❉ Regrets? He’s had a few – here are ten things Miwk’s Matthew West has learned from being an independent publisher.
I loathe lists. There was a point in the mid-90s where suddenly all magazines had lists as their lead articles. ‘50 Greatest Love Songs’, ‘50 Greatest Sci-Fi Films’ and so on. Then the books began to pile up ‘50 Films You Need to See’ or to put it another way, ‘50 Films I’ve Seen Which I Know are Obscure, but I Like to Speak Down to the Reader and Assume you Only Ever Saw The Matrix’.
When I started a publishing company it was a mere matter of weeks before submissions came in for list books. I’d always give them short shrift. It’s the worst kind of journalism and the laziest sort of writing. Anyone can make a list.
So to that end, it occurred to me I might write a list. After all, what else do you do around Christmas?
Over the last six years we’ve been publishing books on film, TV and anything related to the performing arts. This was a conscious decision. It’s what we know. Rob Hammond (co-spawner of Miwk) once sent me a newspaper clipping that said ‘When you’ve run out of things to read, write a book’. This became our unofficial slogan. We wanted to produce books we wanted to read. That was pretty much the only rule we had.
So here are ten things I’ve learned from being an independent publisher. It ain’t all pretty, strap yourself in. Be afraid. But definitely roll your eyes at a list.
1. Everyone Judges A Book By Its Cover
In our first year, almost everything was done in-house. We didn’t make a profit in the first year and never planned to. We wanted to break-even at best and we just about managed that. We kept costs down by using Rob to do the covers. He’s a talented designer and has produced the majority of our book covers. However, there are sometimes limits to what you can do. Our first cover, ‘Carry on Confidential’ was painted by my friend Jess. We paid her, not a lot, but we paid her. Something I will always do. I loathe the idea of anyone working ‘for the experience’. We may not pay much, but we’re always clear on what we’re paying up front. Sometimes I’m all too aware that we’re not paying much and get panicky about asking for tweaks and changes. The truth is we’ve been blessed by working with lovely people. Jess had a clear brief – I wanted a cover that reflected the dodgy likenesses of the Carry On film posters. This, sadly, was lost on a lot of people who instead complained that the likenesses were poor. Sometimes you can overthink a cover concept.
Meanwhile, for some reason I can’t recall, Andrew Orton produced the cover for ‘Maximum Power!’ which got sillier as it went on. I remember asking for a dodgy second hand price sticker on the cover. That backfired as, at events, people assumed the book was 25p.
The cover that gave us most difficulty was Andy Davidson’s ‘Jaunt’ which was a guide to ‘The Tomorrow People’. One of our big limitations is that the books we do are all unlicensed. Trying to find an image we can use is tricky. Sometimes we can source photographs from cast or crew, taken on set. These are invariably quite low quality due to the time they were taken. We can also try syndicated sources such as Mirrorpix or Rex Features. However these can be quite expensive and not all photographs they hold can be licensed for a book cover. With no usable image at all, Rob set to work on goodness knows how many fruity variations of a single opened hand and a lava lamp style background. I felt terrible. I rejected close to eleven versions. And then we sort of gave up and out of the blue, a few months later, he sent through the vectored cover and it was perfect. Fresh eyes, every time.
2. One pair of eyes is not enough to proofread a book.
While we cover a lot of TV programmes, my real love is film. To that end, my knowledge of television luminaries is not as strong as it could be. I can check for grammar, spelling, structure and all of that, but if you don’t have someone who knows their stuff on hand to check facts, names and details then you’re going to run into easily avoidable problems. I got into a somewhat heated argument with Robert Banks Stewart at one point regarding Richard Mathews. Bob had spelled the surname ‘Matthews’. It was wrong. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the name than others? But I knew it was wrong so changed it. When he sent through some other changes, he’d changed it back. So I changed it again. He then amended another section and sent it back changed to ‘Matthews’ again. I emailed him and he was quite cross about it thinking I’d been working from an older file. I had to show him a scan of a page from Spotlight to prove I was right!
That may seem like a tiny detail, it’s only one letter after all, but I hope we’re producing definitive reference works. Be it a memoir, biography or production guide, these books should serve as the authoritative final word on a subject.
We were very lucky for a couple of years to have Phil Ware on hand for editing. He was maddeningly efficient at this. An en dash here, a hyphen missing there, clause here, semicolon misused here. We also referred to Allen Dace for help on a couple of titles. Quite simply there is a lot to check. So when a book does finally go to print, gets packed up, posted out, read and we get feedback of ‘You got her name wrong’ or ‘So-and-so wasn’t controller of BBC One that year, they were on holiday’ it’s a real head-in-hands moment. Because no matter how much we got right, we got something wrong. We’ve yet to release a book we didn’t find a mistake in after it was released. It’s just one of those things and I find mistakes in other people’s books too. I used to be nitpicky about them, but now I’m far more empathetic. I instead consider how many they did find and the work that went into it.
Then we’ll get emails from people offering their proof reading services because they found an error in one of the books. A tip here: if you’re going to send one of those emails, make sure it’s written perfectly or you’ll be ignored. I’ve yet to have one that was.
One of Phil’s most staggering observations was on dates. I’d never usually check this, but when he was editing a book that referred to ‘Wednesday 23rd October’ he checked to make sure the 23rd of October that year was on a Wednesday and guess what? It wasn’t. Whoever had written the memo had made a mistake. He was right, they were wrong.
And the less said about the spine for ‘Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow’ the better…
3. Facebook likes and Twitter follows do not equal book sales.
The way we select a title is to ensure we can target a specific fan group. This isn’t mercenary, it’s common sense. You can’t advertise these books. A full page ad in Doctor Who Magazine will set you back a couple of thousand pounds. There’s no such thing as Cult Times or TV Zone anymore so advertising options are limited. You have to get creative.
Social media would seem to be the obvious method of promoting stuff in the modern age. But the truth is, our target audience are not heavy internet users. If they are, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are not high on their list of priorities. This is not true of all of them, but it’s true for the majority. While we may be seen as a ‘geeky’ publisher, a lot of our titles relate to programmes or people successful and prominent nearly 30-40 years ago. How do you reach those people most interested in such subjects?
Quite simply, word of mouth is our only option. We’ve only ever advertised three times in six years. Each time it was an expensive waste of time. But word of mouth is so effective. When someone reads a good book they’ll usually tell a friend, especially if they have like-minded interests. What this also means is that our book sales are slow burn. We don’t often get a lot of pre-orders. Our sales come post-release. This makes it very difficult to gauge print runs and also explains why some titles go out of print early on, especially if they’re expensive to produce. Volume is key in printing.
When we get a memoir submission, we’re often told ‘She has 70,000 followers on Twitter’. I can guarantee you, those follows mean nothing. You will not get 70,000 book orders. In fact you’re realistically looking at 5% of followers or page likes will order a book. This is why we’ve never really chased social media follows or likes. It doesn’t benefit us in any way, though it would benefit return customers who can find out about new releases effectively.
Today I sent review copies of ‘All Memories Great & Small’ to a few local papers, a Veterinary magazine and Country Life. You have to think at an angle. For ‘Quest for Pedler’ we went to ophthalmological magazines and all sorts.
Then there are the celeb authors who don’t run their own social media and are surprised to discover that their 30,000 followers were actually paid for (easy to check). We lost one book when we revealed this to the author. We could’ve handled it better. Regrets, I’ve had a few.
4. Sub-titles are essential
Because the books are unlicensed, we can’t call them ‘The Doctor Who Guide’ or ‘Robin of Sherwood Series One’. Instead we rely on quirky, hopefully not irksomely punny, titles. We then whack a subtitle on which clarifies the content.
We’ve done a fair few ‘Doctor Who’ books and the well is very, very dry. The well next door is where they get the book titles from. That one is dryer than an Aridian’s elbow. Oh god, the pain of titles with ‘Time’ in them. I hate it so much. Rob played with it with ‘Time & Space & Time’ which is a good lesson in cover design. Silly title, and we even finally used a joke we’d been batting around for ages where we put Sydney Newman’s name on nice and big and said ‘Would be nice to get a foreword from…’
Yee Jee Tso’s ‘Time & Spaces’ was a great title, in the end. There were far too many before it. I was driving him mad sending them back saying ‘Nope, been done. Nope, David Howe already used “Timeframe”, sorry.’ and so on. I took great delight in calling one ‘Doctor Who’ book ‘Wallowing in Our Own Weltschmerz’, though if memory serves the title itself came from Chris or Andrew Orton.
A title we regret now would be ‘The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner’. It’s still a good title, but it meant that some people couldn’t see past one word. There are still some petty folk who send us emails about that book, accusing us of all sorts of things. Strange world. If they haven’t realised by now what the book is, they never will. ‘I hate that book!’, ‘Have you read it?’, ‘No, and I never will!’
‘Prophets of Doom’ led to some very odd social media interaction where the book was assumed to be an Islamic text of some sort. I really didn’t see that one coming.
Right now I’m toying with a reduce-scale reprint of Tim Quinn & Dicky Howett’s ‘Even Bigger on the Inside’ which I want to call ‘The Slightly Smaller It’s Even Bigger on the Inside’.
5. Avoid book launches
Our books don’t make a huge amount of money. Very few people get rich from writing. We offer favourable terms to our authors, but even then we’re clear up front with them how much they can expect to make from a title. To that end, hiring a venue for a book launch is the silliest thing you can do. You’re blowing your profit for the sake of an ego boost. I try hard to word it more gently. What we do instead is try to get others to tie-in an event. We were fortunate when the BFI were running their Women in Film season that they agreed to let us launch ‘Drama and Delight’ one evening, with a screening of some of Verity’s work and very special guests. Didn’t cost us a penny. However the day before the event, the books STILL hadn’t been delivered! It was tense!
With Steve Hogarth’s ‘The Invisible Man Diaries’ we were all set to do several events with Waterstones, but then they pulled out with a month to go and we were stuck with nowhere bookable at such short notice. It was probably the only book we’ll do where we could’ve afforded a launch. Fortunately Steve Hogarth is a down-to-earth guy and was okay with it.
Instead we tend to soft launch a book at a convention if we can. I never want to have books on sale at an event before we’ve posted out the pre-orders. This means we’ve actually opted not to attend some events just to avoid this.
6. Preparation is everything
We handle all dispatch. It’s essentially me, at the shop, receiving a pallet of books and then wrapping up the orders, sacking them up and calling the post office to come and collect them. This is usually done overnight.
Our first few books were chaotic releases to say the least. We just didn’t have any systems in place and weren’t prepared for the onslaught and reality of orders. A few years back I restarted with a whole new website using Opencart and got a guy in India to make me a number of add-ons and customisations meaning we can print out our address labels grouped by title and destination postal zone. These are done eight to a sheet whereas in the early days it was four to a sheet. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that you’re saving 50% already on label sheets doing it this way. Let us never speak of the 16 labels to a sheet debacle.
I print the address labels out early, and could print the postage early (we frank all our post). However, I learned long ago never to do this until the books are on-hand and checked. Never trust a pallet delivery to be on time and never trust a printer to get a book right. We’ve returned whole print runs unpacked before now.
We switched from Jiffy bags to bookwraps in the second year. Jiffy bags were cheaper than wraps but harder to store. We get through around 300-1000 bookwraps per month depending on what’s been published recently. But they’re completely flat so stack nicely. Jiffy bags are in big bulky boxes. The books are also better protected going overseas. Also, the wraps offer far better protection, especially overseas.
This process of dispatch dictates a book’s size. A short book will usually not need to be Royal sized so will be ‘B’ format. A ‘B’ format book usually fits in a C1 bookwrap which, if thin enough, is posted large letter rate. This means we’ll sell more because people really don’t like paying for postage, even though we charge at cost. This is one of those things where places like Amazon have created an expectation of free delivery. A book within the UK costs around £3 to send in the post, we simply can’t swallow this. We could charge £3 more for the book, but we’re already accused of over-pricing our titles.
In fact, this pricing issue is another that’s really unfair on authors. I’m not sure why people undervalue writing so much. £14.99 for, for example, ‘Quest for Pedler’ is an absolute bargain. The time, effort and research that goes into these books is painstaking. I always want the authors to get a decent rate for their unit sales and will never reduce the initial prices. We don’t ask a lot for the work that’s gone into a book.
7. USP is key
I’ve been meaning to draw up submission guidelines for Miwk since we started. I never really got around to it, so all our rules and ‘no go’ areas are in my head. Consequently I can be quite short with people when a book submission isn’t up our alley. But I will always try to fully explain why we haven’t taken a book on.
Most of the time it’s because the author hasn’t written the book and only wants to write it if someone is paying for it. Bad idea. If you want to write a book, write it. You’ll be amazed what someone will want to read. When I wrote ‘Justyce Served’ it was a book I’d wanted to do for nearly two decades. It was incredibly hard work, expensive (a lot of lunches and travelling) but I did it. Working with Alun was a dream. After a year of pre-planning, the actual final writing wasn’t much more than two months. But all the time I was well aware that this was a book with a very niche audience. Well, it turns out five years on that that’s not the case! It’s had three reprints and continues to sell. So not writing your book and instead floating the idea of writing never makes a good impression on me.
What the books need is something that you can’t find on the internet. In this day and age, that ain’t easy! You could write a biography of an actor, but if there’s nothing new to say that isn’t already in one paragraph on IMDB, why bother? And if your book submission ends with a healthy appendix copied and pasted from IMDB, that also goes straight in the bin. Sorry!
I will always want to see some evidence of personal research. You have to have made an effort to speak to people. If you’re cribbing all your text from DVD commentaries, special features and magazine articles then you’re really not offering anything new. Just one key interview can swing it. One contributor can make all the difference.
The more people you’ve spoken to for a book, the more balanced your book will be too. If your whole book hinges on one or two interviewees, it’s not a fair assessment of whatever you’re writing about. If all possible contributors have passed away… well, then the ship has likely sailed, sadly. This is very common. When Richard finished writing ‘Drama and Delight’ we lost a number of contributors before it reached publication.
Similarly, unique photographs are all well and good, but you need to have a book to hang them on. A good book doesn’t need photos, but good photos do need a book.
Of course this rule went out the window completely with ‘Wallowing in Our Own Weltschmerz’ which was pretty much a self-indulgence on my part. But that said, how many other books are there solely about the McCoy era? Only two others come to mind, both great. And we published one of them. So far.
A unique selling point is essential. I want a book which is unlike any other. This means any books about ‘critical analysis of Some Mothers Do ‘ave ‘Em’ or ‘My life watching Doctor Who’ are of no interest to me or any reader. Save it for a blog, it’s what they’re for. It would have to be a pretty bloody amazing critical analysis for me to ever publish one.
Several of our series guides are not really series guides. Andy’s ‘Jaunt’ is not a full production guide and is far more irreverent than you might expect. Andrew Orton’s ‘Hooded Man’ books are incredibly in-depth tomes, covering the mythology of Robin Hood within the context of the HTV series. This also gives them a broader appeal.
We’ve been offered so many memoirs over the years, and turned an awful lot down. Quite simply an actor could be in ninety programmes and dozens of films, but it still doesn’t mean we can successfully market and sell their book. Some names we’ve had through have been big favourites of mine I’d love to work with them, but I know we’re not best-placed to sell their memoir and in some cases, I don’t think their memoir would sell for anyone. It’s sad but true.
It’s flattering, always, to be offered any book. But whereas in the early days I’d say ‘yes’ a lot, these days it’s a far more selective process having now worked out what does and doesn’t sell and what we can and can’t market. You learn your limits rapidly. At this point I’m reminded of something Marcus Hearn said to me, ‘Your last reprint is always the one you regret’.
8. Reach is not profit
Oh! This is one of those perfectly logical things that always comes as a surprise to authors.
If you organise a book signing for yourself, the bookshop will be paying for those books at a trade rate. This can be anything up to a 50% discounted rate. This also means your royalties are poorer. Similarly, if you’re sending buyers to Waterstones or Foyles or Amazon, you’re doing yourself out of more than half of your money per book.
Reach is not profit. Ours are not the sort of books which have a growing reach. There are only so many people who will be interested in the ins and outs of ‘Doomwatch’ or ‘The Tomorrow People’. This is why we rarely chase trade sales. They’re great if it’s somewhere like Foyles or Forbidden Planet who take 40-50 at a time, but single books cost £3 to post out, so if a bookshop orders one book, it’s discounted and we have to deduct postage. It often means around a 70p profit for a book sold through an independent bookshop.
The same ‘reach is not profit’ rule applied to asking artists and designers to work on our books for free in return for ‘experience’ or ‘reach’. As I said in lesson 1, I will never do that. If you want someone to work or write for you, you have to pay them. This is why we stopped doing the crowd-sourced collections like ‘You & Who’. The first was fun, and we got lots of people contributing, and yes it was for charity, but they did it for free. You can’t keep asking people to contribute to books for free, especially professional writers.
We still do a smaller scale version of this with books like ‘Maximum Power’ or ‘Wallowing in Our Own Weltschmerz’ which is a small group of us who go collectively as ‘Auton’. The books are always for charity and if anything we do them because it’s fun. I like writing with those guys. In fact, it’s been quite a while since we did anything dumb. Will have to think on that.
9. Never respond to criticism
It’s so, so difficult to do this. Negative criticism is rarely constructive criticism. Quite often it’s sour grapes or trolling, occasionally it’s perfectly reasoned and subjective and yes, on occasion, we get things wrong. But the internet has changed the way customer service and interaction works.
Now, social media is the main tool. You don’t complain to a company, you complain to your social network and wait for the company to respond. It’s just not fair on companies now. We can’t win. So I’ll always deal with customer complaints or issues that are emailed through, but anything on Facebook or Twitter I mostly ignore. If you’re genuinely looking for resolution, you will contact a company directly. If you just want to highlight something arrogantly, you Tweet them. That’s how I see things anyway.
Some of our titles have been controversial and ‘JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner’ is a very good example. So many people took against the book before it was released. If we’d responded to each and every one of them in turn, we’d have been on a hiding to nothing as even without reading it they don’t like it, so you can’t win them over.
All you can do is wait for other people to win them over. If they realise they’re the last turkey hanging in the window and still stubbornly refusing to read the book, while all their friends have enjoyed it and said as much, they will eventually give it a go. We know this is the case because a number of them don’t realise that they’re buying from Miwk’s Amazon Marketplace account when buying books on Amazon. While they’re crying ‘Sick and vile’ on forums, they’re ordering the book on Amazon. Silly billies.
At an event in the South West shortly after the JN-T book was released, I was sitting at our table and a lady spat at me. She said the book was ‘despicable’. The same lady then wandered over to another table in the dealer’s room. She was selling toys there. What astonishing front! Later that morning, I took a copy of the book over to her and asked if she’d read it. She hadn’t. So I gave her a freebie and guess what? She not only read it, she apologised and paid for the book that afternoon. I felt vindicated, but still uneasy that a percentage of our customer-base actively spit at people that have offended them. I was waiting, fascinated, for her to reach the incident where JN-T did just that to Nicola Bryant, but actually she did more trade than we did that day so didn’t get that far in.
A lukewarm review is interesting too. A good review doesn’t really generate sales, but a hazy one does. Curious that. I’d never be so arrogant as to expect a good review from anyone, so it’s always strange when editors email me saying ‘Review’s in next month’s issue, it’s a good one’. As long as it’s an honest, reasoned and well-written one, I’m not too fussed.
When you respond to an angry forum post or Tweet, the writer has got a reaction from you. A lot of the time, this is seen as an opportunity for a debate. I see little value in this now. I did at first. I used to think ‘Ah, we’ll soon turn you around.’ Now I realise there’s no point. The books are all that matters. I can’t get through a Wodehouse book, despite trying over and over. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, they’re just not for me. But I really do find them painful reading. Everyone’s tastes are subjective and rightly so. What gets my goat is when people misinform which is what happened with the JN-T book. One actress claimed on Twitter ‘It’s all lies!’ even though her words were printed exactly as she said them. It wasn’t ‘all lies’. It’s possible someone exaggerated here or there, but almost every account is either corroborated or challenged in the book. It’s down to the reader to decide who is telling the truth or not.
In the case of that book, sales have proved us right.
10. Everyone judges a book by its cover AND its title.
Which brings me back to that title again. I won’t rake over old coals but this pretty much forms a large chunk of the new chapter in the retitled book (‘Totally Tasteless’) and goes some way to explaining the process of naming books.
One criticism I never saw coming was ‘Drama and Delight’. I was determined right from the start to do right by Verity. We had our paperback cover. I knew what I wanted, Rob delivered, we spent a lot on the photo but it was well worth it. We then needed a hardback cover for the limited edition.
Richard Marson is great to work with. Twice now I’ve read manuscripts from him and had very, very little feedback. He’s a great writer. On ‘Drama and Delight’ I had two issues, and one we lightly clashed over.
It concerned the way male colleagues were describing Verity physically. It was all quite lascivious but needed to stay there because it reflected the age and the battle she was up against.
What bothered me was that Richard had referred to Verity similarly in the text, reflecting their opinions. I forget the exact phrase but it may have been ‘almond eyes’ ˗ that rings a bell. I didn’t want it there. I was happy for others to describe her looks, but saw no reason for Richard to do it. I forget who won in the end, him probably. We rarely compromise! But then I chose that photograph for the cover.
It’s a photograph that formed part of a set that Verity had had in her office. They were taken in Richmond Park in the early 60s, late 50s and all parties are pretty certain they were taken by director Ted Kotcheff, who Verity was in a relationship with at the time.
This was Verity just before she got the producer job on ‘Doctor Who’. She was young, in love, carefree. The world was ahead of her. There were a number of photos, but I liked the sprawled out shot because we could wrap it around the whole book.
So imagine my surprise when the book was released and we were accused of having an inappropriate, sexist cover.
My heart sank. I still don’t know if the photo is right or not. I have no basis for judgement in terms of its sexist nature. I feel sure it shows her with the world (and her career) ahead of her. I love it. It’s a great picture. Did I choose the wrong picture? I’m not sure I’ll ever know. Her friends and family seemed to like it, many of her close friends loved it in fact. But the idea that I’d unwittingly caused offence still bothers me now. It makes me overthink every cover.
It made me backtrack in the most regressive way with ‘Totally Tasteless’ when we were knocking out colour schemes. Rob had picked pink and white. It looked really good, but I got panicky thinking back to a friend of mine, who campaigns tirelessly for female equality, complaining once that when she ordered a company website, twice the male designer did it pink because ‘It’s all about women, innit?’.
I looked at ‘Totally Tasteless’ and was sitting, trapped in the seventies worrying that pink writing would be seen as belittling homosexuality. I felt we had to justify the colours we used so went for a dark red to match JN-T’s office walls, and the orange of our own logo. Is that really the right reason to choose a colour scheme for a book cover?
We’ll always be judged for our covers. When we licensed the cover for ‘All Memories Great & Small’ we’d finished it, got it out there and then the guy from Immediate got in touch with the invoice and said ‘Ha, wonder how many people will mention where the dog is in relation to Christopher Timothy?’
In closing, I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, all of it from mistakes. We learned a lot of that before we even started thanks to the publisher we were with before going under. We saw what he’d done wrong. We had that in our favour which was good. Some new lesson comes out of each book, still today. It’s a constantly evolving business and end product. Each new book brings a new challenge. If it doesn’t, you have to question why you’re doing it at all.
But yeah, set up your own publishing company. It’s a doddle. You need a thick skin, good writers, good designers and a decent relationship with your book printer. Everything else is what you make it.
❉ ‘Totally Tasteless: The Life of John Nathan-Turner’ by Richard Marson is available to buy directly from Miwk Publishing, RRP £17.99
❉ ‘All Memories Great & Small’ by Oliver Crocker is available to buy directly from Miwk Publishing, £14.99 (RRP £17.99)
❉ Miwk now has a physical shop based in Reigate, Surrey. As well as their own titles they also sell toys, comics, graphic novels, and a range of classic science fiction.