19 June, 2012

An Interview With... Alasdair Firth

It's easy to assume all the unfairness in the world of books, falls on the writer. The endless rejections, hours of slogging, dead-end opportunities (and lucky breaks) belong to us. Well just spare a thought for the publishers. Publishing is another competitive industry that's hard to break in to. I spoke to Alasdair Firth  about what it takes to sit on that side of the desk.

Alasdair Firth is the Publisher and Managing Director of Bamboccioni Books, a small and independent publishing company. He runs the company alongside a regular job at a Children's Centre in Birmingham. He lives with his partner in the West Midlands and when he is not avidly consuming a book, he can usually be found experimenting in the kitchen.

Here he tells us why publishing is his passion and why small publishers are a vital cog in the publishing wheel.

Why did you decide that publishing was the career for you?

I grew up around books. Both my parents are librarians and always encouraged me to read. I’m passionate about books, so publishing seemed like an obvious choice. 

How did you get into publishing?

I studied English at the University of St Andrews, which gave me a rounded appreciation of literature. I was exposed to numerous authors and genres I would never have chosen to read independently. As silly as it may sound, I developed a critical opinion that has given me the confidence to assess fiction and poetry based on my own ideas rather than thinking I must value something because it is written by a “literary great”. For example, I have no shame in saying that I can't stand the poetry of Wordsworth.
My experience in publishing prior to Bamboccioni consists of a three-month internship at Duckworths and a month at Arcadia Books.  Both publishers were relatively small-scale operations and gave me a lot more responsibility than I expected. I gained a good grounding in the industry. I have also had some experience in magazine publishing – working for a business magazine in Shanghai as well as on a student publication.
 What made you decide to set up your own publishing company?
After graduating I applied for various jobs in publishing and had some interviews, but no success. Entry-level jobs in the industry are difficult to get, and every graduate who was applying for these roles had completed internships just like me, had similar extra-curricular achievements and the same ambition and desire to pursue a career in publishing. I was forced to accept that whilst my internships had taught me a lot, what I needed was experience in making the bigger decisions.
My partner got a job in the West Midlands and I decided to move up with him. I got a job unrelated to publishing but I didn't give up on my ambitions. One dreary December evening I decided that if I wanted that first-hand experience I had to set up my own company.
Tell us a bit about Bamboccioni Books. 
We are a small and independent publisher that specialises in high quality fiction. We aim to promote new and diverse writers. Right now, I am interested in putting together a list of titles that we can be proud of, but that also marks us out as unique and  more adventurous than most publishers. We are interested in both novels and short stories.
Our Commissioning Editor is Claire Bagnall. She goes through our submissions and identifies those that have potential. Richard Thompson is the Associate Publisher. His role is primarily to assist in making the major business decisions for the company and develop the marketing strategies for each release. I'm the Publisher and Managing Director and do a bit of everything. I write the contracts, have the final say on what we publish, hire the cover artists, lead on the production process and manage the finances. 
What are the biggest challenges facing the publishing industry today?
That’s a difficult question. I think many in publishing would view the move towards e-books as a challenge. Authors are able publish their own work and cut out the middlemen. Obviously not all authors would be able to do as good a job as an experienced publishing house, but they would retain control of their work and take most if not all of the profits from sales.
So is digital publishing good or bad?
The industry is moving more and more towards e-books. The digital revolution has got to be embraced, and I appreciate the convenience of being able to carry your library around with you. I don’t believe that we should turn our back on “real books”, however. You can't replace the satisfaction of having bookshelves brimming with books. The e-book market is also rather unregulated; for example people are uploading “books” that consist solely of information copied from Wikipedia. Most online retailers allow for the consumer to read samples, but there is no guarantee that the sample is representative of the rest of the book.
What role would you say small, independent publishers fill in the publishing scene?
With the growing popularity of e-books and the rise of print-on-demand services (such as Lightning Source), small publishers can produce titles without the fear of being stuck with stacks of unsold copies. Without this worry we're able to be more daring than the bigger publishers and publish niche fiction and books by “unknown” authors. We are, of course, all secretly keeping our fingers crossed that we stumble upon the next big mainstream success.
What's your advice for authors planning to approach publishers directly, without the help of an agent?
Don’t go overboard. Make a case for your book and identify the selling points for it, but no one wants to read an essay on how much of your life was spent writing the book. Your sample needs to polished and engaging.
Publishers are looking for something that they can sell. It doesn’t have to be generic or “safe”, we just need to know that people are going to want to buy your book, or that we will be able to convince people to do so. Other than that, my advice is that if you believe your work is good enough then stick at it.
If you’re aiming for your book to be picked up by a major publisher then you should approach them through an agent. Unsolicited submissions end up in slush piles that may not be looked at for months and when they are it’s usually by interns. When approaching smaller outfits, such as Bamboccioni Books, an agent is not usually necessary.

If someone reading this has a book that they think might interest you, how do they get in touch?

We are actively seeking new titles at the moment. Authors should email us at enquiry@bamboccionibooks.com with a sample chapter/ short story and paragraph or two saying a bit about their work and themselves. We try to respond to all submissions as soon as we can. Authors can also contact us by post, but sample chapters will not be returned and it may be a longer wait before we respond to you. Take a look at our website for details.
Thanks to Alasdair for answering these questions. If you have a novel or short story that is "niche" (or even a mainstream one), would you consider approaching a small publisher? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages?


  1. Aha - so that's what our editor looks like! (Along with Chloe, I have a story included in Beyond the Horizon - an anthology published by Bamboccioni Books.)

    I wear several hats on this issue. I think smaller, independent publishers are more agile and more likely to take a chance on something a little different. You could argue that it places more responsibility on the author to promote the book, but I suspect that's the way things are now anyway whoever you're published with. There is also more competition among the 'majors' for even getting your work read at the hallowed 'full' stage, never mind an offer.

    Ultimately, every author has to be clear about why they are writing (money, fame, readers, personal satisfaction, etc) and what they are prepared to put into the process. I have a hat for each option I've tried, and they all work for different people (the approaches, not the hats).

    1. I demand photos of these hats!

      I can't imagine anyone who starts writing for money or fame is going to be very satisfied! once you've got good at it, you can probably switch your priorities ot money and fame if you're so inclined, I suppose.

      Apparently the stats for getting an agent the traditional way is about 1/1000 now. I'm still waiting for that first full MS request...

    2. The 'full' is a brilliant feeling, it's true, but it was also meant a greater drop - for me anyway. Hopefully you'll avoid that. Let me know when you're ready to sub your book and I'm happy to provide some ideas if it helps.

    3. Thanks, Derek. I've been bearing in mind your kind offer to look over some of my work. I was thinking of sending you my opening chapters before I started sending them out, but I think your insight would be even more useful at an earlier stage... I'll e-mail you!

  2. Finally, I've made it back to you Chloe! On the subject of such things as small publishing houses I think the first advantage is that they're not expecting 'names' which gives the author a fighting chance. If you're not good enough, then you're not good enough and it wouldn't matter who you sent your work to.
    I'm working hard on my romantic fiction novel and having read guides on such things it doesn't fall into the main categories within the genre. There are those that might say I should get it into a category, but then I wouldn't enjoy the writing of it.
    Disadvantages with small publishers? If they are going to give a writer a break when that same writer might wait years for a big publishing deal then I can't see a disadvantage. I'd rather be taken on by a small house than wait for years.
    Good luck with your efforts my friend. Tom

    1. I think you've hit on the main point here - if you're not good enough, it's never going to work. If you are good enough it MIGHT work. It's like people who go on TV talent shows and think they can make it because they want it enough, but actually can't sing in tune. Not happening. That's life!


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