by Lynn Michell
I used to love sliding a Linen Press book into a padded envelope and addressing it by hand. A business card went inside and a tiny sticker sealed the flap. Writing the buyer’s name felt personal. Adding the address gave me a whereabouts for my reader, like putting a drawing pin in a map. And those drawing pins were multiplying nicely just as the map grew ever wider.
But of course you can’t post books if you don’t have books to send. I rely on boxes of books arriving from the distributor, Ingram Spark, a week after I order them so that I always have stock, but not too much stock. Linen Press, the only UK-wide independent women’s press, is a very small pond in the tidal realms of publishing, and I am the only fish swimming around it. Aided by a revolving door of superb interns, I am submissions reader, editor, marketing director, sales person, ally to my authors, dogsbody and stuffer of books in envelopes. It is all encompassing.
I founded Linen Press in 2005 with no publishing experience when 94-year-old Marjorie Wilson came to my writing group carrying Childhood’s Hill, her hand-written, rhapsodic memoir of growing up in Edinburgh at the turn of the century. ‘I’ve sent it to every publisher in the land,’ she told us. We listened. We loved her account of seeing a zeppelin, of horse-drawn carriages and her mother’s bustling restaurant on The Bridges. We decided it must be published, and we meant me. I typed the memoir, then sat every week with Marjorie and her cat Tufty in front of her gas fire to suggest slight changes to chapters she read aloud with grace. My daughter-in-law made the cover and worked on the gorgeous old photographs that illustrate the book. It was printed, it sold very well, The Scotsman described it as ‘Luminous, episodic, sensual, rather like memory itself.’ One week, it beat Ian Rankin in Blackwell’s bestsellers.
I was hooked and while the early years came with a steep learning curve, it wasn’t long before Linen Press was well into its stride, rejoicing in a diversity of female voices including those from minority groups and attracting established authors like Maureen Freely, Clare Best and Avril Joy. Profits were sufficient to stay afloat.
And then came Brexit. I live most of the time in France and post most of my books to the UK, a duality which caused the sky to fall in. You know the Henny Penny rhyme. Now, instead of a book into an envelope, signed and sealed, every book I send needs an online customs form in duplicate containing four pages of my details, the buyer’s details and the book details including amount, weight, size and value. I take the customs forms and the required receipt to the village post office where the patient post mistress picks a large transparent envelope from her shelf, peels off all the sticky take, puts my documents inside, and tries to stick the unwieldy thing to my modest padded envelope. Five minutes of my time, five minutes of hers. For every book. Some days I go with ten.
The next Henny Penny moment involved deliveries that once came reliably and intact to my front door in the UPS van. After Brexit, my first order to my distributor, Ingram Spark, took six weeks to reach me and its long journey was accompanied by twice daily email updates from UPS which said they couldn’t clear customs, didn’t have the right paperwork, were held up by new rules and regulations. And when the boxes did arrive, too late for an event and for many orders, they looked like they’d been kicked around the lorry for the full six weeks. They were busted and split open, hopelessly held together with sellotape. Inside, the books were dirty and squashed.
And so began a time-wasting process of making a claim from Ingram Spark. It required nineteen emails and the uploading, not once but six times, of the same photos of broken boxes and squashed books. Naively I sent a selection of photos of my ruined books, but this was not the correct procedure. The evidence was insufficient. I had to write in black felt tip NOT FOR SALE on every cover because apparently I wasn’t trusted not to sell grubby, creased and dog-eared books. Did that satisfy my distributor? No. For each separate title, all the felt-tipped covers had to be visible in one group photo. I might just be cheating, you see, though I can’t think how. My first claim took a month.
The next order was an exact replay, except maybe I howled louder when the six weeks delayed and bashed boxes were handed down by the driver of the UPS lorry. Were his eyebrows raised in resignation or sympathy? He’d delivered the last lot. I’m not talking slight damage here, I’m talking part-open, crushed cardboard boxes with shaken and stirred books inside. Unsellable.
Post-Brexit contingency plans are in place. Most of my loyal authors have agreed to take delivery of their own books and post them from the UK, though that’s not what they signed up for. My kind sister is taking other deliveries and traipsing to Chiswick post office to stand in the queue. UK postage is more expensive. Ingram Spark charges £15 delivery for five or fifty books so I lose my already small profit margin on small orders. It’s lose-lose and not the way to run a small press.
I can’t see my way round this crushing Brexit fall out on my small publishing company other than to up sticks and return to the UK. I may have to choose between my life here and my women’s press which I’ve loved and nurtured for fifteen years. Or do I add a line to the Linen Press contract: Authors must post their own books because Brexit has made it very very difficult for us to do it.
• Published in The Bookseller