Interview with Bapton Books

How do you approach cover design?
Today, the partners in Bapton Books: Markham Shaw Pyle and GMW Wemyss: answer some questions.

MSP: Carefully.
GMWW: (Don't be an ass, old man.) But, yes: One approaches cover design with respect. It's the first-footing, really, isn't it. And genres of course have certain expectations in cover design. The thing to do with that, naturally, is to meet those expectations ... with a twist of originality.
MSP: Yes.... On the other hand, with books increasingly sold - I mean books on dead tree as well as e-books - over the Interwebs as well as in brick and mortar shops, a cover design has to work - and work legibly - online and in thumbnail, as well as on the actual hard copy.
GMWW: Oh, quite. And fiction, particularly, has its conventions that do drive sales. For example, the first novel in a series may have the title at the head, the series name as a slug, and the author's name at the foot; but subsequent entries in the series are well advised to put the author's name and the series slug at the head. People want 'the latest [Author Name]', not 'New Title I can't quite recall, love...'.
MSP: So, yes, tread right carefully. It matters.
What's the story behind your next collaboration?
MSP: War, and the pity of war - I trust you recognise the quotation.
GMWW: After all, it's to be 2014 in a few days. That is rather an obvious centenary.
What motivated you to become an indie imprint?
MSP: I don't think either of us could be called a Wagnerian, but -
GMWW: - oh, dear, he's going to say it -
MSP: Well, hell, Gerv -
GMWW: No, no, do go on.
MSP: Independence allows for Gesamtkunstwerk.
GMWW: Bless you. Do you want a handkerchief?
MSP: All right, I know you think Gesamtkunstwerk is simply the German for, 'control freak' -
GMWW: And they assuredly are a nation who know control-freakishness.
MSP: Well, great, THERE'S another market closed to us, now. Thanks, pard. Point remains. An indie house isn't an army of mass; but it can be a right nippy little army of manoeuvre. As the Mighty Stonewall said, it can mystify, mislead, and surprise the competition, however large, and, through repeated victories, make itself invincible. A small and independent house can control with ease every aspect from formatting to covers to pinpoint scheduling of book drops - anniversaries of major historical events, say - and also enjoys flexibility a large imprint does not. It is much more personalised and hands-on.
GMWW: They are sclerotic. Look here, damn it all, people act as if the modern, swiftly fading, largely XXth Century publishers' business model is some immutable thing ordained by God as an integral part of creation. Balls. It was a business model that evolved - quite recently, really - for specific conditions that have ceased to obtain. Once it is no longer justified by the economies that inhere in efficiencies of scale - because I quite agree: erecting a printing house and employing numerous skilled workers from printers to bookbinders is a considerable investment - the disadvantages: overhead, ponderousness, barriers to entry: are unbearable. A free market is NOT in want of gatekeepers: particularly when these have a history of publishing cheap shoddy and rubbish for the masses. And an independent house, not having that overhead, can afford to wait properly on quality works, academic or otherwise.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
GMWW: Early days yet, that - even assumin' the term 'success' to apply. But it's certainly not detracted from it. In effect, it has allowed us to participate in a sort of common ownership of some means of production (Marx having been, as ever, reliably wrong. Silly sod) and to achieve entry to distribution channels in, as it were, a bundle. And that is no light thing.
MSP: 'Bout says it, there. Yep.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
GMWW: Quality will out. Eventually. Word of mouth from satisfied readers remains the most powerful force this side of gravity and the weak field. But look at how that is accomplished, how that is transmitted, these days. It is alnost always now accomplished through one or another social medium - or several social media at once. Prudential considerations alone - Mr Pyle and I have both a Thomistic fondness for advancing the claims of prudence -
MSP: Well, she's a right nice young lady, Prudence.
GMWW: (Sigh.) The point is, it is wise to engage the conversation through social media ... and it is an innocent pleasure to interact with one's readers and customers. It takes some of the agony out of the unfortunate necessity of salesmanship.
MSP: Gerv is a Gentleman, not a Player: he worries himself into a decline over losing his amateur status, and hates trumpeting himself. Of course, HE has an independent income. I do this for a living, and stick at nothing save counterproductivity when it comes to marketing us and our authors. Somebody in this damn outfit has to. Book trailers on Youtube, these interviews - neat tool, y'all: I approve - Twitter, FB, LJ: hell, we'll try anything once.
Co-authorship and collaboration....
GMWW: Oh, Christ. Yes, that can be a trifle, ah, interesting. I suppose the most difficult part was creating a sort of 'house voice'. Fortunately, we began with our annotated Kenneth Grahame and our annotated Kipling: a format that allowed for the working out of initial difficulties. And, fortunately - at least for two middle-aged gentlemen who had rather traditional educations - there is a sort of literary diction that is broadly the same throughout the Anglosphere. Of course, neither of us read English at university, as such -
MSP: Note for My Fellow Americans: by 'read', he means 'majored in'.
GMWW: Quite. Nevertheless, we did have broadly similar educations, whether at Washington & Lee - a sort of American Keble-cum-Worcester, as I observed many years ago - or at the House, and there IS a common literary language to draw upon.
MSP: It may be more pertinent that our childhood reading - which used to be everybody's, pretty much - was the same: Pooh, Kipling, Alice, Beatrix Potter: and that we're interested in the periods, and have some sense of them. Take early XXth Century history. Brits of Gerv's age and class get the period from 1914 to 1945 at their mums' knees; I happened to grow up in a family with a sense of history that included cultural history. You'd be surprised how much of a difference it makes - I'm speaking for myself, here - when writing of 1937 or, alone, of 1941, to have grown up around the music and mores of that time even amidst the Sixties and Seventies, and to have hosted the Thursday Night Big Band Showcase at your college radio station for three, four years. Any case, we had enough of the same mental furniture that we could collaborate from the get-go. Although he'll never fully get baseball and I'll never fully get cricket.
GMWW: Oh, you shall. I am indefatigable in preaching the gospel of cricket.
What's next for Bapton Books?
MSP: More of the same, and better. I hope. As commissioning editor for our series, Bapton's Brief Lives, I'm looking forward to seeing an MS we're expecting on US Grant. I'm excited of course by Gerv's new series of novels, the Village Tales series that started with Cross & Poppy. And we're both eager to see the completion of an MS from a distinguished Italian scholar, on the interwar period in Continental Europe. I think I mentioned that one of the benefits of being an indie house was being able to wait on good work? I stand by that. I'll also admit that the waiting can be lengthy. And - Gerv?
GMWW: We are in the process of signing quite an exciting new voice in fiction, which has me very much rejoiced. And I hope I shan't need to say that we welcome enquiries from good writers, always, in any genre or discipline.
What about the downside of being an indie publisher - or author?
GMWW: Ah.
MSP: Yeah, no point in pretending There Ain't No Such Animal. There are drawbacks. No advances. Not precisely a huge advertising budget. And a right smart of hard work. Hell, hard work befalls all of us, and it's good for us; but part of the tradeoff for all the benefits of independence is that the work doesn't stop. That's the nature of all independence, in any calling or circumstance: you're on your own, and there is nobody to hide behind or pass the buck to. 'S why it's good for you. But....
GMWW: It is not, perhaps, for the tyro. There is a steepish sort of learning curve; your reputation is all you have; and your mistakes may, perhaps, eventually be forgiven - after many, many years - but they'll assuredly never be forgotten.
MSP: And as a result, when your reputation's your currency, you can't - I mean, you don't need to know split beans from coffee about writing and publishing to see this - you plumb cannot pad that bottom line by putting out a potboiler or a mere crowd-pleaser just because you need some cash.
GMWW: Or, rather, you can do; but there is rather a stiffish price. Do it once, and you'll find it hard as buggery to go back to the, ah, 'carriage trade' you'd made your name at.
MSP: It is not a well you can go to too often, that's for damn sure. So you have to keep slogging at the lasting but small margin stuff, and that is what means you have to be on your game and at work every day, some way or another: writing, signing new authors, prepping publications, working social media for the advertising, the whole thing.
GMWW: And we'd not trade it for servitude: not at all.
What do the readers who buy Bapton's books mean to you?
GMWW: What was it Ratty says of The River? Meat and drink and aunts and (naturally) washing.... Look here, we might well write without them, but it should be the difference between -
MSP: Do NOT finish that analogy. Not even with a comparison between writing for oneself, and, ah -
GMWW: 'Merchant banking'?
MSP: In rhyming slang terms, yes. And we obviously couldn't keep going on with publishing authors other than our own sweet selves, without the readers (tempted as I sometimes am to add, in despair, 'all three of them'...). I can only assure you that they are more than figures in a ledger to us, and hearing from them - usually, and even with honest criticism - almost always makes my day.
Where do you see Bapton Books in five years?
MSP: Hell, we're historians, not prophets. Hindsight's hard enough to get 20/20 vision on; future's wrapped in the fog of war. But by God, I have anything to say about it, we'll still be standing, with a larger stable of authors and an acknowledged niche. And enough after expenses to buy tea with.
GMWW: That may be the first occasion in recorded history upon which a publisher has used the terms, 'stable', and 'authors', in the same sentence. With that caveat, I quite agree. (And the tea, my dear fellow, must be Ceylon.)
Published 2013-12-28.
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