Moira Forsyth, Editorial Director at Sandstone Press talks to Gail Low about the history of the press, independent publishing, publishing in Scotland, submitting manuscripts and more. This edited transcript and interview, recorded 11 November 2015 at the University of Dundee, is part of a joint enterprise by MLitt in Writing Practice and Study programme there and DURA.
Gail Low: It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the University of Dundee, on behalf of DURA, Dundee University Review of the Arts, and also, in terms of Writing Practice and Study, our creative writing programme here. This is Moira Forsyth, who is editorial director at Sandstone. Although Sandstone Press is an independent press in the Highlands formed in 2002, it has already garnered a really formidable reputation. You were the Saltire Publisher of the Year 2014. You’ve also been shortlisted for a huge number of awards, including, of course, the Man Booker Prize, with Jane Roger’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2011) and Eve Harris’s The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (2013).
Sandstone Press: A Brief History
Could I get you to talk a little bit about the history of Sandstone, and how you were formed?
Moira Forsyth: The press was founded in 2002 by Robert Davidson, who is also the Managing Director. But we began before that, publishing an arts magazine, Northwords; after that we moved very briefly into publishing poetry pamphlets (I think we must be one of the few publishers to make a profit from poetry pamphlets). Very quickly, we moved into publishing for adult learners; the “Vista” series of books was commissioned to provide a short novel for adults who’ve come late to reading, and would struggle to read a full time novel. We had support for that from Highland Adult Literacies, and really good support to get that series going. It was very successful, so we published three a year for four years. Some of them are still selling; they sold very well indeed. They were rather overtaken when Penguin Random House brought out the “Quick Reads”, which were a similar sort of thing, but Penguin Random House could do it much more cheaply. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to carry on with the Vistas in any kind of commercial way.
But we were beginning to move into non-fiction, and for several years it was non-fiction that we published – mainly books about the outdoors (hillwalking, climbing, the environment, that kind of thing). Then, in 2010, we moved into fiction. We did it rather cautiously because fiction is a huge and very overcrowded market. But, in 2011, as you said, Jane Rogers’s novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Award. That was a novel that had been turned down by her main publisher because they didn’t see it as suitable for them. They saw it as “Young Adult” whereas we saw it as an “Adult” novel so we were delighted to be able to publish it. The Booker longlisting made a difference, certainly, to Jane, but it made a difference to us as publishers. We suddenly seemed to move up.
In publishing, you learn something new every single day. We were learning very fast and becoming more professional. The “Vista” series had taught us a great deal: it taught me a lot about editing, and it taught us about print production and distribution. Distribution is absolutely vital – having the right distribution of your books. We started out by publishing, really just a very few books a year, and we now publish just over thirty. Four of those are Gaelic medium, and that is for the education market in Gaelic; we have support from the Gaelic Book Council for those titles. The rest are divided roughly into half fiction, half non-fiction. Having said that, the number of submissions we receive for fiction far outstrips the non-fiction submissions. It’s very difficult to find good non-fiction. We are sent some non-fiction that’s not suitable for our lists, but we sometimes have to seek out good non-fiction.
GL: You’ve commissioned writers to do the non-fiction work?
MF: We have, in the past, done that. Things come into us much more steadily now. One of our longest-selling, best-selling books is Cairngorm John, which is a history of mountain rescue. We worked with John Allen, who is the leader of the mountain rescue team on Cairngorm to produce that book. It is a history of mountain rescue, but it is a history of that team, and how that team was formed, and how they became very professional. It contains many, many stories of mountain rescue, which I think people far-beyond the climbing community would find of great interest. There is not a week goes past that that book doesn’t go out from the distributor and doesn’t sell. So that’s a good number of years – a huge success. And some of our early outdoor books do continue to sell in that way… a book called Isles at the Edge of the Sea, which is Jonny Muir’s story of how he went round all the Scottish islands – swimming from one to another, or climbing an on island and so on. A very entertaining and unassuming book that continues to sell really well. But when you start you don’t know which are going to be the big sellers.
GL: That’s always the difficulty in publishing.
MF: That’s the difficulty. That’s the big risk that you take. You get a wee bit better at estimating, but maybe not a lot better. So those are our beginnings. Our fiction is broadly literary, or crime fiction. In our non-fiction, we still do a lot of outdoor stuff but we also publish literary biography. The latest literary biography we published is a first biography of Josephine Tey the crime writer, Josephine Tey: A Life, which is coming out this month [November 2015]. We look to extend the non-fiction but it would be along those lines.
GL: I had a look at your website quite recently, and saw that you have such varied lists of both fiction and non-fiction. First of all, do you still publish poetry? A little bit of that?
GL: Can I just ask you why, particularly?
MF: Poetry requires a huge amount of subsidy. It simply doesn’t sell. It sells in very small numbers. There are successful poetry publishers – Faber, obviously, and Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and so on. These are very, very good publishers of poetry. Unless you have some very big names – Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy – you are not going to make a great deal of profit in poetry. It’s very specialised and we felt that, when we began, the only way we could carve a niche for ourselves as a publisher was, first of all, to publish non-fiction that we could shape in the way that we wanted it. Robert Davidson and I are both authors, so we brought a lot of our authorial and editorial skills to the non-fiction, to begin with, working with people who are not authors, but who had a wonderful story to tell. You could sell Cairngorm mountain rescue as a concept to the reader whereas we couldn’t sell John Allen’s name because nobody [then] knew who he was in the publishing world.
When it comes to fiction, when we put our toe in the water there, we were conscious that we were most likely to get submissions from debut authors, rather than experienced authors who already had publishers. Now, that wasn’t always the case, and Jane Rogers came to us through her agent, because a larger publisher had decided not to publish her. And in some ways – as a very small publisher – I think we have benefitted from the very large publishers stopping publishing good writers who are not selling in many millions. Larger publishers are looking for very commercial fiction; they are looking for something that they know will sell in the forty, fifty, hundreds of thousands. We can’t get those big names. We’re not going to…. You have to be realistic about that and look at what you can do as a publisher, and how you can, perhaps, help to shape and make new authors. So with fiction, that’s why we began, and still remain, open to direct submissions from authors. We’ve had some absolutely wonderful material coming directly from authors. It’s very exciting when that happens.
GL: Let me backtrack a little bit because I’m quite intrigued by the opposition you set up between independent publishing and the conglomerates. You see a really special role for independent publishers to nurture talent. You publish debut authors in a way that it might be much more difficult to get into a larger house. You bring special editorial skills to that: you nurture, mentor. Are those the distinctive aspects of independent publishing?
MF: I wouldn’t want to say that large publishers don’t do any of these things, because I’m sure some of them do, and do them very well. But it is what we bring to it. I think that many authors like being published by a smaller independent publisher because they get more attention. I think that is inevitable. If you are Penguin Random House or Harper Collins, you have huge lists of authors of books, and authors are just one of very many. Whereas, with us, they are one of a small number, and we, therefore, try to work as hard as possible to make them and their book a success. So I think there is maybe something of that about it. And, certainly, we do a lot of editorial work, and I know that some larger publishers don’t do nearly as much of that.
GL: And all the editorial work is in-house for your publisher? Some big companies outsource.
MF: Yes, and at times of pressure we have been sorely tempted. We have someone who works freelance but we don’t routinely put books out to be edited elsewhere. Because there’s only Robert and myself who edit, it puts a lot of pressure on us. It is a huge workload. So we will be employing another editor next year.
GL: But it can be a lot more personal because of that?
MF: Yes. You form very close relationships with authors when you work with them over a long period of time.
Publishing in Scotland
GL: Now, something that struck me during that conversation – which wasn’t on my original list of questions – was this whole idea of a niche market for your Scottish writing, which was to do with travel, the environment, or the “outdoors” (the term you used). Is it very different selling to the niche markets that speak to those kinds of genres, as opposed to fiction? Do you do things differently there?
MF: I would say that, publicity and marketing is all about targeting the right markets for your books. So, sometimes you are trying to attract a wider market than perhaps the subject of the book might dictate.
GL: This kind of carries me on to the really big question I was going to save up for the end. The question of being in Dingwall, and being in Scotland particularly, catering to a local regional, or national Scottish market, and then the international. Are there tensions? Rewards? How tricky is it to do all?
MF: Well, the first thing to say is that we’re based in the Highlands of Scotland, but we look out to the rest of the world. Now, twenty or thirty years ago we couldn’t have done that. But, electronic communication – the use of Skype, phone calls, emails, so on – the way that we work with authors is possible now, and means that we can be based anywhere. And, that has not been a limitation; I think it might have been to begin with, but we don’t find it so now. In fact, in some ways, it is a strength: it gives us a uniqueness, if you like. People remember us, because we’re the ones way up there in the North of Scotland, in the wilds. And, of course, we do come out of there sometimes….
Now, in terms of our market and who we’re appealing to, we’re never, ever considering that this book is really only for the Scottish market. Some books may be primarily for the Scottish market, Scottish readership it does have wider appeal. With other books, there is no question of them being only Scottish; they really do appeal much more widely than that. The battle for us, in a sense and over the years, has been to have adequate sales representation across the UK and beyond the UK. That’s the bit that small independent publishers often find very tricky.
Submissions, transforming manuscripts into books
GL: Yes, that’s tricky; [but there have been changes] with the web, and with internet connections… Can I also ask you now to describe to us the whole process of bringing a book out, from accepting it in manuscript form through an agent, in the post? Please take us through the whole process.
MF: Okay. Let’s look at a nice straightforward, B-format paperback novel. And, then, we don’t have to go down the by-ways at the moment of design, and the internal design of a book – photographs, maps, and the rest of it. That complicates and slows down the whole kind of production process. But if we look at, for example, someone sending us their novel. We don’t read all the submissions that come to us. That’s not possible.
GL: How many submissions do you get, first of all?
MF: Of novels, probably about three hundred a year. I haven’t counted them all up recently, but I’m getting them daily. There is very rarely a day that goes past that there is not a submission. I know that some publishers get a lot more. We have section on the website – the contact page – which explains how to submit to us, and I would expect authors to look at that first, and, therefore, to comply with what we ask them to do when they send us something. Agents, of course, send us novels as well, and they will give us a little bit about the author, the background of the author and so on, and will send us the full book.
When I’m asking an author to submit, I usually just ask for the opening chapter and the synopsis. That tells you a lot about whether they can write. Then I’ll look at the submission form, and what they have done before – whether they have published anything, whether they have written anything before. Then I will look at the opening chapter they have sent me. If it is well written, if it engages me, then I will consider the synopsis, and I may then ask for the full text, and send that to one of our readers. We have a number of people who read for us. They are not academics, although I do have some students read for me from time to time – publishing students. The aim is for them to read the text and tell me whether they think it works, whether they think it is good, whether they have enjoyed it, if it holds together well, what its strengths are, what weaknesses it might have, whether it needs a bit of work, or if, simply, it isn’t good enough as it stands. And I have to trust my readers, because I can’t read everything. Occasionally, I’ll have sent a text out to a reader, and then I’ll be going on a train journey, have downloaded it to my Kindle, and I’ll have a look at it. And, sometimes, by the time I get to the end of it, I think, “yes, we’re going to take this, I don’t care what the reader says”…. . If it comes back from the reader with a very positive endorsement, then one of us will read it – that’s to say, Robert Davidson, or me – one of us will read that. We will then take it to an acquisitions meeting, and we will have acquisitions meetings from time to time, fairly informally, where we will discuss the books that we are bringing to the acquisitions meeting.
So, once we’ve accepted something, I will write to the author to let them know. Robert then does the formal offer. Iain Gordon, our company secretary and the third director of Sandstone – who deals with all the financial side of things – will send out the formal contract. So, if it’s an agent who has submitted, then the contract goes to the agent, and we make the offer to the agent. The agent then speaks to the author, so there is sometimes a bit of to-ing and fro-ing before that is decided, but that is how it happens. Once we have accepted a book, I will warn the author – particularly debut authors – that there can be a long period where nothing much happens, because, we have to deal with each book in turn, and if we are not publishing it until January 2017, I’m not going to start work on it now. We will be leaving it for quite a bit…
[After reading and making] some suggestions… [about how they] might work in the novel, and we’ve discussed it…[the writer will go away and revise, then and it back]. I print some out so I can start reading it on the train going home. On that reading, I’ll be marking up the text as I go, if there’s anything I think needs adjustment. He might need to give it a further work or he might not. That might be it. At the next stage – when the author and I both have a text we are happy with, feel it’s complete – it will go to a proof-reader. We use external proof-readers, because, however often you read something, you miss [some things]… It needs another eye on it. Most books do not go for a full copy-edit, because they have been edited fairly thoroughly. We work with external copy-editors but not always. Sometimes, all that is needed is a proof-read; that is checking for errors, and inconsistencies, and making very small suggestions for changes to the author. If it’s a full copy-edit, then that is a much more thorough check of the facts and so on.
But, when it has been proofread and the author as checked the proofing of it, then we go to type setting and, at that stage, a development file has been created – still a word file – which shows you the copyright page at the beginning, dedication, acknowledgements, anything else. And that goes to the typesetter, once it has been proofed, and the typesetter will lay it out, and, then, it is a PDF and it looks like a book. That’s really exciting for the author to see. It is like a real book now. The PDF first proof goes back to the author, and it is their responsibility to do a final check. We don’t make any big changes at that stage, it’s just proofing errors – the tiny, tiny things that get amended. And, the author will then send me back any errors they have found, and a second proof appears. The typesetter will do it again, and we will make sure it is as right as it can be. You would be amazed how many errors will creep through, however many checks you have done. It then is ready to go to print.
In the meantime, you’ve got the cover. Now, we’ve got to spool back a bit, because when we agree to publish a book, we commission a cover fairly soon. Quite soon, because, when we are selling books, we have to present our six months of books to the sales team. In September we’ve be going down to London to present the January to June books for the following year. Just done that this last September. So, if you’re going to present the sales team with all the books you are going to publish – January to June next year – they all have to have covers.
GL: And is this the Faber Factory? The sales team there who represent you?
MF: Yes. And, it’s necessary for you to have what’s called an ‘AI’ sheet, which is the Advance Information sheet about the book: the blurb, the biography of the author and so on, any other relevant information, and a photograph of the cover or author. And the cover needs to be commissioned. And all the designers we work with are freelance, they’re external. The large publishing houses will have their own in-house art departments producing covers, but we commission a range of designers. We’ll often spend a bit of time discussing which designer is the best one for a particular book.
GL: Do they authors have any say on that?
MF: They don’t select the designer; we select the designer. I ask them, and I prepare a brief for the designer, which is quite a detailed description of the book. They like to position it with other books. The designer will say, “well, what are the other books like this”. That is what they want to know. For example, you are publishing a thriller. It will have to look a certain way. It does. And this seems terribly superficial, but we’ve learned the hard way over the years that a book must look like its contents. It has to reflect the kind of book it is. The trade are very keen on this, and it’s the book trade you have to please. We will have draft covers come through to us from the designer, who always run it past the sales team, because they are working with the trade day in, day out, and they know what the trade will like.
What the cover must do is sell the book. It must make someone pick it up from the pile in Waterstones, take it off the shelf, look at the little thumbnail on Amazon and say “oh, that looks good”. It is the reader’s first sight of the book, so it has to be a strong cover… And, if everyone is happy, then that is the cover.
GL: We’ve got to the covers, and now the book is ready to go to press…what happens after that?
MF: At some point earlier on though, we will have looked for an endorsement for the cover, which is a line by a famous author: “This book’s an amazing book”… we discuss that with the author and their agent, and we use our own contacts, and we try to find an appropriate person to provide an endorsement for the novel. That happens around the time that we’ve got a complete text that is ready for typesetting. Sometimes we’ll send that just as a PDF to the other author who’s endorsing it, or sometimes we’ll send a bound copy – that is to say, the Word document in a ring-binder or something. But, when we’re ready to go and we have the cover complete – because you’ve got to think about the back cover as well as the front cover – so once you’ve got the full spread cover, the author needs to see that as well, and do a proof check on that. And then those files for the cover and the book will go to the printer. Now, print is a whole other section of publishing. I don’t deal with it myself at all; Robert deals with all that side of it, along with Sue Foot who is our administrator. But, he will get quotes for publishing, and, for a long time, Sandstone has been publishing in Poland. We have an agent, a print agent who works for us in Poland. She will get the best Polish printer for our books, and we’ve had very good prices there; it’s worked very well. However, it is a longer turnaround time. So it’s maybe three weeks, instead of five or six days – which you can get in the UK with UK printers. And that’s been alright up to know; it’s worked reasonably well for us, and, certainly, it’s been very cost-effective. But, you can’t stand still with that…
What manuscripts succeed in catching your eye?
GL: So, let me backtrack a little bit and ask the silliest of questions. What catches your eye when you’re sifting through that pile? What do you look for? Particularly with fiction, because our writers here are mostly fiction and poetry writers, and less are non-fiction.
MF: It’s a cop-out of an answer to say “good writing” but it is.
GL: I thought you would say that!
MF: There must be something. First of all, I must be interested in the story. I do not want yet another novel about someone finding themselves. Okay, it might be brilliant, but not everybody is J.D. Salinger. Not everybody is going to be able to provide that coming of age novel that actually works. And novels about middle-aged people going off to a remote Scottish island to find themselves, and renew their lives and so on – they come in on a very regular basis. They might be for somebody else, but I don’t think they’re for us. I want something with some meat it in. What is this novel about? In the submission form, I ask authors to say in about fifty words what their novel is about. If you can’t do that, then you don’t really know yourself….. I have to say that if something has wit or humour, I am drawn to it immediately, because that is hard to do. And now, we have to consider, “what is the author’s profile? How are we going to publicise and sell this book?” And I’ve had one or two novels I’ve really loved, and we haven’t taken them because we haven’t been able to see how on earth we were going to get them notice. And that’s really sad.
GL: It’s funny, isn’t it, because you think of writing, as just good writing, but publishing is a business as well. It is an interface between, if you like, aesthetics and the business element.
MF: It is a business. And there is no author, really, when it comes to it, who wants their author to come out and nobody read it. We’re not doing an author any service at all, if we cannot promote and sell that book, and get people interested in it. And it’s not just a review of getting reviews; it is very hard to get reviews now, especially in Scotland where there are very few places where you can get a book review.
GL: We review!
MF: And I’m very glad of it! Because it’s getting harder, and we want good reviews, and we want people like you to be reviewing books and noticing them. It is more about getting, what they call, off the literary pages-notice – so articles about the author. We have just published a novel called Truestory. It’s a very good novel: quite funny, enlightening, and a wee bit unusual. It’s about a couple on a very remote farm, and there son is autistic. He is twelve years old.
GL: Ah, this is Catherine Simpson? She was here for the [Dundee] literary festival.
MF: Was she? So you know Catherine. Catherine herself, as I’m sure she said, has a daughter who has Asperger’s. She has grown up now, and is very successful in her life…. [Catherine] is also a journalist, and I think her husband’s a journalist, so she had a lot of publicity that wasn’t on the literary pages, but was about her situation. It also told you about the book. So, you can’t not do the publicity and marketing, but you never quite know which of it is going to work, and how much of it you’re going to get. But, we spend a lot of money on it!
GL: We’re going to have to draw this to a close, because I’m aware that actually we’re going to press you to do that talk quite soon. One thing…two things that struck me – to return to that little motif about independent publishing in a crowded marketplace, and how writers might be poached from the smaller publishers as their careers take off. Does that [poaching] generally happen, or does that mentoring process, that personal relationship you create or whip-up with your authors, enough to tempt them to stay with you?
MF: Well, it is a bit of both. That was the first time that we’d had a formal approach about an author. Now, it is specific to crime in particular. Crime is big business. Crime sells huge numbers, and the public and the trade like crime in series….. Naturally, if you have an author who wins the Man Booker, you’re going to get a lot of approaches. You certainly are. We had approaches for Jane Roger’s novel and we sold that to Canongate. When it came to The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, we were well able to deal with it ourselves. We had grown as a publisher considerably in the interim, and so that continues to sell. That’s another book that we have just ordered another print round of, because it keeps selling.
GL: OK. Let me just draw this to a close, and it’s a real shame, because I would actually love to ask you all these other questions. The conversation’s been really interesting, a real eye-opener to thinking about publishing. So, thank you very much, Moira, and I look forward to hearing your talk in about 20 minutes!
MF: Well you’ll hear a lot of the same things again!
MF: Thank you!
(Original Transcription by Patrick Adamson)