The secret of a flourishing publishing business?

It was burning a hole in my inbox. It had taken a road trip around the States, a ton of planning, prayer and work to get to this stage, but now I was stuck. I’d never signed a contract for US distribution. I had no idea what to look for, what was reasonable and what wasn’t. I tapped an email to my first port of call for general publishing quandaries, the wonderful Joan Lyle at Publishing Scotland. Joan immediately replied, suggesting asking the Chief Exec of a successful Edinburgh based publisher. Bit of an ask, I thought, but here goes. I spent an hour or so carefully crafting a single line. Immediate response. It was about time we had coffee, anyway, she said, suggesting a morning the following week.

As we settled into a booth at Café Salt, she brought out a folded piece of paper. A printout of my US distribution agreement, covered in red pen, notes in the margin, words circled, underlined, crossed out. She proceeded to talk me through this contract, line by line, explaining each clause and what I might reasonably ask for. When we’d dealt with the contract I seized the opportunity, asked advice on building a team, terms for a sales team, anything that came to mind.

Cycling away from this meeting in cloud of gratitude and relief, it struck me that I had never – in my entire career of twenty-something years – had one-to-one advice from another publisher. Occasional hints about systems, offhand comments, things you pick up over coffee maybe, but that was all. When I started out in Christian publishing, in the early 90s, I was the only female commissioning editor at IVP – difficult to casually suggest lunch with a male colleague, even in the most enlightened offices, far less a mentoring relationship. We had little contact with other publishers. It was a lonely time, but I found ways to survive and gleaned all the theology I could from lunches with authors and editing their work. But there was no training and no mentoring. You were somehow just expected to know.

Now, with a fledgling publishing company of my own, conveniently situated in the first UNESCO city of Literature, we draw inspiration from our fine history, one-time home of the largest Christian publisher in the world. Sadly, little of this remains up in these Northern Wastes. So we rely on the secular publishing community around our little company. We found our designer, our production manager, our distribution, legal advice, all through contacts at Publishing Scotland. I often say, we could never have started without them. There are Open book events, grants, courses, a yearly audit from the team, a shared stand at book fairs, shelves at the Edinburgh Book Festival – and most recently a gathering of fiction editors to share their tricks of the trade. At each one I find myself learning, coming away with a head full of ideas.

I’m in no doubt this community spirit is the secret behind this vibrant publishing city, a city with a heart that beats books, birthplace of Harry Potter, Jekyll and Hyde, Life of Pi and many a successful, influential Booker winner.

Publishing is about relationships – it always has been. When we feel envious if another does well, rather than celebrating success, when we become competitive, isolated, secretive, keeping our trade secrets to ourselves – the whole community suffers, and begins to stagnate.

But when I can pick up the phone to ask about my distribution contract, when there’s a community that I can call on to help train my fledgling team, to train up new young publishers – even though they are Christian publishers – and when I am prepared to help a former colleague, introduce his consultancy to the community, or find distribution when theirs has folded, then the community flourishes. We need to cast our bread on the waters, then we shall reap the benefits together.


This article was originally published in Together Magazine, Jan/Feb 2018

About the Author

Stephanie Heald is Publisher and Director of Muddy Pearl. She has been a workplace speaker for LICC and Spring Harvest, a trustee for John Stott’s London Lectures and for SU, and has helped organise the Guildford Book Festival, currently serves on the board of Tearfund Stephanie is married to Richard, she’s Mum to four children, and Grandma to two.