This is a new, and still very small, imprint set up as a reaction to the wonderfully inefficient mincing machine that modern British publishing seems to have become – an umbrella for books that either wouldn’t get a look-in, or shouldn’t be allowed to die. Writers too. Generally speaking – and within reason – they should be kept alive.
A third philosophical strand elbowed its way onto the stage extremely quickly – why let the big boys have all the cake? All three founding members have made good livings from the arts, and all three of them have grown to think the rewards on offer are a wee bit skewed. The odd invitation to the House of Lords to eat and drink the Murdoch shilling (hire your own obligatory DJ) can get to seem a shade inadequate.
‘You do all the work – we take all the money’ might have sounded half reasonable in the days when production, distribution and selling books was dependent on a vast amount of capital, but to be an ebook publisher requires no capital at all. Kindle and the others will put you up for nothing, and if anybody knows you’re there, and if the product is worth buying – the sky’s the limit.
To three experienced toilers in the word jungle, however, it sounded a bit too good to be true. All the articles lead one to believe the world is crammed with instant millionaires. It may be true for some of them. It may not be true, exactly. But what is true, is that if you remain invisible, you are lost. That’s where the work comes in. That’s why Skinback Books was formed.
Publicising books is a very narrow trade. Jan Needle, the founder member of Skinback, has had more than forty books published over the years, by people as diverse as HarperCollins and the University of Chicago through to Puffin Books. More and more it seemed (to him) that publicity and management departments were making and enforcing decisions about what to print and how and why. Not their decisions to make in the first place, and increasingly quite wrong. How many publishers turned down Harry Potter? How many publishers turned down Fifty Shades of Grey? Just what do they think they’re doing? How dare they boast about their ‘expertise.’
So the brief for Skinback changed a little. Among the backlist books, and among the experimental stuff, it was decided to originate books that would not be out of place in the mainstream. One big thriller is up already – Kicking Off, about politics, international crime and a breakdown in the prison system – and Margaret McCann’s ‘J’ was published in July. This is a book about female sexuality, exploitation, S&M, prostitution – all the usual things! Robin Thornber, the late, great Guardian critic who read it before the mainstream lifted up shocked hands and ran away in droves, wrote that it was ‘a wild, important, dirty masterpiece.’
Another book, Jan Needle’s Killing Time at Catterick, was turned down by ten or twelve publishers, cost him his agent of more than twenty years, and was nominated for the Orwell Prize after the international E-zine and discussion forum OpenDemocracy serialised it to enormous acclaim. This, incidentally, showed up another problem of ebook publication. As ‘The Skinback Fusiliers, by Unknown Soldier’ it garnered a clutch of fantastic reviews on Kindle by Michael Rosen, Melvin Burgess, Frank Cottrell Boyce and many others. But when its title and authorship was changed, they could not be transferred. (However you can read these reviews by clicking HERE)
There are more books in the Skinback pipeline now, and more writers being lined up to join Needle, Margaret McCann (in real life a revered and successful northern painter) and Barry Purchese, a double Bafta winning TV writer turned novelist. The original plan, to sell at the minimum possible price (under a pound) was modified when someone with slightly more financial nous pointed out how Amazon’s sliding royalty scale operates. They’re now slightly under two quid, and the royalty per copy has risen to more than a pound, instead of fifteen pence or so. Trebles all round!
It’s an awful lot of fun, though. Just after Jan Needle’s latest book went up, the former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion brought out (in print and online) a book with almost exactly the same title. Needle’s is a modern day re-thinking of Treasure Island called Silver and Blood, while Motion’s is a sequel to Stevenson’s masterpiece called Silver. Possibly because they knew Motion’s was in the pipeline, the publisher who had paid Needle several thousand pounds in advance cancelled the contract, with the immortal words ‘I haven’t even read it – sorry.’
Here’s what Julia Jones, author of the Strong Winds trilogy (golden-duck.co.uk) wrote about it on the Kindle site.
“Jan Needle’s return to Treasure Island is much better than a simple re-visiting. I’d expected it to be Stevenson’s story in modern dress – speed boats and AK47s, a DVD instead of a map etc. That’s all there and very enjoyable but what makes it a re-imagining rather than a re-visiting is the way that Needle gets inside his main characters — his Long John Silver is superb and his Jim is believably confused, duped and frightened. There are new characters (I especially liked the ship’s engineer) and the moral ambiguity of Stevenson’s ‘good’, socially respectable characters is provocatively conveyed. Exciting action without too high a body count.” The full review can be seen on IEBR site (Childrens/YA Bookshelf)
So – let virtual battle commence!