Interview: Nathan Connolly from Dead Ink Books
Dead Ink is an independent publisher, based in Liverpool and Manchester, doing a lot of exciting work. I had a chance to speak with its founder, Nathan, about his experiences setting up the press, the Northern Fiction Alliance, participatory publishing, and the way Dead Ink nurture and encourage new and exciting writers.
Alex Blott: I'm interested in the 'inciting incident' for indie publishers. Could you give people a quick breakdown of why and how you started Dead Ink?
Nathan Connolly: I don’t think that running an indie press really comes down to a singular incident. Starting a press is remarkably easy; keeping it going is remarkably hard. When we talk about those eureka moments I think we popularise a myth that isn’t true and one that is actually quite harmful.
There are a number of times that I could place that point and each would fulfil that quintessential myth-making role. There was the moment where I used my dole money to register the domain for The Night Light, the first online-publishing venture I took. That begins a story that we’re all familiar with. Or there was the time, six years later, that I interviewed with the big publishing houses in London only to be told I still needed to do an unpaid internship. So, I returned north to submit an Arts Council England grant for Dead Ink and I quit my day job.
In the end, I think the reason I persist with Dead Ink is because I still don’t see myself fitting in with an establishment, and we’re there for the authors that feel that way too.
The irony is, that same establishment has been incredibly receptive to Dead Ink and our work. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the kindness and support of the publishing industry. Beware myths is, I guess, my point.
I'd like to talk a little about The Northern Fiction Alliance - headed up by Comma Press in Manchester. What's your involvement in it?
The Northern Fiction Alliance exists with the broad aim of promoting publishers of fiction in the North of England internationally. Dead Ink is outward facing, and that is very much an ethos refined by the NFA. We are publishers who happen to be based in the North, rather than Northern publishers. Comma Press itself is an excellent example of this as I don’t think you could find a more internationally focused list.
We’re one of the core members of the alliance and as such, we’ve been travelling to international fairs to represent ourselves and sell rights. Last year we visited Frankfurt and we’ll be returning again this year as well as visiting New York for BEA. We’ve also been trying to transfer skills and knowledge from London to the North in an attempt to bridge gaps and diversify the industry.
You're a part of a growing network of publishers based outside of London. What do you think is the advantage of working on the fringes of that established world?
Being outside of London is clearly a disadvantage for a publishing house. The entire industry is based there and you immediately sacrifice a lot when you start something beyond it. That being said, we’ve worked hard to make sure that there is also an advantage. The most obvious example is cost. Recently we took on our first studio and that is absolutely something we would not have been able to afford in London. I think we’ve also had a bit more space to learn the ropes and figure things out for ourselves.
There’s also been the challenge of not defining ourselves as a ‘regional publisher’. We’re a small and independent press, but we are not a Liverpool or Manchester press. We’re not even a Northern press. Our outlook is international and focussed on defining ourselves in our own light, not as something positioned against or in contrast to London. Dead Ink exists on an international stage and we happen to be based in Liverpool.
In that sense, I don’t see us on the fringe. I see us as independent and the establishment, in all of its guises, is welcome to work with us. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. And that’s a good thing.
How hard has it been to sell international rights to your books up to this point? What kind of a difference is the Northern Fiction Alliance making to that?
Prior to the NFA it was a case of just waiting for someone to approach us. There was no strategy. When we visited Frankfurt last year it became apparent to me that Dead Ink didn’t have the resources to really promote our rights internationally across the whole globe. This came at the same time as the realisation that Dead Ink was too big for me to do all of the work and not big enough to have dedicated departments. So it was clear that I was going to have to start delegating responsibilities outside of the press.
Luckily, whilst I was in Frankfurt I met Gregory Messina of Linwood Messina Literary Agency and we managed to hit it off. Gregory took on our translation rights just before London Book Fair this year. This has left us only representing English language rights ourselves, which is much more manageable. At the moment we have a lot of interest and we’re following up on a lot of requests to see our books after LBF. I think it is quite clear that none of this would be happening without Northern Fiction Alliance support.
You've said in the past that your ethos is to take on debut authors and stick with them through their careers. By that do you mean you want to publish authors for their entire career, or is it more you never want to lose that relationship?
We would love it if we could take on new writers and have them stick with us forever, but as soon as you look at the numbers you quickly realise that we’d have a problem and be growing exponentially. It isn’t really a feasible approach for us to take, but I think that sentiment holds true.
In reality, the way I would like to see it work is that we don’t lose touch with our authors and we maintain a relationship. I see it very much as Dead Ink’s role to start careers. We provide our authors with training and mentorship. Our commitment is long-term. This year we’re very pleased to be inviting both SJ Bradley and Harry Gallon back for their second books. It is clear to me that their careers and positions as authors have already changed dramatically since we first published them and I’d like to think Dead Ink played an important role in fostering that.
I think this will be the key to our success too. If we can invest in authors just as they are starting out, and build a real foundation for their career that is focussed on the long-term then we all benefit.
It can be hard to keep a hold of authors once they have a success with a small press. It sometimes feels like an author explodes onto the scene with an indie, and is nabbed by a bigger name for their follow-up. Are you trying to combat that? Or is that just part of small press life?
It hasn’t happened to us yet, but it is inevitable that it is part of small-press life. There are very real problems with the industry that need to be addressed before this will go away and I don’t think the blame really belongs with either publisher or the author. In fact, I’d very much encourage the author to do what they think is right for them.
Are we doing anything to combat it? Well, we’ve kept hold of some of our authors and I’m proud of that. I think SJ and Harry could have easily taken their latest books to someone bigger, but they didn’t. I don’t think they even considered it, which I guess means we’re doing something right.
We try to have a very personal relationship with our authors and we try to make sure that they are supported in everything they do. They have to do a lot of work themselves and they really have to get involved in every aspect of publishing. This approach really isn’t for every author and some might feel like they are being given too much responsibility, but that is the reality of indie publishing; the whole thing is a team effort and everyone is involved in the entire process. Authors have to get stuck in. And, for some authors, that is exactly what they want. Authors like SJ and Harry – I don’t think they’d have it any other way.
You started practising what you call 'participatory publishing' in 2015. Can you talk a little more about that concept
Yes – we’re about to re-launch this soon. The more I’ve thought about this term, the more I think it extends across everything we do. Originally I used it as a way of describing our crowdfunding proposition. We’re funding these novels in batches of three and without the early support of crowdfunders they won’t get published. So, we have to invite readers to act as literary patrons and invest in the development of new work and talent. We’re dealing with an increasingly homogenising industry and if people want to see risk-taking and originality then we need them to support it from the start. The sad fact is that the vast, vast majority of literary fiction makes a loss. If we’re going to take those risks, then we need support. If you want an industry that isn’t dominated only by those who can already afford to participate in it, then join in.
You mentioned in a recent interview you're looking into installing a crowdfunding platform. Will that be similar to the model at Unbound books?
This is actually now ready to go and might well be installed by the time this interview goes live (Editor's note: It is now live and can be viewed here). It is crowdfunding, but we think what we offer is very different to Unbound. Our model is based specifically on supporting new authors of literary fiction and nurturing them as developing talent.
We crowdfund the authors in groups of three and only run one campaign at a time. At the beginning of the year all of our authors are invited to a bootcamp where we give them training and they get to meet each other. All of the books are then ready to go before we begin crowdfunding – editorial is finished, covers are finished, and we’ve already started getting them ready to print. All we’re asking for are those crucial early supporters to help us send them to the printers. We’re totally committed to each and every book that we publish, but we need that early support to pull it off.
Submissions for 'Know Your Place' closed towards the end of last year. How's that looking?
Very very good! Our writers’ final essays are being sent in at the moment, and crowdfunding is due to start in the next couple of months. This is a book very close to my heart, but also one that is very complex and difficult to put together. We’ve had to ask ourselves a lot of tough questions when making it and more than once an essay has made us really question aspects of our own upbringing.
The issues of class in Britain are not simple or easy. Some of the issues the book addresses are very 21st century and others are remarkably familiar and timeless. I know a lot of people are waiting on this book and are very eager to see it produced, so I think we’re trying our hardest to make them proud.
I'd like to finish by talking about an upcoming project, The Eden Book Society. When did you first hear about it, and how did you go about getting the rights to the archives?
I’ve known about Eden for some time, but they sort of slowly slipped into my life. You occasionally find their books cropping up in second hand bookshops and for a long time I picked them up without really realising what they were. I think I owned several before I actually started asking questions about where they came from. On the surface they look rather unassuming and I imagine a lot of people have seen them and ignored them before. If you’ve ever inherited books from anyone you might even own a couple tucked away in a box under the stairs or in the loft. Despite their restrained circulation, they got around.
The story of us acquiring the Eden rights is actually a pretty tedious one – most of it spent on various web forums. The Edens aren’t what they once were and when we finally tracked them down to make an offer, there wasn’t much resistance. They stopped printing them over a decade ago now and I hope we’re going to able to offer them a new lease of life.
It must be fascinating to look at how fears and horror tropes evolved over time. Have you come across anything familiar or surprising?
The really fascinating thing is how many of those fears haven’t really evolved at all. I’d go so far as to say that the vast majority still speak to something that is with us. Occasionally you come across one which feels quaint now, or twee, but when you read these books in quick succession the overwhelming feeling is that we’re still very much afraid of the same things we’ve always been. I can’t decide if that’s comforting or terrifying.