Today I welcome Andy Rivers, the man behind Byker Books, to my blog. In January, this small publishing house took part in my series of interviews with independent publishers. You may check out their post by clicking here.
Having learned about them I was then upset to read that they would be bowing out within a few weeks and approached Andy to see if he would be willing to write about why. He kindly agreed and sent me this.
Way back in the mists of time, when Facebook was still unknown to many and something named ’Friends Re-United’ was the top social network, I was receiving my umpteenth rejection slip for a very sweary novel I’d written (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer if you’re interested) and banging my head against the wall wondering why. After all, every publisher and agent bio in the writers and artists yearbook proudly exclaimed that they wanted ‘original fiction’ (and MSH was certainly that!) and most of them were telling me they ‘liked it..but’ (there’s always a but) ‘…we can’t sell it.’ I couldn’t understand why as everyone I knew who read the likes of Irvine Welsh, John King, Kevin Sampson et al said that they would buy my kind of book. So who exactly couldn’t these agents and publishers sell it to?
Then it struck me. The people who worked in publishing, the people who wrote about books for newspapers and magazines and the people who judged the awards for books – none of them had grown up on an estate like mine had they? They couldn’t possibly relate to a book about a place like Byker so they knocked it back out of hand. Well…it was that or I was a shit writer anyway.!
After a phone call from another agent (‘Loved it. Excellent local colour. Great dialogue. Can’t possibly sell it. Bye’) an idea started to form in my mind. There had to be loads of authors like me so why didn’t I just publish my own books? Sure there was a stigma attached to it (told you it was a while back didn’t I) but giving a monkeys about what other people thought was an alien concept to me anyway.
How hard could it be?
Turned out to be really hard.
But, I started Byker Books back in 2008 anyway with the noble aim of publishing the working class lads and lasses like myself who weren’t taken seriously by the big publishers or agents. The people who didn’t have degrees in ‘creative writing’ but had crap jobs that sapped their souls instead, the people who didn’t have a ‘journey’ to bore people to death with but could make you laugh all night down the pub recounting tales from their life and the people who didn’t get to go to great schools and further education but instead had to battle their siblings for the one pen in the house to write anything down before doing their paper round in the rain and then getting a full-time job as soon as they could to help out.
That’s who Byker Books was for. People like me.
It was never about the sales or the money it was about the joy in those authors faces when we launched a ‘Radgepacket’ in Newcastle with their families and friends present (albeit helped by the free drink I always put on!) It was about giving some of them confidence to keep writing when they were on the verge of giving up and for some of them (I know this for a fact) it helped enormously in their personal lives to have the outlet of publication for their writing.
Byker Books was a ‘one-man and his laptop’ operation for eight years (and some of those laptops were proper shit as well) so I was always trying to do three jobs at once and taking on some tasks that I should really have outsourced in order to save cash. I was generally crap at marketing and had my fingers burnt a number of times when trying to kickstart sales but I was never that bothered. My only concern was whether I was letting the author down by not selling enough of their books and getting them in the public eye, in fact I turned down one of the best books I ever read because I genuinely felt I couldn’t do it justice and that I would hold the author back (no, I’m not telling you what it was called but I bet it wins a Booker Prize before I die.)
The advent of e-books (and particularly the Amazon Kindle) absolutely revolutionised the whole process and suddenly self-publishing was cool in a big way. I was pleased that everyone was getting a chance now but deep down I think I knew that was the beginning of the end. A whole industry has built up around getting your books into prime position on Amazon and where previously publishing an unknown (like BAFTA nominee Danny King – get me eh?) was about the quality of the writing, the brilliant story and even how well you got on with the author (You have lemonade in your drink Danny? Eh?) it increasingly became all about formulaic series of books all essentially telling the same story and then slavishly trying to perfect SEO on a glorified search engine. That, allied to a few changes behind the scenes meant that I could no longer give Byker Books or crucially, the authors, my full attention, time and energy. It had to end.
I’m pleased with what I achieved from a standing start and especially from knowing that over the years I encouraged and cajoled some people into print who didn’t think they were good enough – there are at least four authors walking around today who became novelists because of Byker Books. I’ve got drunk with the authors, learnt them new swear words and, with varying degrees of success, done my absolute level best to introduce them to the world.
During it’s lifespan my tiny independent press published over one hundred previously unknown writers through the ‘Radgepacket’ collections (some of whom went on to get book deals elsewhere) put out twelve paperbacks and published a number of others via electronic means. I’m very, very proud of that and I’ll always have the paperbacks on my ‘ego’ shelf at home. I’ll also still publish my own stuff through the BB label (I already own the ISBN’s – silly to waste them) and think I may have hit upon a new way to help out the struggling unknowns of the literary world.
I’ve started an e-magazine (BookD) which runs reviews, interviews and news from the world of books (and also has a column just for writers tips) that I’ve culled from all around the web which, once I’ve built up the subscriber list will be able to run cheap ads for books alongside interviews/reviews etc and will hopefully end up providing a solid (and cheaper!) UK alternative to the likes of BookBub. Have a look: BookD.
So anyway, the books will disappear from Amazon and the BB site over the coming weeks as the rights revert to the authors so you’d best check them out here and make sure you get a copy of the one that catches your eye before it’s gone for ever…worth one last try eh?
Byker Books wasn’t just me, it was every author I ever published, it was every person who bought a book and emailed me to say how much they enjoyed it, it was every review (got one in The Sun once – I felt dirty for days mind) we ever got and most of all, it was every radgepacket (loony if you’re not a Geordie) out there that loved reading and writing but kept it quiet in case their mates thought it was ‘soft’. As I said at the time it was a gut-wrenching decision for me to end it and I’ll probably get very drunk the day I delete all of the book files from the print publisher and the Amazon bookshelf but it’s been a fantastic experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
So with that I’d just like to extend a massive thank you to everyone who ever got involved over the years, I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did. Here’s to the next challenge.