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 email@example.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?