While larger publishers continue to play a major role in shaping our industry, it is the smaller independent publishing houses that are pushing the boundaries more than ever. Many critics suggest that the heavyweights have become risk-averse, focusing instead on sure-fire wins, such as sequels and established authors. What’s more, some would argue that this opens up ground for more agile publishers to take risks on titles, authors and methods that are unproven.
In this series of interviews, I will be speaking to innovative publishers that are approaching the industry in new and exciting ways.
First up, we have Influx Press, a collaboration between native Londoners Gary Budden and Kit Caless. Focusing very much on their immediate environment, Budden and Caless have carved out a fascinating niche in their bustling hometown, and have branched out further afield with fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction.
Here’s what they had to say:
Hello, chaps. Could you give us a brief introduction to Influx Press and what you’re all about?
GB: We started in 2011 with the idea of producing just one book. This was Acquired for Development By… published in 2012. It’s an anthology of writing from the area where we lived in the run-up to the London Olympics. It became clear that no one else was going to publish the book, so we decided to do it ourselves. Other small publishers were very generous with advice on the practicalities of doing this, and that information really helped. The book sold well and gave us the opportunity to keep publishing books, so we did. There was no grand plan at the beginning.
We set out to publish what we called “site-specific literature,” though that remit has broadened a bit now. Basically we publish what we like and find interesting—often stuff that would be hard to find a home with bigger publishers. We’ve published a wide array of stuff: poetry focusing on public transport, a London squatting memoir, New York short stories, a deep map of the east London marshes and an anthology of writing from the Kent coast.
KC: Whenever someone asks us about how Influx began, Drake pops into my head saying, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”
It’s a crowded and competitive world out there. What would you say sets Influx apart from others in the publishing industry?
GB: I think the subject matter of some of our books is different from the usual output of a lot of “literary” publishers. Someone described us as “cheeky” once. We take the work we put out very seriously, but I like to think we have a sense of humor and engage with the literary world in a slightly different way. More pints and pubs than white wine and bookshops. At the beginning there was a definite DIY attitude to what we were doing (something I had learned from the various alternative scenes in London in the noughties), and I think we still have it in the sense that we know it’s possible to get projects off the ground simply by doing it. That attitude has helped us a lot.
KC: Gary and I went to school together; we’ve known each other since we were 11 years old. We have radically different reading tastes and interests. For a start, Gary likes terrible punk-folk music, and I like grime. We don’t dress alike. We don’t write alike. We shine different, we rhyme different, but somehow this means when we agree on a book to publish, there must be something special in there. If we both like it, then it gets commissioned! I don’t suppose many publishers have this set-up.
In your early days, Influx focused on London and Londoners. How has the environment in which you’ve lived and worked affected the company’s identity over the years?
GB: The very first Influx anthology was about capturing the mood in Hackney from about 2009 to 2012, in the run-up to the Olympic Games. So that environment, that part of London, was a massive factor in our initial identity. After that book, and Marshland by Gareth E. Rees, we moved away from that specific area in terms of focus. I myself have been really put off by the proliferation in high-cost hardback, low-content books, amounting to some photographs of a fox in Hoxton and branches drooping over the river Lea. It makes me never want to read anything about that part of London again! Even though we helped fuel that interest a little… I say that as someone who has moved away from the area, so Kit may differ. I find a kind of East London myopia in a number of people I talk to, which isn’t healthy.
I would say that London as a whole is the bigger influence. Perhaps it smacks of metropolitanism, but then again we do actually live here and we hate George Osborne, too. This is home, and we try to dig out the literature from a London that might otherwise go unrecorded. From us, you’ll get stories of ‘90s squatters in Leyton, giant swans at Brentford Ait, mental breakdowns at Staples Corner, dead bears in the Lea, and poetry from the shadows of Canary Wharf. It’s very unlikely we’ll ever publish a Hampstead novel.
KC: Gary moved to Northwest London a few years ago, to a place I never want to go to, leaving me to rage at the dying of the Hackney light. This is why we have an office in Tottenham that we can both reach easily. Gary’s geographical betrayal meant that, inevitably, he started hating everything that wasn’t on the Jubilee Line. So we started publishing books set outside of east London. We were always going to do this, but Gary likes to think he was the catalyst. Despite publishing work set in New York, Argentina, Kent and Sussex, I got way too much love for the city I can never get too much of.
You’ve carved out a niche for yourselves, but every independent publishing house faces its challenges. What are your struggles?
GB: Selling books, at the end of the day. Getting a decent rep and distributor (which we have, finally). Generating press and reviews is always a huge chunk of the work—though after four years we’ve developed strong networks that really help in terms of getting the books covered. As a small press, all of this only comes with legwork and persistence (starting as we did with hardly any contacts). You have to get plugged into the whole system if you don’t want to be completely niche, and that can be a struggle.
KC: It’s pretty hard, you know. I’d say “the struggle is real,” but it’s no longer 2014. However, smaller publishers are pushing the limits of literature and I think readers recognize that. One of the best aspects of running Influx is chatting to other publishers who are on our level—or just above or below—and sharing ideas or experiences. We get great support from other publishers, like And Other Stories, Galley Beggar, Scribe, Tramp Press, Penned in the Margins, Fitzcarraldo and others. There’s a lot of competition in publishing, which is quite clearly weighed heavily in the favor of the Big Five. Like Drizzy said, “The game ain’t always fair, that’s the thing though, you can play your heart out, everybody don’t get a ring though.”
But there must be some rewards for doing what you’re doing, right?
GB: It’s hugely rewarding working on books we personally believe in, creating something from nothing. If we have an informal motto, it’s “publish books we’d want to read that don’t yet exist.” When certain books become successful (for example, Imaginary Cities) it’s a great feeling. Seeing other people respond positively to that work is a big reward. Doing something creative, actively adding to the culture, in however small a way, rather than just being passive consumers, is a big part of the appeal for me.
On a more personal level, we have made many new friends through doing Influx Press—people we simply wouldn’t have met in our day jobs. That’s really important: finding and knowing likeminded people. The live events we do are always good fun, and we try and make them proper social events rather than just a few glasses of cheap white and some backslapping in the local bookshop.
KC: Once upon a time in the long distant past, Gary and I took £30 out of the Influx bank account and put it behind a bar and had a few drinks together. Then we got drunk and ended up paying for more drinks out of our own personal accounts. But I think that was a high watermark for the benefits of running a press. I hope one day we will be drinking every night, because we drink to our accomplishments.
The rise of digital has had a huge impact on the publishing industry. Some have benefited and some have found it difficult to adapt. How do you approach digital?
GB: To be honest, there isn’t a problem. We sell ebooks, a fair few of them in fact. You make far more profit on an ebook, and the author gets a bigger royalty. For us, digital helps us sell more books. I’m happy people are reading our books, essentially. I’m a complete bibliophile, but I don’t care what format people read on.
KC: People will read in whatever way they want. However, I’m not surprised ebook sales have leveled off. I read both, but I prefer to have a physical book in my hand. Also, my shelves look good when I got good books on them. Imagine having bookshelves at home with trinkets on instead of heavyweight titles like the Lonely Planet Guide to Gozo? Unthinkable. With regards to digital being “troubling,” I just say make the most out of tonight and worry about it all tomorrow.
Small publishers often cite a closeness to their authors as key to their success as a business. What is your relationship with your authors like?
GB: This is related to an earlier point: we have good relationships with our authors, often becoming friends in the process. As we’re so small, creating each book so far has been quite an intimate process, working closely with authors on a one-to-one level. And as a small press, a lot rides on reputation, so it’s important for us to have good relationships with authors. Treat writers badly and word will quickly get out.
KC: We love our authors. However, in publishing it’s all about the relationships you form with other people too: readers, writers, booksellers. We live for the nights that we can’t remember, with the people that we won’t forget.
You mentioned day jobs earlier. Is it difficult to balance other responsibilities with running a publishing house?
GB: My day job is working as an editorial assistant for another publisher, so I may not be best placed to answer this one. The main constraint is time. We do lot of evening and weekend work, put it that way. I’m often doing Influx work on a Saturday when I could be lying in bed.
KC: I work part time for a drug and alcohol charity, which is a world away from the world of publishing (though I must say, there are a number of writers in the UK who I should probably refer to our services). I also write irregularly for people like VICE and The Quietus, which is fun and keeps the wolf from the door. As we only publish 4-6 books a year, it’s not impossible to balance. I like being busy. I got a decent set of manners, and jobs that fills up any empty schedule or planner.
Finally, what advice would you give to those looking to start up their own publishing house?
GB: Persevere. Believe in what you’re putting out, because if you don’t nobody else will. Be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort for no immediate reward. And certainly don’t think reviews and sales are going to come to you. You’re going to have to work for it.
KC: We think better when we’re not sober.
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