September Publishing was founded in 2013 by Hannah MacDonald as an independent start-up in an era of content overload. After twenty years of publishing at Virgin, Andre Deutsch, Random House and HarperCollins, Hannah specialises in a creative approach to shaping books with organisations, brands and personalities. Hannah is also the author of two fabulous books The Sun Road and Julianna Kiss, and a winner of a Betty Trask Award for first novels.
We spoke to Hannah about everything, from what it is like to run an independent publishing house and the challenges and rewards that go with it to what she would like to see more of in her submissions inbox. Read the full interview below.
Why did you decide to set up September Publishing?
I wanted to carry on being a publisher – but I also knew I wanted to work for myself for the foreseeable future!
What were the challenges/fears of starting your own publishing company?
The same fears arose as when starting anything new – fear of failure/ridicule/seeing it through. But—being in my forties—I know myself quite well now so I know when to listen to them and when not!
I was frightened of losing all the money I invested—and this was quite a sensible fear—so I created a couple of ground rules about what kind of books we could realistically publish. Our books need to sell somewhere other than just the UK book trade, and our authors each need a way they are going be heard directly by readers. These have been sensible and I stuck to them.
The first great challenge was constructing from scratch the hub of services that represent a publishing house – distribution, marketing, data dissemination. All the stuff I’d taken for granted at a large company!
The second great—ongoing—challenge is getting the books to be seen and heard.
SP is now into its second year. How has it grown since the beginning and have your goals or views shifted from those you had in the beginning?
We’ve shifted roles and responsibilities. Charlotte Cole who has worked with September since the outset has become a shareholder and we are discussing new imprints with new potential publishers.
You have to balance your focus on your original instincts and mission as well as keeping a real-time realism, as we learn what we do best. So the pitch of what we do – inspiring illustrated books and mind-expanding narratives is clearer.
I wish we’d sorted our accounting/financial/costing systems out a bit more vigorously from the start! It would have saved hours of envelope/calculator scribbling.
You’ve said that SP is an “author-centric” publishing house. What is the relationship like between SP and its authors and how is that relationship cultivated and nourished?
One of my authors who has been published several times and has also self-published a book said this is the first time she has felt like part of a functional, available team working with her to make her book a success. That’s what we’re aiming for really – in a nutshell.
Printed books compete with so many other forms of entertainment – computers, phones, games, social media. How do you tackle these obstacles and get people interested in your books?
1 Our illustrated books are physically desirable. People still want to hold and own nice things.
2 We try to publish into interest-communities that recognise what they are keen to read about – whether it is Celticism, ceramics, walking or a particular comedian.
Diversity in publishing a significant topic right now. How does SP fit into the discussion?
If September is to survive it must publish to the breadth of its audience. In which case we need a breadth of experts and authors. Quite naturally SP has developed a diversity of gender, nationality and sexuality in its team and authors. But I still long for a wider variety of styles, origins and influences within the submissions we get. And although we are unlikely to move into translated non-fiction we are actively seeking younger, more diverse voices and authors. Although paradoxically I also like reading memoirs by those who have lived long and fully and dug deep into a profession or role. There’s more to be found amongst first time 70 plus writers I think.
What role do smaller, independent publishing houses play amongst the big players of the industry?
You can’t have growth without seed beds. Every industry has break-aways and start ups and we are often better at developing new talent.
Do you find you have more freedom of choice with SP in regards to the types of authors and books that you can focus on and gear towards publishing?
Yes, which is lovely, but sometimes I could do with a really good challenging, creative discussion that forces me to look harder at things!
What balance does SP have between the culture of the written word vs the business of the written word?
Like a lot of publishers (as opposed to editors) I am essentially a greedy, fast reader. I studied English Literature but I wasn’t very interested by critical theory. It’s always been the immersion I’m after – which has always made me a quite un-snobbish reader and writer. I was always a bit shocked by colleagues who felt they could get away with disdain towards commercial publishing.
Publishing is a business. Business is partly about managing the different strands and different consumers of what you produce. Managing is about valuing different people for different reasons. I recognise those who have passion, purity and cultural value for what they produce, and working with them is wonderful. For me publishing is about the people, and reading is about the lives I get to live vicariously
What role does social media play for SP and its authors in terms of marketing and the relationship between readers and authors? Pros/Cons..
Some of our authors use it extensively as a message board and community room i.e. Mark Thomas. We try to support our authors own activities and extend the reach of their followers/fans. Others of our authors do not use it at all—and these are often more literary authors—get recommended just as much within viral reading communities i.e. Anthony Loyd.
Three of your authors have written memoirs and Christopher Nicholson’s Among the Summer Snows is set to come out in 2017. Is this ability to be self-reflective a quality you look for in your writers?
It’s less about self-reflection than September’s focus on building a list of narratives that expand your world. This includes quite a lot of memoir—from gold and diamond miners to war correspondents to poets—but also illustrated books with unusual perspectives on cities and popular subjects.
Not to encourage tunnel vision here, but what does a SP book look like? i.e. how would you define a vision for the books you’re looking for?
What would you like to see more of in your Submissions inbox?
Artists, designers, illustrators. And voices that differ from the writing personalities in mainstream media – either in age, race or politics.
And finally, what would be your top tips for authors who are looking for a publisher?
Read lots. Be clear about the purpose of your book. Write succinct letters of enquiry, and submit with a one page overview and a single sample chapter.