Today’s interview is with Jamie McGarry, founder and publisher for Valley Press. I undertook a work experience placement at Valley Press when I was working on my CV ready to begin a career in Publishing, and Jamie very kindly allowed me to take part in a variety of projects and tasks while I was there. For those interested, I wrote a blog post for Valley Press about it here. I have now started working alongside Jamie for the Society of Young Publishers North and Midlands branch and Valley Press are continuing to publish some exciting work!
Tell us the story of how Valley Press came about.
The short version: after an unsuccessful attempt to become a Primary School teacher, I fell into an English Literature degree, and then realised this was not a subject that was going to make me highly employable. I had been making books of various kinds since the age of 6, so decided to start doing that a bit more purposefully, to enhance my CV – using the name Valley Press, as I lived on Valley Road at that time. It was the summer of 2008.
You are primarily a publisher of poetry. Have you always had a passion for poetry?
I had always enjoyed poetry whilst growing up – but very casually, alongside novels, films, music and all the other great things life has to offer. It wasn’t until I started reading serious contemporary poets – writing from the 1960s up to the present day – that I realised this was the medium for me, probably the one thing I was going to pursue during my life. That was around the age of 18.
Do you find much time now for your own personal creative writing?
Absolutely not – I haven’t written a word creatively since I started running Valley Press as a full-time job, in early 2011. The timing is too exact to be a coincidence. I think it’s probably the case that whatever muscle I was using to write, is the same one that powers me as a publisher, and there’s only so much it can give! Plus, there are only so many hours in the day – the process of starting a new company is all-consuming, whatever the field.
What was the first thing you published as a new press?
It was a novel I had written myself, whilst dog-sitting during the summer of 2007 – titled The Waiting Game. I only printed 38 copies, it was a very tentative start! I haven’t looked at it since, it could be awful. There’s a copy in Scarborough’s public library if anyone wants to take it out and have a read. Let me know what you think.
What is Valley Press’ biggest success to date?
Well, it depends what kind of success you’re looking for – I love it when an ex-intern writes to me saying they’ve got a great publishing job, for a start! But I reckon you are talking in terms of cold hard sales figures, in which case James Nash’s Some Things Matter: 63 Sonnets is still top of the chart. There’s something really special about that book… I’ve yet to publish something that can catch up with it.
What would you say you enjoy most about being a publisher?
I love it all – I really do. I even get a kick out of doing the accounts. There’s that old saying that goes, ‘if you have a job you truly love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life’ – that’s me. I don’t let a day go by without being thankful, and wondering how I’ve been able to get away with this for so long…
What is the most exciting aspect of the job?
I can’t name a particular ‘aspect’ as such, but the most exciting moment is probably when a golden bit of publicity appears – something like a big mention for a Valley Press title in the Guardian’s books pages, or on the radio. Usually the first I hear about this sort of thing is when I notice a sudden spike in the sales of a book; it might have sold one copy every few days for the previous month, then suddenly thirty in one day, and I think: ‘hang on, something has happened!’ Then a bit of detective work is needed to track down the cause.
What is the biggest challenge you have to face as an independent publishing company?
I think it’s tricky to talk about ‘independent publishing’ in this context… there are so many definitions of the term. If you’re the CEO of Faber and Faber, you are an independent publisher. If you’re some bloke who prints off a few A4 pages, staples them together and sells them for 50p down at your local pub, guess what – you are an independent publisher. And in between those two is a vast ocean of people doing very different things. (Incidentally, I probably still have more in common with the man in the pub!)
A good way to answer this would be to reverse the question: what’s the biggest advantage to being part of a huge publishing conglomerate? The answer there is having resources at your disposal – a virtually endless supply of experience, expertise, and cash. Managing with limited resources is the challenge for independents.
How has the business grown since I undertook my work placement at Valley Press?
It has grown naturally in terms of sales figures and income, but more than anything things are a lot calmer now, and better organised. When you were here (in autumn 2012) I had only 20 months professional experience in the industry, and was attempting to publish 16 books that year… it was a hair-raising time!
From a publisher’s point of view, why is it good to have students do work experience with you?
To be honest, not that valuable! I always get far less work done when I have interns in, but I don’t do it for any kind of gain – I just love having new faces around, it brings so much life into the office (or my flat, in the early days…)
In terms of the unpaid internship debates that are raging at the moment, which side of the argument do you agree with? The fact that unpaid work experience is ‘exploitation’, or that they’re necessary to break into the industry?
Unpaid internships were pretty much the only route into the publishing industry. Is that a good thing? I don’t think so.
During the brief period I was trying to get in, back in 2010, I couldn’t afford to do unpaid internships; I was living on the last dregs of my student loan, and there wasn’t a serious publishing operation within 50 miles of where I was based. I spent six months solidly applying for jobs, with a CV that described my skills and experience as they are now (i.e. pushing the truth as it was then to its limits!), and I didn’t even get one interview for a publishing position. I wouldn’t get one today, I suspect, and it’s probably down to my lack of internships.
When I started Valley Press, one of my dreams was that I could use it to help local people who were in that same position… and that has come true, to an extent. I think there’s a half-dozen people out there who got a publishing job shortly after being one of my interns, and plenty more who found decent, creative employment. That makes me feel quite proud.
How important is it for you to keep the North ‘on the publishing map’ so to speak? Do you think the North is slowly making its voice heard in the industry, or are we still under-represented?
I hope it’s not solely down to me to keep the North on the map! This is an easy question actually: I think you’re right that Northern writers and publishers are making progress, but yes, we certainly are under-represented.
I have a Penguin paperback in my house published in the late 1960s, and in the author’s biography at the start it says they were ‘born in the North’. That was enough specificity at the time! Things have come a long way since then, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
For those who may be considering starting up a company like your own, what advice would you give them, now that you’ve done it successfully? What in your opinion are the dos and don’ts?
I think the most important thing is to start small – dip your toe in the water, like I did between 2008 and 2010, before getting too ambitious. Always schedule fewer books than you think you can publish, because there will inevitably be unexpected events to throw you off course. Also, advice for anyone thinking of doing some publishing – don’t settle for a less than perfect product. Don’t compromise, and don’t stop working on a book until it looks as good as one published by the big London companies.
I could go on and on… I could write my own book on what I’ve learnt over the last seven years. Perhaps I will?
What are you most looking forward to in the rest of 2015?
The next book in the pipeline always seems like the best thing I’ve ever done – but there is a short non-fiction book due out in September that has been having a huge effect on early readers. It’s very different to anything I’ve touched on before, so keep a eye out for that.
I’m also working for the second time with a variety of veteran Valley Press authors over the next few months, which is an absolute pleasure, and there’s a very special collection coming in November edited by Antony Dunn. These upcoming titles are simply unmissable, if you ask me – but I suppose I would say that!
You can follow Valley Press on Twitter @valleypress
Please post questions or comments below and I’ll get back to you!