Smoke Signals: Jude Rogers On The State Of Independent Publishing
, August 9th, 2013 04:31
As Quietus writer Jude Rogers prepares to publish an anthology of London writing, she looks at the changing issues facing independent publishers since she founded Smoke magazine a decade ago
Ten years ago, I was a miserable 25-year-old, working for a dysfunctional charity up a fire escape in Acton. I had wanted to be a writer for many years. Trouble was, I didn't know how to do that. I had no confidence to simply approach people, or send an inquisitive email to editors. Why would they read such a thing, anyway? Why would they care?
But I had put together a little fanzine with my new friend, Matt Haynes, who had experience selling music through two record labels, Sarah and Shinkansen. It was called Smoke: A London Peculiar.
We paid £600 to get the first issue printed; I'd saved up for my half of that by taking £50 out of my pay for six months, which was rough. Then the magazines arrived. Matt and I put them in jiffy bags in our rucksacks, and started blindly wandering into bookshops across London, telling people about this bizarre little thing that we'd put together. It had a bus of the month in it (the 253). A ghost tube station. Words found written on the steamed-up windows of late-night buses. It also included pieces about Rimbaud, Arthur Fowler, Alma Cogan, and Iain Sinclair walking clockwise around the Elephant & Castle one-way system.
It also had a picture of Centrepoint on the front, and a red strip on the side. Mike at the front counter at Foyles – then a sprawling, mad bookshop in London's Charing Cross Road – took a chance on us. He took 20 copies, on a sale or return basis. If they sold, hip hip hooray. If they didn't, at least we'd tried.
The 20 sold out a week later. Mike took some more. Other shops followed. I sent some to magazines, cluelessly, with a little silly covering letter. Ian Watson from The Independent interviewed us. So did David Hepworth, editorial director of a new music monthly. Not long after, his colleague, Paul Du Noyer, asked me if I wanted to write some reviews. Four months later, I left Acton for Islington, and a part-time job at Word Magazine. I've been a writer, of sorts, ever since.
I've spelt out this story in excruciating detail – thanks to those of you who've persisted with it – because it says a lot about how the world have changed. These days, individual booksellers are rarely allowed to take a chance on indie publishers, who just wander into the shop, babbling about camp statues and their favourite Thames bridge. Buying is now centralised, homogenised, distanced from the people on the shop-floor. I've written about this in more detail at The Bookseller's website, but it makes me sad that it's rare to have access to people like Mike in big bookshops today.
There also aren't many magazines like Word (RIP) anymore, magazines which embraces things slightly wayward and weird. Broadsheets also feature less interesting curios these days. Look at any of their websites. They're all about the big hits. Of course, the internet has brought us many other many wonderful things: sites like The Quietus (simper), blog culture, and the indie PR potential of social networks. But back in 2003 the big players credited individual booksellers and editors – and their passions, and their understanding of their readers – much more highly.
You know your book-buyers, do you? Go on then, get something in that they'd like. You know something that will expand your readers' brains outside mainstream culture? You give it a try, then.
Obviously, this doesn't apply to everyone. I also know that other factors have upturned the media, and publishing, in the last decade – I'm not daft enough to miss those. But it is sad that big businesses no longer rely on specific experts in the way that they did. There is room for 50 Shades Of Grey and Smoke in the same room, after all.
I also don't think I'm alone in craving the colour of ink, the feel of the page, the commemorative nature of print. We've been running our Smoke website, very happily, for the last few years, but we always wanted to publish real things too, to feel their weight in our hands.
So this weekend, to celebrate our first decade, we launch our first Smoke book. It's called From The Slopes Of Olympus To The Banks Of The Lea. It looks back at the event that changed London most in the last decade: the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It's not about running, jumping and splashing, though; nor is it an earnest, jargon-heavy deconstruction of everything that's wrong about the Games' Legacy. That's another thing about the modern, hyper-capitalist world: big media often want things to be one way or another. To be fiercely anti- or pro. To stake their lines firmly in the sand. People don't work that way. Our book doesn't either. It's much more human than that.
Our book takes the reader from the 2005 announcement of the Games to the end of last year, taking in London's bombs, London's riots, cynicism and celebration. It has a story about a matchgirl. It has Usain Bolt's late-night Leyton tweets. It has a great piece about love and loss featuring a line from Soft Cell's 'Torch', for which we got permission (special thanks to Messrs Almond and all). It features a man who came out of the Tor at the Opening Ceremony, and a piece inspired by a certain Quietus staffer's overhearing of the preparations for the same event (even more thanks to Luke Turner).
We've spent nearly a year putting our compendium together: soliciting pieces, editing copy, tinkering with images, doing things in our own peculiar way. We've also – and this is incredibly important to me – set up a royalty structure for all our contributors. If we make money, so do they. That's the way the world should work, after all. We're also launching the book this weekend at Greenwich Market, kick-starting our sales in an old-fashioned way. Just like we did all those years ago.
But sitting here now, looking at our first book, I do wonder what could have happened if we hadn't had those early breaks. I think about how difficult it is to make print magazines now, how the mainstream market is crumbling. But I would encourage anyone – anyone – to try and do what we're doing. Use online tools to your advantage. Try shops that still have independent mindsets (hell, our magazine was stocked in a cheese shop, a bike shop, and a florist's). But also – this is the most important thing of all – be yourselves as you do so. We have always done that. And without that, there's nothing.
From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea is launched this Saturday, 10 August at Greenwich Market, from 10am-5.30pm. For more information go here