Christopher Hamilton-Emery and his wife Jen founded Salt, an independent publishing house based in Norfolk, 12 years ago. This month, The Lighthouse, a debut novel by Alison Moore was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In an interview with Elen Lewis, Christopher says debut writers should slow down and work on building their skills, he offers advice on how to punch above your weight, and says that if you want to be publisher, plan on having lots and lots of cash…
Describe Salt in 26 words.
Proof positive that tenacity and audacious speculation on writing talent when combined with scary finance and a passionate readership can produce a list of lasting beauty.
What are the ingredients of a Salt book?
To be frank, Salt books are always a surprise to me — I’d find it hard to define what might make one up. It would astonish me to find any consistency in the content, after all there are around seven editors working for Salt and they each have their own tastes and predilections. I remember getting into hot water about this some years back where an editor wanted to know what I stood for, and I was arguing that my job is to find books that we can sell, it’s the writer’s job to come up with the compelling content, not mine to somehow drive that. But I respect that some small presses do stand for a set of values and approaches to writing — we’ve never done this at Salt. It’s really about the individual book convincing us that it demands our attention and investment, that we see something we think we can offer to readers and that we feel sure we can effectively sell. While those basic aesthetic and commercial demands seem simple, they’re complex and the texts that we’d respond to positively are diverse. I’m shying away from saying banal (but true) things like, “It must be well-written” or “It must be good.” These kind of statements need unpacking. A Salt book must certainly appeal to people living here and now today, but that too offers no indication of what kind of writing might find purchase on our minds. I might even suggest that it ought not to be what our competitors would publish, something different, other, non-mainstream, but all of this would be plainly untrue. What I do look for is an immediate emotional connection, something that makes me sit up and say, “Whoa, that’s seriously good.” But that’s not an ingredient, that’s a tangible physiological encounter. It’s such a good question, but perhaps the most glib and the most true response is that it should provide readers with the highest levels of entertainment, instruction and delight. It should be pleasurable.
What advice would you offer debut writers looking to be published by Salt?
Build a coherent reputation and be tireless in developing your skills, range and expertise. Work with other writers, be part of the community of writing (even if you eventually leave it). Learn the ropes, publish sensibly and attend to your writing life as much as to the work itself. If a writer is paying attention to Salt, we’ll certainly see that writer. We like people we can work with, so developing a reputation for being a good colleague definitely scores brownie points with me, I’m getting too old to deal with egomaniacs and psychopaths, no matter how well they write. In today’s world there’s a peculiar obsession with going it alone, cutting past all the experts and the years of expertise and professional skills and competence — a disintermediated world that somehow offers us a democratic world of literature. A lot of this is sheer nonsense and I’m especially fond of writers who come up through the ranks working with people along the way. Sometimes that can mean taking years, decades even, to get the breaks and to build the skills, but that’s a better way to do it than rushing in and trying to sidestep how the world of publishing, and reading, works. This all sounds anachronistic in the world of self-publishing, fan fiction and Kindle Direct Publishing, but I’ve never known a more important time for judgement, taste and choice. No reader can make sense of a choice of six million books, sales rankings don’t serve in this context, we need expertise, we have to trust critical expertise. However, one thing I’ll add to this, as a publisher I can only attend to a tiny proportion of the things that come my way, and we want to do fewer books in the future, to concentrate more on a small range of great books. So I recognise that this presents particular challenges to the debut writer who can feel excluded from readers — we all have to recognise that the market for books is finite.How do you spot a Man Booker nomination?
Ha! You don’t, you spot books you love, books that stir the team at Salt, but it’s impossible to predict the collision of tastes in a judging panel, or to know what you’re up against in any given year. Of course, every editor believes passionately that their choices are worthy of every prize on the planet. If they didn’t, there’d be a problem. But all prizes are impossible to predict. We had no idea if Alison Moore would be selected, and we certainly felt we were an outsider as a small independent press — there’s a fear about a credibility gap — but we all felt strongly that she was a contender. Nevertheless, it came as a shock to find we’d been longlisted — the place went berserk. It’s been the best thing in our twelve year history. A truly fantastic author, a fantastic book and a superb editor in the shape of Nicholas Royle.
How has The Lighthouse’s success transformed your fortunes as a publisher?
That’s a daily topic of conversation here and, to be honest, it’s too early to say. The hope is that we’ve reached a different level of critical reception and that our work as a business is now recognised as having real value. We’ve certainly come in to contact with many thousands of new readers and we’re seeing that in our connections through social media, especially Twitter. There will be some financial benefits, though it will be many months before we really know what these are, once we’ve cleared the returns and paid the charge backs some retailers make on sales they’ve made — but clearly, this book has provided a substantial new tranche of sales and the press will have a year of real financial security. Beyond this, we simply don’t know. Will critics remember our pedigree? Will bookshops continue to support our fiction publishing as it moves forward? It’s unclear. Bizarrely, at a time of considerable celebration, we have to take extreme care in maintaining a stable and sustainable business — all this in the context of profound changes in the world of publishing.
What are you most proud of regarding Salt Publishing?
Staying in business for twelve years.
What should all people know before launching their own imprint?
That it will take a decade before you begin to see your business finding its feet and you’ll need more money than you ever imagined to get there. Publishing is a very cash intensive business and it’s also quite conservative in how it works. But most of all, plan to have lots and lots and lots of cash.
Salt Publishing does a sterling job of punching above its weight. What advice would you offer to writers on publicity?
That’s almost impossible to summarise. The best publicity is word of mouth — the world of writing is a very small world and writers, publishers, agents, retailers all talk about what’s hot, who’s making waves, all the time. I think at root, the best advice is to become part of the conversation, the global conversation about books. That means being a voracious and discriminating reader, understanding what’s happening in contemporary literature will, at the very least, provide you with a contemporary sense of the scene and it’s many manifestations, obsessions, fashions, waywardness, all the gorgeous madness of the world of books. I certainly don’t think you can effectively publicise yourself if you have no love of others’ writing. There’s no shortage of places to talk to writers these days, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Goodreads — well, so many places. And of course, there’s the real deal in what some charmingly call the meatspace. I’ve said in many places that all writing is social — and to be fair, I’ve been effectively rebuffed on this. But I do feel at heart that those who want their writing to be social, to transcend the personal, the insular, are more likely to find that outreach into the gloriously anonymous world of the general readership.