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City-Lit Interview

Posted on 26 January 2009. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to Heather Reyes and Malcom Burgess of city-lit, the new travel publishers

Tell us about the company – why did you set it up, and how?

It probably wasn’t the most sensible thing we’d ever done. In 2007 my partner, Heather Reyes, and I were on the slopes of the Acropolis when an idea struck: why wasn’t there a guide providing a selection of the best-ever writing on Athens to give us the real flavour of the place? We searched the bookshops but couldn’t find anything. Back home, we found there was nothing comparable on other cities either. So Oxygen Books and our city-lit series were born.
We were two writers with some editorial and marketing experience – I had worked at HarperCollins – but also serious skills gaps and, shock horror to writing friends, weren’t even publishing our own work. There’s an honourable tradition of writers running their own publishing companies from the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press to Susan Hill’s Long Barn Books, but we knew we needed to spend some time getting advice from publishing acquaintances and refining our business plan. We were on a learning curve even steeper than the Dionysic slopes we’d returned from.
Joining the Independent Publishers Guild made us feel we weren’t alone. At our first IPG meeting we got to see most of the chief trade buyers who patiently explained the processes involved and new developments. Was this luck or was this luck? It was going to be tough and challenging, people told us, and there was some conflicting advice, but nobody was ever negative or said don’t do it.
We soon discovered the difference between being a writer presented with a few finished cover visuals and being a publisher: as we worked with our patient designers to get the product right, it was more time consuming than we’d ever imagined. We genuinely felt sorry for the legendary committees doing this every day in bigger companies.
Editorially we were encouraged by the bookshop managers and writers like Kate Mosse and Kate Muir who told us they were excited by the series. Commissioning an introduction from Stephen Clarke for our first title made us feel that we had well and truly arrived. And it’s been amazing to hear from writers, librarians and booksellers in our first five cities – Paris, London, Dublin, Berlin and Amsterdam – suggesting writers to include.
Heather did a brilliant rights course at the Publishing Training Centre which has already been worth its weight in gold – the series is very permissions based – although, sorry, we can’t believe that rights manager Emma from a very big corporate has really been out of the office since June.
Print and production we outsourced completely as an area of total non-expertise. When it came to distribution and sales I certainly had no idea about distance selling regulations. But a series of meetings quickly got me into the loop and the moment I found myself getting excited, during a warehouse visit, by those stacks of shrink-wrapped books about to find profitable homes made me realise I was now definitely a publisher. Bill Norris of Central Books, who became our distributor this month, told me I was ‘mad enough to be a publisher, but only medium-mad’ – praise indeed.
Although my own books had been in 3 for 2 promotions, I didn’t really have a clue how they got there. Meeting Waterstone’s travel buyer provided some very useful feedback on our series and the mysteries of campaigns and promotions were revealed before our eyes. Having now spoken to the very friendly Brentford godhead we knew there could be no turning back. Our first title, out in April, city-lit Paris is actually a 3 for 2 title about which we’re very excited.

Tell us something about your background.

I’ve always freelanced as a journalist, even when doing full time jobs, and have written features and comic series for quite a lot of newspapers and magazines, from The Times and Metro to ES Magazine and Wedding and Home. I’ve also written radio comedies and series for Radio 4 and 3 – most recently Fear and Loathing in Crouch End. I’ve written two humour books, I Hate the Office and Forty-fied: How to be a Fortysomething. I’ve got a couple of ongoing book projects that I’m trying to fit in with running the publishing company.

What excites you about a piece of writing-

That’s a very good question especially as it’s one at the heart of our city-lit series. Basically it’s the X Factor: lively, interesting and compelling writing that just zings off the page. For the city-lit series it could be bestselling or literary writing, non-fiction, blogs or journalism – as long as it says something that hasn’t been said before and in a fresh and different way. Personally I just love ‘voice’ – Alan Bennett, Margaret Atwood, Maeve Binchy, and Joan Didion have this to the n’th degree and I’d read them until the cows come home. It’s when you trust a writer and just feel you’re in amazing company. I just wish more writers had it.

and what makes your heart sink?

Er, probably when writers don’t have this ‘voice’ and outstay their welcome by droning on. I wish more writers would think of their readers and/ or listeners. For me even an extraordinary narrative with lots of twists and turns can only compensate for this in part. Otherwise it gets like films with super special effects – you just feel yourself becoming jaded. I usually hate poetry readings unless something really special is happening.

Specific do's and don'ts of travel writing?

I think we’ve all had enough of dreadful celebrity vehicles or people dragging fridges around Ireland but apart from this, just do your own thing!

Who are your favourite writers and why?

The ‘voice’ writers I mentioned earlier. I’d add Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro too. I try to read everything they write. Of course it’s also about originality, tone and subject matter. I was brought up in a place in the UK not too dissimilar to the Canadian countryside and full of the same weird people Alice Munro describes, which gives me an extra reason for enjoying her

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Comments by other Members

Vixen at 20:52 on 26 January 2009  Report this post
After reading this interview (day before yesterday) I sent an email off telling them I'd published an essay on Berlin in Unlikely 2.0. Pretty much by return mail I got back an email asking to see it in a Word attachment. I sent that off and got back an email this morning saying they liked it and wanted to publish it. Very nice email, and very chuffed was me. She said they'd send more info after finishing the Dublin book giving me info about rights and fee payment.

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