Former Driffield resident Jamie McGarry has been making international waves in independent publishing over the past five years. Here, in an exclusive interview with ‘Pulse’ author Steve Rudd, he shares his infectious passion for words:
For those who don’t know, you’re the founder of Valley Press, one of the most respected independent publishers in the UK. Having studied English Literature at Scarborough University, was starting your own publishing company a natural progression after graduating, or did you initially consider doing something else?
I started experimenting with small-press publishing in 2008, so when I graduated in 2010, I was certain my experience and initiative would see me comfortably getting an entry-level job in the publishing or writing sectors. After eight months of searching, I had plenty of interviews but no job - then I spotted they were opening a new WHSmith across the road from where I currently lived, in Driffield, which surely meant ten new jobs were going. It was failing to get any of those (despite also having several years of bookshop and retail experience) that finally pushed me into taking on Valley Press full-time, in January 2011. Now I look back, I’m glad things worked out the way they did, but it certainly was a frustrating eight months.
Were you always passionate about words as a youngster?
I definitely was. From the age of six, I would write a story in an exercise book (always exactly as long as the book, which was quite a skill, I think), then design a front cover, add a blurb to the back, and usually add a barcode as well - I have always been fascinated by writing and the format in which it is presented. In hindsight, publishing is really the only career I could have gone into.
Valley Press prides itself on publishing first-rate poetry. As a poet yourself, what would you say makes a truly great poem?
Although there are many exceptions to the rule, I think a great poem reflects a certain part of your own human experience back at you, from an angle you hadn’t previously seen it. A truly great poem will do this in a way that is both musical and lyrical, using the best words in the best order, with a sense of rhythm (sometimes completely unnoticeable). There’s a lot more that goes into it too, of course, but those things do it for me.
Aside from being a poet and publishing-house MD, you’re also a novelist, having penned a story entitled ‘The Waiting Game’. In brief, what’s the crux of the story, and are you still planning on writing a sequel to it?
There are a few stories in ‘The Waiting Game’: I originally started writing it as a collection of four short stories about waiting, but as I carried on, I dropped one and the other three became the novel as it stands today. The most interesting plot is that of Jason, a sixth-former searching for the long-lost son of a man he met whilst waiting for a bus (for complicated reasons). I wrote the first draft of the novel in four weeks, whilst dog-sitting in the summer of 2007.
This book is now out of print - it was my first experiment with publishing, in 2008, and I only printed forty copies; I believe the only way to read it now is to borrow a copy directly from me, or find one of the three that are circulating in the North Yorkshire library system. I can imagine myself returning to it one day, to bring the text up-to-scratch and re-release it... and, as you seem to remember, I planned out a sequel in detail during 2009, but have never found the time since then to turn it into something readable. However, I’m still really proud of the work I did on that, so you never know what might happen.
Valley Press has just celebrated its five-year anniversary. On the day you published your first book, did you ever think you’d be making a living from publishing half a decade down the line?
I hoped to be making a living from publishing in some form, but I never thought it would be in such a literal way - with the money made from book sales being the same money I take to Morrisons at the weekend! The words ‘self employment’ never entered my mind, or meant anything to me, until my guy at the Job Centre gently suggested it at the end of 2010 (when I failed to get my WHSmith job). Now, I can’t imagine myself working in any other way.
In recognition of your contribution to the field of poetry publishing, you were recently invited down to a reception at Buckingham Palace where you met The Queen. How did the opportunity come about, and what did you enjoy the most about your day rubbing shoulders with royalty?
How the attendees were selected is all very hush-hush, but I did hear a rumour that I was put forward by the director of a literary organisation, who was called on by the palace to suggest some names. I think what I enjoyed the most was actually being invited - really, it’s the only kind of ‘official acknowledgement’ I’ve received since starting ‘Valley Press’, so it was hugely appreciated.
Reflecting on the past five years in general, which moments have represented the greatest highlights for you?
The moments I remember the most are the book launches; where it’s a book by a person I really admire and respect, we’ve spent months editing and designing it and got it exactly right, and where dozens of people attend and buy big handfuls of copies. Nothing can really compare to nights that fit that description - and I have been lucky enough to have quite a few of those.
Looking ahead, what do you have planned for your fast-expanding publishing empire over the course of the next year and beyond?
I think I’ve finally figured out a winning formula for publishing success - I’ve spent most of the past few months working ‘on’ the business as opposed to ‘in’ it, which has involved collecting and considering everything I’ve learnt in the last five years, studying the data on how each book gets sold, and perfecting my production values.
The books looked fairly good when I started out, but the current batch (particularly Opera di Cera) are light-years ahead. So, the next twelve months will be about testing out the new, streamlined process - as well as catching-up on the backlog of titles that developed while I was pondering!
Finally, what’s the best way for folk to learn more about Valley Press?
The best way is through the website at www.valleypressuk.com
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Jamie McGarry)