Sunday, 19 February 2012

PUSHED FOR ANSWERS: Mick McCann

Mick McCann has an idea: the future of publishing is punk.

He's not talking about spitting on the audience, but funnily enough, it could be argued that's just what he sees as much of the problem.

The Big 6 have had it their own way for far too long, argues the 44-year-old Armley Press pioneer, who aims to bring diversity where there in bland conformity.

In an industry obsessed with celebrity memoirs and bloated, brand-name offerings the reader has been - if not spat on - denied real choice.
Tired of seeing nothing but the same old, same old in bookstores, McCann has taken matters into his own hands.

After self-publishing two of his own books, and another for a friend, he says the DIY route is the only way to add some much needed new DNA to the publishing gene pool.

It's a 'get out there and do it' attitude that he borrowed from the inde-music scene he knows and loves.

Since we're on with that, PULP PUSHER asked McCann about breaking away from the status quo.


TONY BLACK: Punk publishing, I like the sound of that, tell me more ...


MICK McCANN: I suppose it's a bit of a cynical tag, you have to encapsulate what you're doing; create a simple word-byte for the purposes of easy communication. I grew up in the time when there was an explosion of punk/post-punk bands that were unlikely to get a major deal, too many of them, but that didn't stop them. That alternative, independent, DIY movement in music was revolutionary, it fundamentally changed the industry and democratised it (to whatever extent). It gave a platform to difference, to diversity. Bands and Indi labels went on to put out some of the most interesting music of the period, an Indi label was a badge of honour.

My first book had the subtitle ‘The Memoirs of a Punk Romantic’ and I was writing mainly about that explosive period of time so I suppose it was fresh in my head and seemed to fit what I was doing.

You've said you didn't want to bother wasting years waiting for traditional publishers to get back to you with rejections for your own work; what's wrong with traditional publishing as you see it?

Well I’m not sure I have a proper understanding of the industry, so it’s all guess work, but there’s only so much they can publish and a large percentage is celeb based stuff, be it Stephen Fry or Jordan.

I doubt that much that hasn’t come via a recommendation will get more than a cursory glance, so that things that get through to publication are most likely to come from within a certain circle. There are only so many hours in a day for agents and publishers. If something comes recommended by someone you know you’re more likely to pay attention to it – it’s called human nature. I’d love an established writer to send out manuscripts, anonymous and with a Scunthorpe post mark, just to see what response they get.

As a consequence I think the majority of their books come from a certain perspective, kinda white, middle/upper class, maybe male. Yes they may sometimes project into the worlds of others but they are unlikely to know them in the way that John Lake or Russ Litten (Scream If You Want to Go Faster, William Heinemann) do. I know I’m generalising but it’s my strong suspicion.

The mainstream market also gets cluttered up from London, the promotional spaces filled with the predictable and safe, so there’s little space for the alternative voices. From the north, it looks like an old boys’ network involving authors, publishers and the press/media.

The old 'vanity publishing' tag seems to be disappearing in the wake of eBooks, doesn't it?

Yes, you hear it less often, it’s become a dated term. But I think eBooks are only just taking off in the UK and there was the odd self published, physical book that broke through into the bestsellers lists before that. Last year, in America, 18 of the years 100 bestsellers were self published. When self-published material is taking almost 20% of the market share it’s difficult to use a term like ‘vanity’ but I’m sure people will find new ways of bitching about self-publishing.

You've opted for the POD (print on demand) route, why was that?

Cost was my initial attraction. It was quick, easy and almost risk free. It would be very hard to lose money using POD. I also like the flexibility of being able to order any amount of books, be it one or one thousand. Distribution is sorted, to a certain extent, as any bookshop can get copies and the books are automatically listed and available through Amazon. There’s also the freedom to easily change the content of the book so, for example, with my encyclopaedia of Leeds I’ve updated it a couple of times for £20 a pop.

And you've since closed in on Booker-Prize winners, I believe ...

I wish, Ian McEwan’s book had sold over 100,000 by that point. No, Coming Out As A Bowie Fan outsold four of the six short-listed titles but less than the eventual winner and On Chesil Beach. Although I must add that the sales being short-listed brought were much less than you’d imagine. Even after the competition, the Nielsen BookScan figures (excluding Ian Mc) were 10,155 copies for the five titles combined. So it’s more that being Booker short-listed doesn’t guarantee big sales.

Tell us about the books on Armley Press's list ...

It’s not a long list; there are my three books and John Lakes two, which I’ll get on to. As I said Coming Out sold quite well as did How Leeds Changed The World (a playful, chatty encyclopaedia of Leeds) but Nailed - Digital Stalking didn’t sell so well. Why did no fucker buy Nailed Tony?

Nailed is a slow burner, but I wrote it like that, the pace increases like a boulder rolling down a hill, I think that’s the nature of being stalked. It’s based in the very murky, real life arrest of me and my wife by Leeds CID over a SIM card she’d given away five years earlier. We think we got bullied (for personal reasons) by the then head of Homicide and Serious Crime at West Yorkshire Police. I took it off into fiction about halfway through the book, I couldn’t resist it, it was a fabulous set-up, there were just too many real life links and threads and, as far as we know, there’s still some nutter out there.

I also think it’s a rarity for a writer to experience firsthand the reaction of the characters to a crisis. Some of the actual reactions of my wife were like little, shiny nuggets that no writer could imagine.

Armley Press's latest offering, Blowback, is a ''Leeds Noir'' thriller by John Lake - what attracted you to this book?

Well it’s part of a trilogy and I’d published the first book Hot Knife. He had a London agent and a fist full of praise from major publishers with a ‘but’ at the end. I loved the book and I’d just done Coming Out so it felt like the natural thing to do. To me Blowback feels real, you can feel the characters breath on your shoulder. I loved his characters, I love his light, non-judgemental touch on people who are often vilified. I know and recognise these people.

His style of writing is also very tight, he can say a lot in few words and I love the way that they are plot driven, like an old Western. You empathise with the characters as the plot drags you through their lives.

There's some good northern grit in there then?

Well yes, you would certainly describe John’s Leeds 6 books as gritty. But the real life of many people is gritty and one of the main things about John’s books is that they feel like real life. I’d say Hot Knife is darker than Blowback, kind of starker. Blowback is based on some of the characters from Hot Knife, when they’ve cleaned up and moved out, getting sucked back into the drama of the drug culture. Although it’s often brutal there’s also a gentleness and camaraderie to the characters.

Hot Knife is primarily concerned with the lives of the drug users, where as Blowback is more about the industry. I should say that Hot Knife is based in the ‘90s and Blowback is early this century.

How important is keeping the 'kitchen sink' tradition alive ...

Well yes, it revolutionised the world of drama in books and film and I don’t want it to go away because, for me, it’s still just as relevant. It looks at the worlds of the majority of the population, at ‘ordinary’ people. People may be separated by hundreds of miles but many of their experiences and acquaintances will be very similar.

From where I’m sitting it also feels close, a cultural heritage. From Leeds and it’s the surrounds you had Keith Waterhouse, Stan Barstow, John Braine, David Storey and the legendary director who brought so many of the stories to life, Tony Richardson.

Traditional publishing is not serving this market it seems to me, yet there is a stack of people out there that want this kind of thing. Why is it ignored?

Well again, with their business model, there’s only so much they can publish and that model seems to favour certain voices. I’m guessing that if you studied the lists of the majors that an extremely high percentage of their authors – who are primarily known for writing – will be from a similar background. That background isn’t working-class, or state educated or from the north/provinces. Unless it’s historical and/or easily researched it’s hard to write about what you don’t know.

Are eBooks on your radar?

Yes I’ve recently put all the Armley Press titles for Kindle on Amazon and I’ll be interested to see how they go. Again, I’m not sure I understand the market that well but I’ve priced all the books but one at just under half the print edition. I’ve priced Nailed at under £2 to see if it makes a difference to the sales of that particular book but so far the others are selling…..bastards, it’s a good book, I’m sure it is.

Someone’s also working on an interactive version of How Leeds changed The World which is quite exciting.

How do you see the future of publishing taking shape?

It’s hard to know when everything is changing so quickly but Amazon is obviously going to get stronger on the content side. The US figures show that self-publishing (traditional and eBooks) is going to keep nibbling away at the market share. Another thing I can see is established, mainstream authors going it alone via eBooks and a POD, traditional printing mix – they’ve got the name and press contacts. Maybe they’ll come to someone like me to do it for them and take £3-£4 per hard copy sale for themselves.

Aren’t the products going to get more and more interactive?

Do you have any fears about the devaluing of creative content - books, music, film etc - in the digital age?

Not really, isn’t the digital age going to open creativity to more people? Increase Diversity? If something’s shitter than the last Jordan book people won’t read it. If music hasn’t got the same artistic integrity as Olly Mur people won’t buy it. The traditional model does churn out a lot of bollocks and yes, no doubt, there will be garbage produced outside that model but I suspect there’ll also be a lot of innovation and exciting material. The only fear I have is the quantity not quality of material, I won’t be able to keep up.

Finally, what's the next big step for Armley Press, then?

No big plans, as I say, I’m not sure I understand the mainstream industry to take it on properly. I’ll certainly publish John Lake’s last book in the Leeds 6 trilogy.

On a personal level I’ve been resisting writing a big mess of a novel as it’d sell like Nailed not Coming Out or How Leeds CTW and I can’t justify writing without making money. It’s a kind of a confusing, complex, personal scale, Sci-fi thriller based in the future and past about love and life and society and time and relationships (especially father/son going over generations) and morals…the sort of thing no-one would want to read and I certainly couldn’t sell; unless, of course, I found myself a major publisher.


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