Monday, June 02, 2008

Trust Me! and Ford Street - all you wanted to know

Not that long ago, I went to the launch of Trust Me! - I'm a proud contributor and rather than describe the launch (which was great fun, with 20+ authors signing copies), I thought I would interview the publisher, Paul Collins. Ford Street Publishing is his 'baby' and a fine, sprightly offspring it is too.

1. What led to you starting your own publishing company?
I actually started out as a publisher back in the 70s -- I published science fiction and Australia's first heroic fantasy novels. I had no intentions of being a writer. Unfortunately, back in those days the major publishers only distributed their own books -- and they weren't remotely interested in publishing fantasy or science fiction! So small press distributors, with one or two reps, abounded. They also folded regularly. After two did this to me, the second taking all my stock and owing money, I embarked on a writing career. Macmillan now distributes smaller publishers, so I've basically returned to what I wanted to do in the first place. I also felt a little stuck in the writing groove. Last year I had something like twenty books published. It was more like work than enjoyment. I now call the tune, and it's great.

2. What has been the most difficult aspect? The most encouraging, so far?
The challenge will always be name recognition, getting Ford Street titles into shops. The distributor's reps will always push their own books, and this is a given. I would, too. But I think with time booksellers/librarians will see that Ford Street titles are quality fiction, and dare I say it, better edited than some books from major publishers. I'm often appalled at the glaring errors that are appearing in books lately. I know the trend in the US is minimal editing, but I suspect that trend has crept its way into Australian publishing.

3. What do you think the role of a small publisher is in today's publishing world?
I think we catch the ones that "got away". The first book I contracted was Pool by Justin D'Ath. Both of his major publishers rejected it. When it appeared on the CBCA's (very short) Notables List, from which the short-list is chosen, I bet his publishers got the fright of their lives lol. Small presses take the risks that major publishers won't. I've published Trust Me!, an anthology comprising fifty contributors. Much larger publishers have published similar anthologies, but they received the contributions free, citing they were for charity, and besides, such large anthologies can't work financially because of the large contents page. Well, Ford Street has just made it work, and contributors were paid. Small presses can make this sort of enterprise work because the publishers work for free. I don't pay myself. Major publishers have huge overheads: rent and staff costs being in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions per year. I have neither, and I suspect other smaller publishers have minimal costs.

4. We are often told that fantasy and paranormal fiction are "hot" at the moment - what's your perception of the various genres and sub-genres of spec fiction in Australia right now? What's selling? (in adult and kid's books)
Ah, if I had the answer to that question I wouldn't be telling. I'd be "doing". But the one stand out at present is Stephanie Meyer. She even appears in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2008 list. Now that's impressive.

5. Do you think Australian publishers are dealing with spec fiction in the best way, especially in terms of looking for new writers, publishing new writers and marketing? Are authors well treated? (e.g. Orbit advertised for 10 fantasy manuscripts and are going to work on them with the authors in a residential workshop soon)

Publishing has become pretty much a fly by the seat of the pants affair. It's 80% flop and 20% success. In days gone by publishers nurtured authors, spent money on them, grooming them. All of that's gone by the wayside. Now, if your novel's not "ready to go", it's doomed. Budgets have been cut, staff reduced to such an extent that the good editors can no longer afford to be in the business. Those proficient editors still around do it because of their love of working in the industry -- it really is a labour of love for them. Only the A-list authors get publicity budgets -- the B-listers either sink or swim. If you swim, you find yourself elevated. If you sink, you're gone. Flick. Just like that. People ask me why authors do it - - they "do" it because they, like the best editors, love doing what they do. Few authors in this country can survive on their writing alone. Most are either receiving social benefits, grants, receive awards (which pay), have hefty ELR/PLR/CAL returns because they've been prolific (it's this category that I fit into) or do a lot of festivals and workshops in libraries and schools, or take on miscellaneous jobs like assessments or part time jobs.

6. The Quentaris series was a collaboration between you and Michael Pryor in terms of developing the concept, creating the series "bible" and then selling it to Lothian. What was that process like? Can you describe it?
A couple of major publishers knocked back the concept - - more fool them, the first series went to 26 titles. Ford Street is now publishing series #2. It was originally Michael's concept. He asked me if I wanted to collaborate. Together we developed the guidelines and approached Helen Chamberlin at Lothian. She took it and published six titles a year for four years until Hachette bought Lothian. The scenario has been added to over the years, and now it's changed completely with Quentaris a floating city, thrust into the rift worlds via a vortex due to the Spell of Undoing. Michael and I are still having fun with the series, and there's no sign of it slowing. Alyssa Brugman has written book #2, The Equen Queen, and James Roy is now writing book # 3, The Gimlet Eye. As you'll note, it's now sequential, and the books are fully illustrated. The website's at

7. Ford Street recently published an anthology called Trust Me - why did you want to produce something like this, rather than another novel? What has been the response so far? Do you see it primarily as a school text? Who do you hope will buy and read it?
Truth be it known I was asked by an educational publisher to edit an educational text. I commissioned what I thought were sixteen pretty good stories. Then the crunch came. The publisher disagreed. I promptly gave the advance back and decided to publish myself. I let the authors know that it was now a trade book, and they could ramp up the stories, which they did. I also invited other contributors, such as poets and illustrators, because I wanted a Kids' Night In type book. The end result has been fantastic. I've seen five reviews to date, all of which have been excellent. It has great potential as a school text, yes, but it's trade quality, too. I suspect it'll be going into reprint very shortly. According to the reviewers, it's managed to get boys reading, so in response to the last part of your question, I think anyone who has a boy who's a reluctant reader, should try Trust Me!.

8. Where do you see Ford Street heading in the future?
I'm pretty much happy with the way things are presently going. I'd like to score some foreign rights sales, some awards for the authors. I'd like to employ someone to help with the workload, and this will only happen when I get that best-seller. It's a matter of time. Right now it's a seven days and nights a week career. Luckily, I am supported by people such as Grant Gittus (graphics), Nancy Mortimer (marketing), Liz Foley (FaceBook) and my partner, Meredith Costain (editing), all of whom have rallied around me free of charge. My brother has also printed a lot of bookmarks and stickers. I suspect all small presses rely on this sort of support.

9. What have you got coming up?
Forthcoming 2008 books include Jenny Mounfield's The Ice-cream Man, Dianne Bates' Crossing the Line and David Miller's picture book Big and Me. All three are issues based, so have levels deeper than just genre fiction. I have high hopes for all three. As for 2009, I'm already looking at publishing a Gary Crew picture book, a non-fiction (my first!) title by Sue Bursztynski and the third Quentaris book by James Roy.

10. What's the best way for people to find out about Ford Street?
The website is kept pretty much up-to-date: I also have an option for people to join the mailing list. Anyone who gets on that receives free posters, catalogues, bookmarks, as they're produced. I also email a Ford Street News every now and then. People just have to email me at: to get onto that list.

Thanks, Paul - that's a fantastic response and useful info for all of us. (and my apologies to readers if the formatting goes haywire again!)

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