Holly Hendry-Saunders recently interviewed Terri-ann White on launching Upswell Publishing during a pandemic. They continued their conversation and discussed topics such as acquiring authors; navigating the world of marketing; publishing titles that have substance; the importance of community within independent publishing; and how independent publishing can survive these turbulent times.
Terri-ann’s process of acquiring an author and Upswell’s current titles
When asked about how she decides to publish or acquire an author, and what she looks for in their writing Terri-ann says “The way I read a manuscript is that I read the first page, the last page and a random sample in the middle. It’s the quality of the writing itself, and what it carries. There are many stories you can tell about a similar topic or subject or moment in a human life and you can tell it very, very differently depending on how brave you are – not brave about the content but brave about the form.” She continues, “I look for something that takes my breath away, and that’s taking my breath away in a dramatic sense or in a very quiet sense. Quite often I find it on the first page”. Since opening Upswell, Terri-ann has had a torrent of amazing manuscripts coming her way “I’m in this terrible dilemma, I’m this one person working at home publishing three books this year and fourteen next year, and I’m already onto 2023, what the hell do I do if I open up the submissions! At UWAP I used to get about 700 submissions every year. Now I reckon given the time we’ve had in lockdown, we’ve got more writers, more manuscripts”.
When speaking about the current titles from Upswell Terri-ann describes them as “These books are part of our moment in making art, making expression into books. They are written in prose but are actually deeply poetic” she continues “They work with images, there are photographs throughout the text, none of them straight up and down books and that’s what I absolutely love in my life as a reader as well.”
Naturing the author and manuscript relationship
“That relationship between a publisher and a manuscript is such a delicate relationship. I don’t want to publish anything that I don’t love, and that is actually ‘alright, I can do that!’ There are no restrictions on having to do things. It’s really important to me that I adore, and will continue to adore these manuscripts that I take on. I spend about ten hours a week at least talking to authors on Zoom about things such as some of the editorial work, but also how are we going to write a blurb that goes out the world, what kind of cover we are going to make, all of those things; as well as allaying those fears if they are first-timers.”
Publishing books that will stand the test of time
Terri-ann aims to publish books of substance that will last twenty to fifty years in a cultural sense, and that is something that she is constantly aware of. “It does stand out in the forefront of my mind I think because when I was a very young woman I was a bookseller and sitting in my bookshop: the first year it was open I didn’t have many customers and I had a job in a restaurant at night to keep everything going financially. I managed to have all of this time to think about publishing and the kind of life-cycle of a book.”
“It was a time in the 1980s when Virago Press and the Women’s Press as two publishers reclaimed women’s writing that had been out of print forever. They went back to the feminist classics and to work from the late-19th century and all the way to the 20th century and just put the bloody stuff back into print. It was a complete revelation that these remarkable books had been published so long ago and then been out of print for so bloody long. So I think that kind of passion for work that has been overlooked because it had a short life-span is something that has driven me for most of my career.”
Marketing books in the digital age
When talking about the difficult task of marketing books when our consumer culture is so focused on trends and following what’s popular at the time Terri-ann agreed that yes, it is very difficult. “When I’ve got a very small budget for marketing and publicity; cutting through all of that is really complicated. And so that is one of the reasons that I’ve started this idea for subscriptions to Upswell.” Upswell has begun a subscription service, in which readers can subscribe and will receive the titles that Upswell publishes, from fiction to non-fiction, as well as poetry. “It’s about readers making a commitment to buying a subscription, it was about people trusting me, trusting my curatorship, trusting me and my judgement to say ‘okay. I’m paying upfront’ This opened in May even though the first book came out in August. People pay upfront and I send them the books as they come back from the printer”. The subscription will include a letter from Terri-ann on why she chose the book, as well as a letter from the author about where this book came from.
”I think it survives by following some of these strategies that I’ve commenced, such as the subscription, building a base of readers, as a former bookseller I don’t really want to cut out the bookshops, as that is very important to me as part of the whole ecosystem of books, publishers and readers. But, I feel like I need – given that there are so many books being published, and it’s so hard for booksellers to cut through and make decisions – I want to be able to have a bit of protection for myself. So the subscriptions and the building of a strong reader base is incredibly important”
“Being on social media, which is kind of weird and horrific and also deeply useful for an independent publisher … I’ve been doing it now for more than 10 years: I’ve had some experiences of announcing a book for publication down the track and saying pre-orders are available and because of the subject of that book, and before we’d even got the book back from the printer, on one day it just hit a couple of Facebook groups, of vary diverse focus, and on one day I was sitting at home and suddenly all of the sales would come through my inbox.” she continues “So I’m sitting at home, doing something ordinary and 1 o’clock on that Sunday pre-orders started coming in for a book that was a $35 retail price and we sold pretty close to about 600 copies that afternoon and then by the end of that following week we’d sold 1500 copies. So 1500 people had paid upfront 35 bucks without the publisher even seeing the final copy”.
When asked about her keynote address at the SPN conference Terri-ann stated “Because most of the people that will attend are at the start of their careers, or thinking about getting into publishing, I just want to be really honest about the pitfalls, and about how to keep the passion alive”.
To secure your tickets head to https://www.trybooking.com/events/landing?eid=820369&.
You can buy books published by Upswell, all the BOTY-shortlisted books and many books written or published by IPC2021 speakers at the special SPN bookstall powered by Readings.