We are exploring and sharing user stories from the world of independent publishing to discover and showcase creativity, inspiration, knowledge and the details behind the stories that make them remarkable.
Meet Kit Caless, one of the owners of Influx Press, a London-based independent publisher. We sat down for a talk with Kit about the challenging and rewarding aspects about being a niche publisher of poetry, how he brings music and publishing together, and the way storytelling is evolving online.
Hello, Kit! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Walk us through the story of Influx Press from the beginning till today.
Kit: We are three partners at Influx Press. Gary, Chris and I. Chris does the design and is a silent version of Gary and me. We all went to school together and we have known each other since we were eleven. So here we are twenty years later.
The idea to start Influx Press mainly started from being drunk in a pub and frustrated at the state of publishing back in 2011. It was Gary’s idea to start with, and we were both scrabbling around in jobs. I was working in a music school, Gary was working at Waterstones, and in our free time we were both writing bits and pieces, wondering whether we should write for a living. We both lived in Hackney for a long time, and the Olympics was coming, and Hackney was changing really quickly from what we had known as younger people, and we decided that we had seen the narrative of Hackney as a borough change its identity of being a mixture of working class, migrant and bohemian, into a new place for wealthier people and corporate media types. We decided that there were loads of stories that were getting lost in this new narrative so we wanted to publish a book of alternative stories and versions of the identity of Hackney. At that point, we’d already made contact with lots of writers who live in the borough, and a lot of them weren’t very well known. So I ended up contacting writers I did like who were more well known on Twitter saying, “Hi, we’re doing this book, do you want to contribute something?”. They did, and we ended up with 25 stories consisting of poetry, short fiction and essays. So we had a manuscript, and we took it to lots of publishers, and they all said no. This is a very familiar story to a lot of people, I’m sure. They kept saying it was too niche, it was too political, so we finally decided to do it ourselves, but before we set the press up to publish, we contacted a lot of other independent publishers. One guy, Tom Chivers, who runs a really good poetry press called Penned In The Margins, took us under his wing and taught us everything. Then Chris came on board and did the book design, he´s normally a web designer, and then we published the book and it sold really well, and then off the back of that we thought we’d just keep going. Basically, we don’t have a plan, each time we do something new, we go to the next step and that’s it really.
Could you tell us a bit about the process of making a book from idea to finished publication?
Kit: We’re slightly different to a lot of other small publishers. We don’t really take unsolicited submissions. We do have a window each year in which you can send us stuff. I think of the eleven books we’ve published, only one came from as a finished manuscript that we really wanted to publish.
In the month that we opened for submissions — this was September last year — we had 800, 900 submissions, and there’s only two of us. We had an intern at the time. We only have interns when we can pay them, and if we’re not in a position to pay them, we don’t want them. I mean, we do want them, but we don’t want to not pay people. So the intern went through a lot of them, but then between the two of us to read 900, was really difficult.
Generally, our process is that someone will come to us with an idea. So this Imaginary Cities book, which is out in July, by Darran, he’s had a book published by Bloomsbury, but he wanted us specifically to publish this one because it’s about urbanism and cities, and the sort of stuff that we’ve published before. He had not written a single thing, but we liked the idea, so we said yes. We like to work from the very beginning — you know, we get sent chapters. Chapters come in and we’re like, “Oh, have you thought about this?” And then the next chapter comes in and we start to relate, you know.
‘Marshland’ by Gareth E Rees, originated from a blog he was writing, and we asked him to write a book based on that, rather than him coming to us with the idea. We worked with him on structure, and there wasn’t a female voice, really, in the book so far, so we asked, “Can you put in a female voice?” We worked on a couple of chapters. So, for about nine months, I think, we’ll work with the author in creating the manuscript. It’s not a collaboration; it’s a bit short of a collaboration because most of the onus is on the writer. But, I’d like to think that we’re quite heavily involved guiding them towards what we want. Then once that’s done, we’ll start thinking about kind of how it fits. It’s not the greatest business practice, because other bigger publishers, if they get something that they might want to publish, they’ll take it to their marketing team to get it approved. Whereas we kind of do that the opposite way; we get really excited about a book and then wonder how we can market it. It’s probably the backward way of doing it, but that’s how we work, and all the book design happens about six months before the book comes out.
Do you print the books here in the UK?
Kit: Yeah, we do. We use various printers depending on the run. We have one that is in Exeter. They do the real short runs, 200-300 copies, and then we also use Clays who are really, really big. They’re in Norfolk. Anything that’s over a thousand, we go with them because they do lithographic printing, so it doesn’t economically work out to go with them unless it’s a big order.
We haven’t visited their plants, but we’re developing a good relationship with them. We’re not a customer that’s going to make them a lot of money, but they seem to like what we do, which really helps. And then that gets split once they’re printed, generally most of it goes to our distributor and the rest of it comes to our office. We get a lot of orders via our website, but also we do lots of book fairs, so we have to have these with us to sell them that way.
What about in terms of creating eBooks to the printed version?
Kit: We have an eBook for every book apart from poetry ones, because the problem with eBooks and poetry is the e-reader is responsive and it automatically changes the line breaks, which is one of the most important things in writing poetry. So with eBooks, you have to freeze … I don’t know what the technical word for it is, but basically you can’t make it responsive. Poetry has to remain the same ratio or dimensions as it came.
Anyway. We do eBooks for everything, which go up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But our print sales far outweigh our digital ones. We have one guy, Ben, who does all the conversions for us, but it’s an area I would like to look more into, but I think by the nature of the kind of stuff we publish, eBook sales are very much geared towards crime fiction, thrillers and big commercial literary books. We sell a lot of eBooks abroad, which helps, but in the UK only 5% of our sales are digital, which we’re still kind of surprised at. With a digital approach, you need to be part of a community, for example like Goodreads, but we haven’t had time to do that. It’s not that we don’t recognize the value of it, it’s more that we’re not really sure how to go about it, and also I don’t think our books specifically fit that model or market.
What inspires you?
Kit: For Influx specifically, Gary and I are inspired by two music scenes. When we were fifteen and still at school, we made a fanzine together — again, Chris, our designer, did the design for the fanzine as well — and it was half Punk and half Hip-Hop. Gary was a proper little Punk, and I was a Hip-Hop kid, and at the time when we were producing the fanzine, which was in the late 90s, there was an explosion of independent music, and we fell in love with certain record labels. I know Gary really liked labels called Chemical Underground, Dischord and Domino. A lot of independent British Hip-Hop was produced at that time from labels like Low Life, Jazz Fudge and Big Dada. They were distributing to all sorts of shops, and when we were doing this fanzine we contacted all these record labels. And at fifteen, you think you’re contacting some, like, big guy, and we’re saying, “Hey, we’re doing this fanzine. Can you send us some records?” And we thought we were chancing it, you know? Then these records just appear at our house. We were like, “Wow, they’re taking us seriously.” Then we reviewed the records and we sold the fanzine in Tower Records and HMV. We did our own distribution. It was, 50 pence, and people bought it, and it was the first time — you know, we’d go back to Tower Records and get, like, £10. We didn’t realize that that was allowed. That you could just take something in and someone would sell it for you and then you come back and pick up money.
Then Gary went to university in Norwich and we didn’t see each other for ages. I went to university quite late — but we reconnected our friendship back in London when I met Gary in Waterstones, Trafalgar Square four years later at random. However I think that’s always stayed with us, the idea of running your own thing, particularly within music. It still happens now. There’s a genre of music called Grime here in London, and there’s a guy called JME who’s huge in this particular scene, but he’s never had a major record label deal, he distributes everything himself, he makes his own caps, his own T-shirts, as well as his own music, and he guests on loads of others. They do their own videos, and the content policy is just as good as it would be in a major label thing, but he has complete control over all of it. So I think he’s probably one of my inspirations in that sense.
Gary, I know, is particularly inspired by nature writing, and he’s a keen bird watcher. He’s gone from being a Punk to a bird watcher. That’s quite an interesting transformation.
People like Tom Chivers, who I mentioned earlier, who helped us at the beginning are also real inspirations to us, and Tom’s always a couple of steps ahead of us. The same goes for another friend of ours like Sam and Elly at Galley Beggar Press, who published Emma McBride’s book last year, which won loads of awards. We often talk to each other, and they are very innovative and always one step ahead of us too! But, in general, in London it’s not hard to be inspired by people doing stuff because there’re a lot of people doing a lot of stuff all the time.
It’s funny, I was in New York recently and everybody was telling me that everyone is on the hustle, everybody’s trying to make it there. “This city is great for people trying to make it.” And I get that, but the difference to me, I didn’t think about London being less of a hustle, or less hardworking, it was more that it felt like in London people were willing to do more interesting, risky things that weren’t necessarily about ‘making it’ in that American sense. They were more trying to find some sort of, not necessarily meaning, but trying to find their own version of what it is that they want to see and how people are responding to them and their work. So like I said before, we don’t do this because we want to be publishers. We do it because there are books that we know aren’t getting published that we want to read, and the only way we can read them is if we publish them.
I think it’s very similar in many industries in London, and I think music is probably primarily London’s main innovator, you know? From Punk through to Jungle, Drum and Bass, and Dub-step and Grime and all these kind of very London-centric music genres, they all started with people saying, “Well, I’m bored of this. I’m going to do something new,” and setting up their own record labels, and always being at the front and being innovative. Not because they want to make money, but because they want to innovate — specifically, make something new.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a book publisher in a digital age?
Kit: The most challenging is making enough money to pay ourselves. We pay everybody else before we pay ourselves, which often leads to us not paying ourselves at all! So Gary and I both have part-time jobs as well. We do this between two and two and a half days a week.
We’re not in debt. As a company, I suppose we make profit, but it always goes to designers, writers, everyone else first before it comes to us. We’re always thinking about the next book, so it’s very hard to justify scraping money off, enough money off, to make a difference to our personal lives without thinking, ‘Oh, but that means we could print this one that we hadn’t thought we could afford to print.’
The second hardest is marketing. I don’t think we’re natural at marketing and publicity. That’s not what we’re in it for. We’re in to create the books, and obviously half of creating the book is getting someone to read it. So hopefully in the future, possibly potentially in September, we think we’re going to be able to afford someone to do our publicity part-time. Which would be really good. I think that’s one of the hardest, and its difficult here in England. I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the world. I imagine it’s the same in America and France. Here, there’s so many books. It’s insane how many books are published a year, and if there’re fewer and fewer readers, it sinks.
So particularly with bookshops, just physical bookshops, getting them to stock your book beyond the first month of it being out. You know, they’ll take a new book. Most of the bookshops will take our titles without really knowing what it is. “Oh, that’s a new one from you. That’s great.” But if it doesn’t sell in the first month, they’ll end up only stocking one or two copies for the rest of the year. The thing with independent publishing is it’s all a slow burn. You don’t get a big splash because your resources are such that you can’t get a big feature in The Guardian or The Times. You don’t have this initial, “Wow, when this book’s out, everybody’s going to buy it.” It’s always a word of mouth thing and all about being visible. If you’re not visible in a bookshop, people don’t pick up your book by chance. So if you don’t make this splash, you end up just stuck in the shelves. It’s a constant battle, so we try to come up with something new and different from new writers that you may not know, but you can trust us to deliver the right kind of quality.
It’s a constant battle, and I think the role people like us and Galley Beggar and other publishers I’ve mentioned play is that rather than people necessarily buying books for the author’s name or things like that, which they would do with other much bigger publishers … Let’s say Sarah Hall’s next book is going to be bought by anybody, you know. Margaret Atwood’s next book will always be bought. We’re constantly breaking new writers, so people buy our books because we publish them, rather than for the author’s name. It’s almost like our role is to always publish interesting things that you won’t know what it is, but you would trust us to deliver the right kind of quality, and that sort of stuff.
The most rewarding thing about being an independent publisher is the random comments that we get that we haven’t tried to generate ourselves. We had a review in The Guardian last week for one of our books, and I worked very hard to get that review done. The review being in there isn’t necessarily rewarding because I know I’ve kind of instigated it and talked to the editor. But it’s the social sharing afterwards. We might get Tweets or a comment on our website or on Amazon from someone that we’ve never come in contact with, and they say, “This is amazing. What a brilliant book.” That’s one of the bits where it makes it worth it because we’ve realized that we’ve gone out to someone, and they’ve read the book, and they’ve found it really interesting. Also, we tend to do big launch parties for our authors. So for the Settled Wanderers book we booked a really big arts space called Rich Mix, and they were really good. They provided us with a heavy discount because they really liked the idea. I was in New York when the launch was on, but we had audio from the poets from the Western Sahara, we had talks from people who were interested in the political situation. Sam Berkson, the author, read some poems, there was live music, and it was packed. I don’t know what the estimate would be, but 200 hundred or something people came. It wasn’t just like a white wine kind of clinking industry night. All our launches are events for the public to come to. It’s not a private thing, which a lot of book launches are, or seem to be. But because we do it as an event for the public, and it’s not necessarily focused on the book, it’s focused on what the book’s talking about, what the themes of the book are. So the book launch becomes about not just presenting their book as a book, but as a collection of ideas, and I think our authors really enjoy that, and that’s something that’s definitely rewarding for us. We don’t want the book to be just seen as a book. All our books have an extra layer to them, and hopefully the authors see themselves more than just an author. So yeah, the parties are fun.
Which market and sales channels do you use to reach out to your audience?
Kit: Well, I don’t know how relevant this will be in a couple of months, but at the moment we’re part of a group called InPress, kind of an umbrella marketing organization that covers British independent presses, mainly poetry. They’re really good. They were the link to our distributor, who we currently use, but we’re moving to a different distributor, who also will do the main marketing to bookshops. They’re called Turnaround. They’re also very good.
Our collaboration with Turnaround consists of them stocking most of our books in their warehouse, and then they have reps who go to most of the bookshops and other places that aren’t considered bookshops like Urban Outfitters to sell our books. They represent maybe fifteen to twenty publishers in England, and they also do some US publishers in England. They’ll take their catalogue and their list, and they’ll say to the bookshops, “This one’s going to be big. You want this one. You want that one,” and then the bookshops will order them.
We don’t do any of that with bookshops, so we don’t really have a personal relationship with many bookshops here, apart from our local ones in Hackney. When we started with the first book, we actually went around lots of bookshops and said, “Do you want to stock this? Sale or return.” Just like we did with the fanzine when we were 15. Then when that sold enough copies, we were approached by a distributor who had seen our book, and that eliminated having to cycle round with a bag full of books, which was lovely.
In terms of everything else, eBooks and more, that’s all done through Amazon, but the only other places we sell are through our own website, which is mainly generated through social media. Around 10% of our sales come through our website and the rest of it, I guess, book fairs and similar things to that. There was a thing called the Radical Book Fair earlier in May, which is an event for publishers of which I suppose we count. Some of our books have quite a political edge to them, so we have a table there and people will come along and buy our books that way. It’s very difficult to get your name and your identity out into the ether and particularly into foreign territories. We have a foreign rights agent who just came on board with us to sell the books in translation, and into US, Australia, and New Zealand. Which is really good. So actually a lot of our online book sales are overseas because people can’t buy them in, say, American bookshops.
A lot of our book sales come from actual, physical bookshops. Which is kind of against the trend, I suppose, considering they’re all closing. But I know Waterstones, the big book chain here, was crashing until it got a new managing director, and they’ve come back up, and they’re just opening a new store for the first time in fifteen years. So it may be going the same way that vinyl did in the way that people actually still want physical books and will go to bookshops to buy them rather than all those transactions being online.
Where do you see books and technology in the future?
Kit: Books and technology aren’t necessarily that incompatible. I guess it’s about storytelling. I think storytelling will change with technology. Well, I don’t know if we’ve seen it yet, but the way we use particularly digital technology, it’s in short bursts. It’s very hard, other than reading on an e-reader — a normal 300, 400-page book. Let’s say an e-reader basically mimics a book, but in a digital fashion. My Kindle that I use is the basic one, but it still flicks through page by page, right? There’s not that scrolling aspect unless you’re reading it on a phone. The scrolling thing, that’s quite now, but I wonder if that will change in the future. I think the way we read online is completely different to the way we read in print. I believe the way we read print books will remain the same for the rest of time. I think now in a book that’s 400 pages, I’m losing four or five hours in it, and eBooks are just another form of reading the same book. It’s not a new way of reading stories, the eBook. It’s still the same thing. It’s just delivered on a different platform. Whereas I think the way we use social media, the way people read stories online, is going to change the way they are written. For example, I read short stories online, and I might read some of them on public transport or on my phone. Then you’ve got the growth of things like podcasts. There’s a podcast called Radio Lab in the States, and they’re basically telling stories, and it’s half an hour long. They’re non-fiction stories, but the way that they construct the stories is very much like you would read a book, but you’re listening to it.
I think that sort of storytelling will increase, and visual storytelling online — I mean, online, is a platform for visual art and visual communication rather than just written communication.
Me and a friend of mine Aki started a thing on Twitter last year called LossLit, which is encouraging micro stories and small poetry within a tweet format and 140 characters. It is based upon the theme of loss. That can mean anything from football games to the death of something or someone you loved. It started as a bit of a joke. We were just doing this back and forth with this hashtag #losslit, and other people started joining in, and then it became this actual, genuine exercise of writing a story or evoking a notion or some sort of narrative within the confines of 140 characters. And now every month, every first Wednesday of the month, we have this writing session, and it’s global. It starts at 9 p.m. GTM and we have people from Australia, Japan, America joining in, and people comment on each other’s stories and they share them. Say you write a little thing and you use the hashtag, someone you don’t know and doesn’t even follow you might say, “Oh, that was really nice. This happened to me similarly.” To the point where we are now, each writing session consists of about 1000 stories that are written each time, and I think the future for digital is that thing. It’s collaboration, and it’s instant collaboration, and it’s instant storytelling, and it’s sharing and connecting people who are telling stories together all at the same time. The thing with a book, it’s a singular voice, generally, and you buy it and you have a relationship with the book and the author. But the author doesn’t necessarily have a relationship with you as the reader, and obviously you can’t write on the book and change it. It’s been printed, and it’s there. Whereas with digital, because you can just re-edit, and re-edit and re-edit, or you can delete it and write it again, you actually get this more collaborative aspect to storytelling.
Lastly I would say, that neither print or digital publications is better than the other, but I think in terms of the future of digital as opposed to print, we’ll see digital storytelling being far more inclusive and collaborative with readers and writers.
To learn more about Influx Press and experience
their universe and books
go visit: www.influxpress.com