think enthusiasm isn’t additive—it’s multiplicative (is that a word?). (Possibly the word we’re meant to use is exponential, but I think writers should coin new words whenever possible, so I’m up for multiplicative in this case!) Put two enthusiastic people together and their enthusiasm increases fourfold. I will always remember Richard Griffiths in History Boys, at the moment the photo is taken. ‘Pass the parcel, boys,’ he says. ‘That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on.’ It is the moment on which everything pivots, and I was closer to tears at that point than at any other in the film.
And what’s the worst thing?
So far, the worst thing was the computer crash forty minutes before deadline, which took seven hours of work with it. I’d religiously saved every page, and set the autosave, too, but it made no difference at all. I was so furious I wanted to start throwing things.
The second worst thing, and more likely to be an ongoing issue, is dealing with writing that simply isn’t good enough. Some people don’t understand the difference between a piece of prose that makes sense, and one that reads professionally. There’s a smoothness to professional prose that is very hard to quantify, and some writers just cannot spot the difference. I wouldn’t have set myself up as an editor if I hadn’t felt confident about my ability to edit other people’s work, and I know there is going to be a point where I am going to have to put my foot down and someone will get upset. That said, there are a lot of very professional reviewers who understand that the editor represents the magazine, and vice versa, and so he/she has to have the final word. If you want to be a professional writer in any field, you have to take your personal feelings out of it. Imagine someone handing your work back to you with a shrug and saying ‘not good enough’. Your immediate response should be tell me where you don’t like it and what I can do to get it right. If you know you’d only get angry or upset, then you have a problem that is going to hold you back from succeeding. Art of any kind is very personal, I know. But other people will have an opinion, often a valid one, and you have to deal with your response to that.
What advice would you give somebody who is thinking of setting up a literary publication?
First, you need a lot of enthusiasm and belief that your idea is worth pursuing, along with the ability to motivate and organise other people. Ideally you should find a gap, something that hasn’t been done before, because then you don’t have to compete with established brands. 95% of literary magazines fail within a year, even those with a lot of sponsorship money behind them.
Second, and following on, you need money. There’s no getting away from that. No matter how much work you do yourself, there will always be unavoidable costs. Web-based magazines avoid printing charges, but there’s still a lot of other stuff, not least the time it takes away from your own writing.
Be professional. Do the absolute best you can. Shoddy production values turn people away—do not expect them to give you a break, unless you’re only distributing among friends and family (and sometimes not even then!). If you are publishing other writers, then do not let them down. You may not have a written contract, but your professional honour is at stake, and these things are remembered.
Be realistic about what sort of audience you are capable of reaching, and how you’re going to get their attention. Never assume that your work will be so brilliant that the readers will just flood in. Never trust to that sort of luck. Meet every enquiry with a prompt, courteous and enthusiastic reply, no matter how irritating the question. I had a snippy publisher email me to tell me I should be launching a completely different sort of magazine. I replied, explaining about the market research I’d done, why I felt TSPR filled a gap and the purpose behind the magazine, and he became my first subscriber.
You have to advertise. Decide in what format, how much to spend and most important, your timescale. You have to build up a buzz among your potential audience ahead of your launch. If your audience doesn’t know about you, your enterprise will fail, and all the effort on the publication is wasted.
Statistically your magazine will probably fail, even if you’ve put your heart into it. That is not a reflection on you, it’s reality. Have an exit plan. Try and give subscribers some of their money back (the reason people don’t subscribe to new magazines is that their money so often disappears into a black hole). Thank them for their support, point them at other magazines that you think are good. What goes around comes around.
And what advice would you give writers hoping to be published, or for that matter, small presses hoping to get their books into the public eye?
Network, network, network. Talented writers get rejected every day. Crap books get published every day. Very, very few people get picked from the slushpile, no matter how good their writing. But meet an agent and impress them as a switched on, enthusiastic person who will listen to criticism and act on it, well, then you’re ahead of the game when your manuscript crosses their desk. It also allows you to include ‘we met at the xxx event’ in your covering letter, which means if your writing is any good they’re more likely to take it home and read it, or maybe forgive you the typo on page 3.
How do you network? Starting out from zero is daunting. There are many writing courses, from small local afternoon ones, to the Arvon Foundation, to the course at the Groucho Club in London (still on my to-do list), to Masters postgraduate classes at practically every university. These courses are not just there to teach you how to write. They are there to put you in touch with the community of writers. And the majority of writers are amazingly approachable—one of those I’ve heard a lot of positive stuff about is Tracey Chevalier. That’s why she’d heading up the RSA; she meets and greets nervous first timers at the meetings, introduces them to lots of people and ‘passes it on’ in a way that should be emulated by everyone.
You are a writer, as well as having a demanding career as a GP – now you’ve added reviewer, editor and publisher to your list of things to do – what drives you to take on such commitments?
I’m a middle class woman from a hothouse educational background. My existence was always predicated on what I could achieve rather than who I was, and to a certain extent it’s too late to change that. Five years ago I did a series of psychological tests and came out as a ‘born leader’, when leadership was something I’d always avoided. The facilitator (I hate that word!) made me look at myself and ask why, if that was what I was good at, I wasn’t doing it. It has been a long haul from there, and a lot of things have changed. But I grew less afraid of taking the lead, and slowly realised that a lot of people actually want someone to take charge and organise them, because it makes everyone feel secure. I suppose that was partly how I ended up working in A&E; still my favourite part of medicine, though GP fits better as ‘lifestyle choice’.
Last year I did another set of psychological tests and came out as a very unusual personality type – a highly academic leader-motivator. It forced me to realise that I have a lot to offer, and I could sit at home and do nothing about it, or I could grab an idea and run with it. But beware – my type doesn’t have much patience with people who promise and don’t deliver!
Where, when and how can people get hold of a copy of The Small Press Review?
Via the address on the website; send a cheque and we’ll post the copies out to you. We are aiming to get out six issues no matter what happens, even if the last are home-printed, so you will get your money’s worth. If you only want one issue, then send a cheque for £4.50 after the 19th July and we’ll send a sample copy. I will get around to setting up a paypal link to make things quicker. It’s on the to-do list…
Who do you most admire as a writer, and why?
Now the questions are getting difficult!
I can’t pick one, because each writer brings something different to the canon. Look at Tolkien—intense dedication to the creation of another world; languages, history, geography, myth…a lifetime of concentrated achievement. Writers like Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson, who did what they were good at, and did it very well, despite the sneering and sniping from the literati. Carson McCullers, who continued writing when most of us would have said ‘stuff it’. Any writer who works as hard as they can and who puts their best work in front of the public.
If you were abandoned on a desert island, with just one book for company, what would it be?
I could never choose. Sorry, that’s dodging the question, but it’s true. Faced with a choice like that, I might even refuse to take anything and decide to live inside my own head. I’m a writer, too, after all, and the stories that I dream up would keep me entertained long after any book had fallen to bits.
In a couple of months Fiona’s going to review her comments here, share what her experiences have been since the launch and tell us (truly) how things are working out … so watch this space.