(this feature is adapted from an article first published in The Lady magazine)
It’s book delivery day and Julia is cleaning out the garden wheelbarrow. The printer’s lorry, complete with hydraulic rear platform, is too big to turn into our drive; the wheels on the specialised pallet truck are too small to run on gravel. They’re designed for the smooth concrete floors of warehouses and purpose built loading bays, not for a trip up the drive of an Essex country cottage – let alone round the back of the house and into the garden caravan which serves as Golden Duck’s publishing HQ.
So it’s out with the wheelbarrow and hope that no one is in too much of a hurry to get past while the lorry is blocking the single track lane. Naturally we assure the driver that no one ever comes our way, and naturally, all of a sudden, they do. But it’s not really a problem. The passing (or not-passing) cars belong to our neighbours and most of them are running some small enterprise of their own. Pig-keeping, bread-making, vegetable growing – you’d expect businesses like this in the countryside. And sure enough the first car to pull up as we’re unloading copies is from a local farmer who’s diversified into direct-selling organic beef. We chat pleasantly about prospects for the next week’s point-to-point race as the ramp comes down and the shrink-wrapped pallet is trundled off. Five hundred pristine copies of Margery Allingham’s The Oaken Heart are deposited on the side of the road and we begin loading them into the wheelbarrow.
Another car arrives. This is much better. This belongs to a neighbour, Jeremy Beale, who like ourselves is running an independent publishing house. He has heard that our delivery has arrived and has come to offer help, as he knows that Francis is incapacitated by a slipped disc. Effortlessly he demonstrates the professionalism of his own imprint, Harbour Books. He has brought along a sack barrow.
The Oaken Heart seems just the book to inspire community endeavour and practical ingenuity. It’s a first hand account of the early years of World War Two written by an internationally famous detective novelist from a tiny Essex village in the extraordinary ‘bomb-filled’ winter of 1940-1941. It’s Golden Duck’s current best-seller having reached the giddy heights of number 432 in the Amazon best-seller’s chart. (An event celebrated with an extra flagon of Prosecco – £5 a bottle, brought by the dozen from a neighbour’s shed.)
But publishing in the Essex countryside doesn’t need to be parochial. Jeremy’s most recent title is The Music’s All that Matters, a History of Progressive Rock by Paul Stump and his next will be a literary novel. At Golden Duck we’re working on a children’s title, The Salt-Stained Book, volume one in a trilogy of 21st century Arthur Ransomes. Our nearest neighbour in the opposite direction is Roger Davies, a book designer who went freelance in the early 1970s when Oxford University Press moved out of London, then forged an award-wining career, designing publications as various as the Early Music Magazine and New Review and working as chief designer for the British Museum – all from the garage of a redundant Essex pub.
There’s nothing particularly new, then, in running book-related businesses from the countryside but there’s no doubt that recent technological developments make very small-scale publishing almost as accessible as jam-making in the soft fruit season. A series of seminars at this week’s London Book Fair focussed on what the main speaker described as ‘the self-publishing revolution’. Internet sales and print-on-demand systems, which now offer everything from proof-reading and jacket-design to marketing and distribution services, mean that anyone with a typescript in the bottom drawer and a few hundred pounds in the pocket can bring themselves out in volume form. Already in the USA more titles are published annually by self-publishers than through traditional channels and the first self-publishing millionaires are feeding the dreams of the rest.
That’s not quite what we think we’re doing at Golden Duck. Admittedly The Salt-Stained Book has been written by Julia, illustrated by our friend Claudia Myatt (who has her own publishing company, Starfish Books, and runs a b & b in Pembrokeshire) designed by Roger-next-door and marketed by the freelance reps who also carry Jeremy’s titles. But we’re sticking for as long as we can to traditional printing (ie books that arrive on pallets) and sales primarily through bookshops. That may seem hypocritical given the degree of jubilation occasioned by The Oaken Heart’s moments of glory on Amazon and probably it is. Julia founded and ran a village bookshop thoughout the 1980s and when we’re in Woodbridge or Aldeburgh or London we both love browsing and buying in proper shops. Yet at home in Essex when book-shopping means a twelve mile drive, then town centre parking, it’s fatally easier to click the website button and let the postman (or the home delivery network) do the rest. Next thing we’ll be buying, or producing e-books – and how will that help the independent bookseller whose shops we cherish?
Here we are in a mood of compromise. Producing our own paper-based books remains the main focus of the Golden Duck enterprise. The wheelbarrow has been in regular use – and the caravan is filling up. There was another reprint for The Oaken Heart when, wonderfully and appropriately, the Women’s Institute Life magazine chose it as their book of the year. The first sailing adventure story, The Salt-Stained Book, has burgeoned into three. Volume two, A Ravelled Flag was published in November and the set has recently been completed with Ghosting Home. Together they form the Strong Winds trilogy which covers a year in its characters’ lives. It seemed like fun to make the publication schedule mirror the temporal action of the stories – A Ravelled Flag, for instance, covers autumn to early spring and draws much of its inspiration from Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday. Setting one’s own schedule is one of the pleasures of self-publishing – though I think that many of my friends who do the same will say that they set themselves far more gruelling programmes than most conventional publishers would dare inflict.
The sailing novels have had an unexpected consequence. They’ve pushed us into epublishing far more decisively than would otherwise have been the case. A collection of friends was sitting in the cabin of our old wooden yacht Peter Duck (half the Golden Duck title – the other 50% being Francis’s equally old ex-fishing boat, Goldenray) and talking about reading. “Well I don’t read anything except ebooks nowadays,” said a white-haired traditionalist who lives on a houseboat on the River Medway. “Oh no, neither do I” agreed an equally venerable mariner who spends most of his year working as a deckhand on the tall ship HMS Bounty. We’d heard such statements before – particularly from Julia’s oldest son Jack, an internet entrepreneur who spends much of his life getting on and off aeroplanes – but we hadn’t really seen him as our target reader. But if deck hands on the Bounty and houseboat dwellers on the Medway wanted our books in this new format that was different. We got on with it at once and in the process met a whole new set of neighbours – the independent epublishers at Authors Electric. And they’re just as ready with the friendly greeting or the virtual sack barrow as our friends along the lane.
Golden Duck’s next title Fifty years in the Fiction Factory: the working life of Herbert Allingham 1867 – 1936 by Julia Jones will be published Oct 1st 2012 and will be the first of the Allingham collection to be published in both paper and electronic formats.