What goes on behind the scenes of a small indie publishing press? I met with one to get the insider view on a difficult industry to crack.
Adele (A): It’s why I have the Aunty Fox persona. So I can have my wibbles, but Aunty Fox always knows what’s going on… she’s got it... One of my artists started calling me Aunty Fox and I said, “can you do me an icon?” and it kind of stuck. I’ve got people who’ve known me for years before I started Fox Spirit calling me Aunty! I’m just embracing it! How much of an aunt can I be? “It’s cold out! Have you got your mittens?” People are fond of that.
Adele Wearing, a.k.a Aunty Fox. Image courtesy of www.foxspirit.co.uk
When starting her press, Fox Spirit Books, Adele Wearing certainly didn’t picture herself taking on the Aunty Fox persona. In fact, she didn’t picture herself starting a press at all. The business’ origins seem to be a bit of an in-joke that keeps on giving.
A: I think at the end of the second year, beginning of the third year, when I had committed to a couple of longer-term projects, I was like, oh. Oh, so I’ve got to do this for at least five more years to finish those. Rii-ight... I was never supposed to be a publisher. We were going to do one book for a bit of fun. I just emailed out to a whole bunch of writers I knew from events and said, “we’re doing this thing for a laugh, do you want to be part of it?” Even people like Wayne Simmons and Adrian Tchaikovsky, who are - in genre - quite big writers, said, “yeah alright, it sounds like a giggle.”
That collection became ‘Tales of the Nun & Dragon’ (2012), and six years later, the accidental Fox Spirit press is still putting out new books.
Without meaning to, Aunty Fox became a leader. Just in the hour we’re together for coffee, she has nuggets of wisdom to share with a quick wit and a crude tongue. She doesn’t shy from honesty and doesn’t sugarcoat the truth of running a business in a difficult industry. I asked her about the publishing scene, which Aunty Fox openly admits is a mess.
Adele (A): [With some of our non-fiction], that’s really a case of create it, they will come. And we just put those out and let them sell themselves, you know? Whereas the fiction market is very crowded, so we’ll always battling against the noise. That’s much tougher! And that’s also where my heart is, in fiction.
Emily (E): And I think so many writers think to themselves, how can I make money from this thing that I love?
A: Yeah, forget it. That’s not the place to sell them. It should be. I mean, the whole publishing industry need reviewing, it’s a mess. The models are not sustainable. Small presses are closing left, right and centre because we can’t make money. These days, I’m honest about it. In old money, Fox Spirit would have been called ‘a folly’. But some people play golf, and I do this!
This ‘folly’ takes a lot of man hours in her ‘spare’ time, but Aunty Fox continues to make her way through the figurative and literal slush pile. She not only runs her own business, but also works full-time - very full-time. It was evident, during our meeting, that she shoulders a lot of responsibility; my mum would call this ‘burning the candle at both ends’, though Aunty Fox openly adores the work she does at Fox Spirit and has no plans to give it up yet. The silver lining that came with her brief respite at the beginning of the year, she told me, was practising a new and valued skill.
A: I just started saying no to everything because I was having to be so careful with my energy levels… I mean, learning to say ‘no’ is one of the hardest things about running your own business, I think. Because you say, “oh, I want to do that, but it’s not sensible!”
Talking about submissions was a fiery subject that boiled down to some basics: read the guidelines, let your writing do the talking, and don’t be an arsehole.
A: There’s a very American thing of making your CV different from everybody else’s. Have you watched Legally Blonde? You know the thing where it’s pink and it’s got perfume on it? That’s a really American thing. So I’ve had some really weird querying emails over the years. And we’re like, look. What happens is we take all the attachments and dump them in a big folder, and we only skim the query for anything that makes you offensive. The reality is, we’re looking for reasons to not publish you, because we have to whittle it down. So we’ll skim your query and if there’s nothing in there that puts us off, you get dropped into the slush pile. We then go in there, read something in the slush pile and think, ooh there’s something in there, I like this one, then we might go back and look at your synopsis and your query. That’s how I do it. I know some people read the synopsis first, but I tend to dump everything in a bucket and read through it.
E: So what would you recommend to people looking to get noticed from the slush pile?
A: That first paragraph is really, really important, because if that’s terrible, I’ve already switched off and moved on to the next one. And the bigger it gets, like an agent or somebody, the more popular they are, the more stuff they get through, the less time you have to impress them. So you treat the query letter like the covering letter of a job. You’re professional, you follow the guidelines, you send what they ask you to send. That’s it. Then you let the writing stand for itself. But that first paragraph is absolutely essential, so go back and revise it. Don’t think, I’ve gone through everything, I’ve edited everything, everything’s perfect. In fact, go back and look at that first paragraph. And don’t info dump at the beginning of a book!
E: So, on average, how much do you think you’re reading of each one?
A: It depends on its level of awfulness! Basically, I read until I’m put off or I want to stab myself in the eyes… [Though] I’ve had ones I haven’t even started reading. I’ve taken one look at the query and gone, nah. I don’t care how good the book is, I’m not going to work with you, because people come off as such massive jackasses sometimes.
E: And how can you do that in just a couple of paragraphs, you know?
A: There’s one I used with [a university class] slot this year… as a learning point... All of it says “I’m a pretentious arsehole, I’m going to be a nightmare to work with, and I think I’m cleverer than I am.”
E: Do you get a lot of people who obviously haven’t looked over your website and don’t really know what you’re about?
A: Oh yeah. And we get people who, even if you say ‘we are not open to zombie submissions’, they’ll send you zombie submissions because it doesn’t apply to them. Now, my view, and the view of anybody who’s dealt with people, is if you’re not prepared to follow the submission guidelines, you are going to be a pain in the arse to work with. So however good your book is, I don’t want to work with you. That’s the first message you send, the first thing you’ve done. You know, really trust your gut. If people seem a bit hinky to you, get away from it, no matter how much they seem to be presenting something good. Because they usually turn out to be hinky.
‘Hinky’ people don’t get past Aunty Fox and very rarely has she had to step away from an author, as they don’t tend to get through that first submissions process. She defends members of her community with pride and cares deeply about the industry as a whole, despite its ups and (frequent) downs. Though she has hope about the current climate turning.
A: The sales - not just for us, but for a number of small presses - have found that sales have really bottomed this year. So hopefully people will be a bit more optimistic next year. Or, hiding in books because reality is so awful!
When I first met Aunty Fox last year during a talk at my university, we arranged to meet together for coffee somewhere so that I could wheedle some more wisdom from this experienced insider. Misfortune struck when Aunty Fox’s cat got sick and when our coffee date fell through and life continued, I neglected to rearrange.
Fast forward a year, and she tells me her cat is feeling much better, though it seems to be a fairly poorly household. Between her three felines, herself, and her partner, they’ve all found themselves prone to illness in some area or another.
A: “A part of why I had such a shit start to the year was I had very low vitamin D… So this year’s just been bollocksed!”
Of course, with illness came a slower pace, but the Fox Spirit community came through. The Skulk, as they are known, are a rallying force to be reckoned with. Not only do they come together to support the books that are published and events that take place, but they are also an incredibly understanding group in the face of Fox Spirit’s slower start this year.
A: My authors have been really chilled out with it… I’m very very proud of what we’ve done, and I am very very proud of the Skulk, they’re amazing.
E: And how wonderful that this thing that you kind of found yourself suddenly doing and that you kind of stumbled into, you know -
A: That’s taken over my life!
E: Yes! But the people you’ve met from it and the things you’re able to do, and the events and all of it…
A: Oh yeah… It has become a much bigger part of my life… caused some tensions in some friendships, but others have become much stronger and it’s introduced me to a lot of new people.
From bakers of book-cover cookies, to writers and artists, to fans of genre fiction - Aunty Fox raves about them all. It’s very clear that all are welcome to the Skulk and she regularly engages with them online. She even gave this Twitter-phobe a much-needed lesson in social media.
A: I think you have to want to have those conversations. When it first became a thing, I realised Facebook is like when you’re at uni and you’ve got that noticeboard up on your door and people leave you messages. You come back and you see such and such is looking for me. Twitter is like you’re sat in a canteen in halls or the union, and everyone is talking and you’re eavesdropping over here for a minute, then eavesdropping over there for a minute. Then unless you want to be part of those conversations, it gets a bit pointless. So until you’ve built up the relationships on Twitter, it’s a bit weird.
E: You’ve got to put in the time.
A: Mmm and I was lucky that I was able to put in the time years ago when I was just reviewing, and now that’s paying off a bit.
E: You already had some of your community set up.
A: Yes, so I’ve got people I can talk to regularly, people I can tag. Obviously, my writers and artists, too, a lot of those are on Twitter.
Engaging with wider, inclusive communities is Aunty Fox’s goal; having been a book reviewer in a past life, it’s clear her passion for reading - particularly fantasy fiction - was the flame that sparked this enterprise in the first place. Now that she has a following and louder voice, she wants to use it for the greater good; when we got talking about her reading habits and TBR pile, she waxed passionately about diversity in publishing and the messages she wants to send.
A: The last couple of years, I’ve been reading a lot more women writers and writers of colour… Unless they’re people whose books I’ve liked for a long time, I’m trying to avoid straight, white men… Just because they’ve dominated for so long on everybody’s bookshelves… There are still a few in amongst mine, because there are some of my friends who I want to read... I’m just proactively trying to make them the minority in my purchasing, because I just really want to strongly send the message to places like Waterstones that that’s not all we want, you know?
All in all, Fox Spirit’s fearless leader has learnt a lot from her nearly-six years heading this surprise publishing press. Thinking back to the start, she openly wonders if she’d have begun had she really knew what she was getting into, though perhaps it was best that she didn’t.
A: Yeah, you can’t worry about it. My whole philosophy, which is probably not wise, has been the Wile E. Coyote philosophy of life, which is just running off cliffs. Run off cliffs, peddle your legs, don’t look down. It’ll all be fine. And I think maybe, possibly, I do it a bit too soon, but you can spend an awful lot of time standing on the edge and testing the air, and eventually you’re going to have to run off the edge of the cliff anyway. It’s always going to be like that, no matter how prepared you think you are, you’re going to get halfway over and think have I done the right thing?
E: So take the leap.
A: Yeah, just do it. God, I sound like a Nike advert!