Monday, 22 February 2010

The Human Comedy of the Publishing World: An Interview with Charles Boyle

This interview is a little different to the others, in that the man being interviewed doesn't just design the look of the books: he commissions, edits, publishes and promotes them himself, too.

Charles Boyle worked for 14 years at Faber (back-room copy-editing and production), then quit five years ago and started the small press CB Editions in 2007. He produces four books a year. So far, CBe has won a couple of prizes and a couple of shortlistings, as well as having its second book, 24 for 3 by Jennie Walker, snapped up by Bloomsbury.

When I asked Charles if he would mind being interviewed, he said, “I'll try not to rabbit on; the idiocies of the publishing world are manifold. Stay in there, an agent once told me when I was trying to get out of it, for the human comedy.” 

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC:  The typographic covers really work for me--an example of budget limitations becoming a virtue. Could you talk a bit more about how the books came to look like this?

CHARLES BOYLE: Money reasons first, yes: I’m familiar with handling text but not images in the relevant software programs, and going typographic meant I didn’t have to pay an outside designer. But other things add in. The manila board covers are an imitative homage to Alan Ross’s London Magazine Editions of the late 1960s and 70s, the paperback series (designed by Ron Costley, who later became text designer at Faber).  

Some of the early London Magazine Editions

Apart from the first four, all the books have coloured endpapers.

And the spartan, indeed puritan, look is a way of marking out the books from the general run of mainstream publishing, with whom I am not in competition: the books have their place, but it’s not on the 3-for-2 table at Waterstone’s.

Of course the other economy of typographic covers is this: it bypasses the traditional and often bitter arguments between author and publisher over the cover. Time-consuming and expensive. Unless you're going with a good and trusted designer and giving them their head, so much depends on the quality of the brief and the feedback on the roughs, a skill that's barely recognised. 

CCC:  The cover for Knight Crew is full colour and illustrative: is this a one-off because of the target audience of young adults, or do you foresee more covers like this?

 CHARLES BOYLE: A one-off, yes, because of the readership, and because potentially it has more commercial appeal than the other titles, which are more traditional small-press fare (Knight Crew is being staged as a youth opera at Glyndebourne in March, with TV programmes on that to follow). (Why am I doing the book at all? Because I think it’s a fine book; because I’ve known the author since the 1970s; because despite her fine sales record and despite the Glyndebourne connection her agent couldn’t place it.)

Though actually another one-off, with colour cover, in May: a book of short stories (for adults) by an 80-something-year-old author who used to write children’s books in the 60s and 70s. Again potentially more commercial appeal than the other titles; again her agent couldn’t place it. I got to know and like the author and promised to help her self-publish, then realised I also liked the stories very much and if I was spending so much time on the book I might as well bring it into the fold. But both these books are the exceptions; even if they are commercially successful, I’m not set up to deliver on that in the way that larger places are.

CCC: I suspect you must be a bit of a type enthusiast. The presence of ligatures in the Grabinski was a delight to me (I love and miss ligatures!). How do you decide on what type to use for the covers and the innards?

CHARLES BOYLE: Enthusiast maybe, but an amateur one. At Faber (where I worked in back-room jobs for 14 years) we worked with a very limited range of fonts and many of the books were flowed into templates rather than individually designed: now I’ve been let out of school I’m learning how to play.

I’m naturally impatient, but on the other hand I can geekily play around with typefaces for days. As soon as—on occasion even before—I’ve taken a book on I start playing around with sample text and the cover: I don’t feel it’s a CBe book until I’ve got some kind of fix on how it will look. And the type has to match my take on the character of the book itself (a tiny, obvious example: the Ponge cover had got to have roundest of O’s).

CCC: The CB list so far is wildly eclectic, in the best way. With only a few titles published each year, how do you decide what makes the cut?

CHARLES BOYLE: My own writing history, until very recently, is in poetry (I’ve published with Carcanet and Faber), but there are a number of small presses around doing exclusively poetry. And my reading is mostly fiction. Alan Ross’s London Magazine Editions was the model here, too: as well as good writing across a range of genres, he liked horse-racing, cricket, art, travel, the good life, and his list reflected his interests. (Cape Editions, edited by Nathaniel Tarn from 1967, small format and typographic covers, also had this eclecticism.)

I’m attracted to custom-made rather than off-the-peg forms: sequences, stories told in verse, books that combine images with text, rather than straightforward beginning-middle-and-end fiction. And to short, concentrated books rather than long ones. The more material that I get sent, the more ‘making the cut’ comes down to this: I have to like the work not just in the sense of admiring it and recognising it as publishable, but to the point where I’d go to the wall for it and not worry too much about the money.

CCC: At a time when you might expect people considering small-press publishing would wait for the economy to boom a bit, a number of interesting and enterprising publishers like yourself, Capuchin, Myna, etc, have emerged, none pursuing the obvious commercial hits that bigger firms bank on. If it's not too indelicate question, how do you make it pay?

CHARLES BOYLE: OK, money. First, I’m continually surprised by what you can get done for small amounts of it. Last year I paid £200 for UK rights for a respected American novel; the agent probably spent more than that on getting my contract checked out. Start-up costs were £2,000, which paid for the printing and binding of the first four books, plus another £100 or so for a single-page website. For each book I now pay a £200 advance (against 10% royalties), and also pay for proofreading; plus the printing-and-binding. Otherwise, no overheads: I edit, design, and typeset myself (and attempt to talk the books up, and deliver to the distributor and certain bookshops, and stuff books in envelopes and queue at the post office, etc); and I don’t cost this time or charge it towards the books.

Very round figures, but the above means that if I sell 200 copies of a title with £5 coming in for each sale (a bit less from shop sales, a bit more from online sales), I break even. More than that and I’ve money to play with.

200 is not a large number, but it’s still bloody difficult. (One of the mistakes I’ve made along the way was to assume at the start that because I knew a number of folk in publishing, they’d be supportive and buy; I’d forgotten that no one in the media expects to pay for books.) A book by an unknown writer from an unknown imprint is simply not going to get media attention (and if no one knows it’s there, does the book even exist?). But I’m getting there (not least, of course, because one or two of the writers I now publish are not unknown). The first year I came out on top, just; the second year I lost a chunk of money; for the current financial year I’m not going to do the figures until end of March, but it’s looking a whole lot better.

In conventional terms, if I’m not costing my own work against the books, and then selling more than enough to cover those costs, I’m not ‘making it pay’ at all, nor is this any kind of recognisable business model. What it is – and I’m by no means the only small publisher operating like like this – is publishing as vocation, not job. (Writers starve, why shouldn’t publishers?) Not wholly unlike the old idea of the ‘gentleman publisher’ with a private income. Made possible now for me, hardly a gentleman, by low-cost short-run digital printing and by the bread-on-table day-to-day income I draw in from freelance editing and typesetting  for mainstream publishers.

In practice, the more time I spend on CBe, the less time I spend on the freelance hackwork, so there’s a financial gap, a credibility one too, that needs managing. The aim is to reach a level, a balance – the equation for which involves both figures (sales, expenses, number of titles) and luck – that’s sustainable.

CCC: Are there any books you'd love to publish, but the rights or translations have proved too elusive?

CHARLES BOYLE: There are occasional agents or permissions bureaucracies that simply don’t respond. But in general, no. Mainstream publishers, alongside the celebrity stuff they are mocked for, publish many fine writers and publish them well, much better than I could, and I am not in competition with them. I’m here for the more oddball books that don’t fit conveniently in their lists, and the field is open.

CCC: Thank you, Mr Boyle!

1 comment:

Derek said...

Entertaining interview. I actually find these covers pleasantly old-fashioned, but they're probably not the best thing for attracting attention in bookstores.