BookBrunch | Galley Beggar on short stories, industry flaws and the ups and downs of success

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 10_12_25.pngThere’s a new column starting up over on BookBrunch: the BookBrunch Weekly Interview. Starting with last week’s chat with Louis de Bernières, a new interview will be posted every week with someone (or someones!) from the publishing world.

This week, I got to talk to Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, who run one of my all-time favourite indie presses, Galley Beggar Press:

Since it was established in 2012, Galley Beggar Press has become one of fixtures of independent publishing in the UK. Initially set up with Henry Layte of Norwich’s The Book Hive, it is now run solely by Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, and is known for such successes as Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, winner of the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction 2013. This year, Galley Beggar have branched out to launch a short story prize, the winner of which was announced last weekend: Backburn by Ríona Judge McCormack.

Launching the prize
Millar and Jordison are a pleasure to talk to and their frankness is interspersed liberally with laughter. We start by talking about short stories: have they always loved the genre?

“Sam has, not me!” grins Millar. “I’ve grown to love it. I’ve generally found them perplexing actually – it’s a new thing for me! That’s thrilling in itself, because it feels like this new form is opening up to me, which is quite unexpected.”

“We’ve always done short stories,” adds Jordison. “We have a thing called the Singles Club, where every month we put out an eBook short story for a pound and people subscribe or pay per pop. It’s a really nice way of getting to know writers. We’ve had some brilliant things! Then we launched a short story list last January. We haven’t done another one since, but we’re just waiting for the right book. The prize was a natural progression from things we’d been doing already.”

“I think the turning point was when we thought about what we can give people that would actually be useful, because we don’t have a lot of money,” says Millar. “So, the first prize is either £500, which is nice but it’s not a lot, or a year of editorial support. For writers a common complaint is, ‘I really need structured feedback,’ and that is something we can give.”

The prize on offer clearly had an impact, with over 570 entries submitted. “Which for the first year, was totally unanticipated. When we got to 100, we thought, ‘Well that’s respectable.’”

“The only complaint – and it feels slightly silly complaining about it – is having to read so many,” says Jordison. “Because it’s like the magic porridge pot – there’s just another one coming along. But it was also one of the great joys of it.”

“I loved it!” Millar grins, “I literally sat in my pyjamas for a week reading with the iPad and tea. It was amazing – apart from the migraine you get at the end of it!

“I’ve got to say, I thought that most of the submissions would be not very good, and that was not the case at all. Really amazingly high quality. Choosing the longlist was really difficult. What was interesting was that when we got down to the final fifty or so, there were some absolutely amazing stories there, but it just needs to be a tiny thing that’s wrong: one person’s voice or a piece of dialogue.”

“There were lots of things we would have considered publishing as singles,” adds Jordison, “but couldn’t go through to the final stages of the prize just because of one small piece of editorial.”

“We can fight over editorial issues because we edit together,” Millar says, explaining their normal editing process. “We have this system where we both read it. Actually generally we’re in agreement, but there’ll be a few issues we don’t agree on. Before we meet the author, we have to hammer them out so we’ve got a united front. I think it works really well.”

Although there was one story which Millar loved and Jordison loathed, the process was quite similar for judging the prize, even with the added input of the other judges, award-winning authors Paul Ewen and Benjamin Myers. “It was great,” says Jordison. “They were writers we had worked with so we knew they would come from a pretty similar place. It’s nice to have other people who agree with you as well.”

“We were absolutely in agreement all four of us about two of the shortlist,” added Millar. “And pretty solid on the third and then the fourth there was a bit of discussion – but mainly because we were sad to leave some of the others out.”

“That was the great thing, it wasn’t a question of thinking anything wasn’t any good, it was a question of having to drop others which was the hard thing.”

“I love it!” Millar enthuses, “I just can’t wait to open up submissions next year – it’s just been one of the most fun things that we’ve done!”

Apparently there is even a pile of entries they have kept to one side to peruse at a later date, and are hoping that some of the new voices might have longer pieces of fiction to submit as well.

Industry issues
So, after the prize, do they feel an anthology coming on?

“We would like to,” says Millar with some reservation, “but we’ve come out of an appalling year of returns from chain booksellers who essentially over order our books to decorate their bookstores and then send them all back to us. Honestly, six months ago we didn’t know if we’d be around this year and it’s because of Arts Council funding that we are. Our distributor sales came in this month – and the returns are never-ending! It’s been just devastating, I feel so angry about it. I just feel it’s so irresponsible. It’s not figuring out how publishing deals with it, it’s how long it’s going to survive…”

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