Louise Harnby: To kick off, Jen, tell us a little bit about Salt – who you are, how it started, where you’re based and what you publish.
Jen Hamilton-Emery: It’s 12 years now since we published our first book, and 10 years since Chris and I (Chris is my husband – together we run Salt) gave up our corporate careers to give Salt 100% of our time and attention. I’ll never forget when Chris told me he’d handed in his notice – that month Salt’s sales were £200 and I feared for our future! But it’s been the most gloriously exciting rollercoaster ride; I’m pleased we decided to do what we did. We’ve always published poetry, and for the past five years or so have also published short stories – a genre that we felt was much-neglected and deserved some championing. Since then we’ve published novels and more recently taken on some wonderful editors, Nick Royle, Roddy Lumsden, Steve Haynes and Linda Bennett, who are developing our fiction, poetry, sci-fi and crime lists respectively, all of which launch this year.
LH: You have an international author base. How do you find your authors and what are you looking for when you read the initial submission?
JHE: Our editors are actively involved in their respective genres, reading magazines and journals, going to readings, reading reviews and so on. We are always on the lookout for new, up-and-coming talent, as well as publishing people who have already made a name for themselves through publication elsewhere. It goes without saying that we are looking for a high standard of writing, but also for books that people will find new and interesting that we can market and sell. We also run two prizes: the Crashaw Prize for debut collections of poetry, and the Scott Prize for debut collections of short stories. The quality of manuscripts we receive for these is outstanding – there is so much good writing out there!
LH: I recently read AJ Ashworth’s Somewhere Else, or Even Here, an exquisitely written book of short stories that you published in 2011. To me the book felt like a perfect example of publishing with passion. John Thompson, author of Merchants of Culture (Polity Press, 2010), has written about the pressures on large, corporate presses to move away from high-risk publishing, and focus instead on so-called cash cows (celebrity memoirs spring to mind) in order to satisfy the demands of shareholders and venture capitalists who aren’t necessarily publishers at heart. It seems to me that this endangers the creative flair of the commissioning editor and limits the degree to which outstanding writers can find a voice. Salt, however, is a family-run, independent press. What does this mean for your publishing strategy and the philosophy behind your publishing vision? Does your independence give you more freedom to follow your heart?
JHE: We are very lucky that have the freedom to publish what we want. However, each commission has to have both the heart and the head in agreement. Our investment of time and money in bringing a book to market has to generate a profit otherwise we’d go bust! I’m so pleased that you enjoyed AJ Ashworth’s book – thank you. It was a winner of the 2011 Scott Prize and has since gone on to be shortlisted for the prestigious Edge Hill Prize. It is a perfect example of "publishing with passion" – she is a new writer, working in a traditionally difficult-to-sell genre. However, on saying that, some of the larger publishing houses have recently started to make a big deal about publishing short stories – we like to think that we’ve done something positive in making it a sexy genre.
LH: Can you tell us about the challenges that independent family-run publishers face in the current market and your approach to dealing with these? I’m particularly interested in the “Just One Book” campaign, which is one of the most creative and innovative methods I’ve seen from a publishing company in terms of engaging with its customers.
JHE: Many independent family-run businesses are finding these economic times tough ones to operate in. The recession hit us early on and in 2008 we launched our Just One Book campaign, which encouraged everyone to buy one book – if enough people did it, we’d sell enough to keep ourselves afloat. The response was tremendous, with people across the globe spreading the word and buying our books. Thanks to them we are here today. We took the time after that to redesign Salt – by bringing in new editors and diversifying our lists we would reach a wider audience; we also revisited our distribution and marketing arrangements, including taking on the services of a sales team.
LH: You award international annual prizes for first collections of stories and poetry. Can you tell our readers a little more about these awards and who is eligible?
JHE: The Crashaw Prize and the Scott Prize are open to anyone living in the UK, Ireland, the US and Australia and are for debut collections of poetry or short stories. We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts (we used to but were inundated and could never find the time to read them), but we saw that for many people with debut collections it was difficult for them to get their work in front of an editor. This was our way of giving them a way in to having their work noticed, and equally, for us to discover and breathe life into new talent.
LH: What about e-publishing and Salt? The by-line on your website, “the home of beautiful books”, clearly demonstrates the care you give to the design element. How does this impact on decisions to publish digitally or in print? Is digital publishing something you’re looking to expand, in full or in part, in the future?
JHE: We put a lot of effort into making our books as good to look at as they are to read and as a side-line we run The Cover Factory, providing cover design services to many of the large trade and academic publishers. We also put a lot of effort into our typesetting and properly think through the size of our books so the reader has an all-round positive experience reading them. As far as ebooks go, we’re rather late adopters. A few of our books are available in both print and digital formats, but it’s not something we’ve rushed into. However, we think now we’ll start making more of our books available as ebooks – they lack all aesthetics, but nevertheless seem to becoming more popular, so needs must.
LH: How did The Cover Factory come about, what does it involve, and who are your clients?
JHE: We’ve always had feedback about the high quality of our covers and over the years have been approached by other publishers asking if we would consider designing for them. Only recently did we decide that we would, though I’m not sure why we took so long! Cambridge University Press, Polity Press, Bloomsbury, and Taylor and Francis are amongst our clients. We enjoy the work and the challenge of working for different publishers across their various lists. You can see some of the work we’ve done on The Cover Factory's website.
LH: And finally, Jen, what exciting projects do you have in the pipeline? Who are the writers we should be looking out for in the coming months? And what are your future goals for the press?
JHE: Goodness, where to start! Well, first of all we are crossing our fingers for AJ Ashworth’s Edge Hill shortlisting, and novelist Padrika Tarrant, whose book, The Knife Drawer, has been shortlisted by the Authors’ Club. We have just published the 2012 edition of The Best British Short Stories, which is one of our highlight books, and we’re looking forward to the autumn when its sister, The Best British Poetry, is being published. Later in the year we’re launching our new crime and sci-fi series, including Blood Fugue by Joseph D'Lacey and In the Family by CA James, plus some wonderful debut novels, including The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, and the 2012 Crashaw and Scott Prize winners. Plus, to coincide with National Short Story Week, we’re publishing a star-studded anthology of stories designed to be read aloud: Overheard, edited by Jonathan Taylor. As for the future – well, we want to continue publishing the best books. And winning the Booker Prize would be nice.
LH: Thank you so much, Jen. It’s been a pleasure. There’s plenty for us to look out for. And as a lover of the crime and sci-fi genres, I’m certainly adding D’Lacey and James to my watch list!
Update: Since this interview took place, Alison Moore's The Lighthouse has been short-listed for the Man Booker prize. The Parlour's fingers are crossed!
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