Recently, I caught up with Andy Leach of Seventy2One – a publishing imprint of Massive Overheads.
Hi Andy – cheers for getting involved. Great to have you on the blog.
To start things off, can you tell my readers some more about Seventy2One and Massive Overheads?
What’s your angle as a publisher, and what sort of literature do you want to deliver to your audience?
Hi, John, good to be here. Massive Overheads Productions is essentially me and my pal Alec Bowman-Clarke.
Alec’s a photographer, filmmaker and musician. We’d met via Twitter and talked about doing a project together. In 2020 I mooted the idea of a short film and sent Alec a script I’d written. He liked it, so as the UK came out of lockdown we started making a film, called Overheads. The experience was great for both of us, so we set up a creative collaboration called Massive Overheads Productions, through which we could put any other work that we might do together. Over time I began to like the idea of Massive Overheads being more than short films, and so when I decided to set up a publishing imprint, I put it under the same umbrella.
Seventy2One was essentially born out of frustration. My friend (writer) Hannah Persaud and I had long talked about how we’d like to run a small press. In 2021 we found ourselves in similar positions; we’d both recently split from agents, were both frustrated at both the pace and lack of originality in publishing.
So we decided to do something about it and created Seventy2One. In July 2021 we agreed that the first book would be a collection of short stories, focusing on the climate emergency. Somehow, 80% of the writers we contacted about it said yes, and it came together quickly, enabling us to launch Sunburnt Saints in November.
Hannah stepped away from the project after Sunburnt Saints came out; she’s still an enthusiastic supporter and we’re still good friends, just that the demands of Seventy2One didn’t sit with the rest of her life at the moment. Whereas I had 101 ideas about how I wanted to progress the imprint, so decided to take it on myself.
I want to concentrate on short stories, in a genre I’d call accessible literary. Bite-sized pieces of art.
I hear that a lot from indie publishers in terms of a lack of pace and originality. Could you expand upon it a little?
And regarding your point on making literary writing accessible, I think that’s a really great endeavour. Some readers I speak to on a regular basis tend to be quite put off by literary fiction.
Speaking as a marketer, I think your Twitter presence gets that ‘accessible literary’ vibe across really well to be honest.
Thanks for saying that we’re managing to get what we’re about across on Twitter; it’s certainly been a good place to grow our community.
I’ve always found the term [literary fiction] to be somewhat pretentious, a bit up its own backside. It suggests a denigration of other genres in favour of itself, a sort of ‘one true calling’ of book genres. But as we seem stuck with it, what I mean by it is something that’s original, that uses language to communicate as much as story, if that makes sense, and which doesn’t follow a conventional pattern. Those type of books have always been more interesting to me.
But essentially it’s a nonsense term. I remember a Booker longlister being described as a litfic crossover with crime and thinking ‘Stop trying to pigeonhole books! It’s just a damn good book that happens to be about a crime.’
As to pace and originality, there are times when publishing feels like a sausage factory, a never-ending line of genre-based identi-books. And then when something new does come along and become an unexpected hit, everyone spends the next eighteen months trying to pull off a repeat of it with sub-standard replica books.
The pace thing is a mystery to me. Books are written within a timeframe and yet by the time they come out, the author has moved on, is probably interested in different things, is writing different things, so they’re always retrospective. I’m less bothered as to why this is the case (because I’m sure someone from Harper Collins or wherever would have an answer) than the fact that it just shouldn’t, needn’t be the case.
For me and what I’m trying to do at Seventy2One, it’s back to that late ’70s early ’80’s ethic of immediacy, of writing it, editing it and getting it out all within a pretty short period of time. And then move on to the next one, knowing that the best of them will stand any test of time as great works.
At Seventy2One, you’re all about chapbooks.
What are they exactly, what made you opt for that format, and how do they differ from a regular paperback?
It’s all about chapbooks for now. Going forward, there will be other projects. I think chapbooks suit the short story format really well. They allow short stories to stand up for themselves in the way that a novel would, rather than getting lost within an anthology. I find the best short stories more satisfying than most novels.
There are lots of definitions of ‘chapbooks’ online; as I understand it. They originated in the sixteenth century as little folded pamphlets, and were popularised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as print became more accessible. ‘Chap’ books because they were sold at the roadside by chap men: pedlars and street sellers. Chap taken from the old English cäep, meaning ‘cheap.’
The modern resurgence tends to mean little books of 40 pages or less. Mine are 28 pages from cover to cover. I wanted them to be easily affordable but with great writers, quick, unpretentious, accessible, things you could slip into a pocket or handbag, but at the same time retain a literary integrity. Think high-end punk aesthetic. The Elvis Costello of publishing!
On a similar note, you’re a subscription-only publisher.
What made you take that route, vs the traditional method of selling books for a one-off fixed price?
I think the traditional method is broken. I spent some time working as a bookseller at a branch of Waterstones, ostensibly to gain more insight into the UK fiction publishing market.
I started wondering why they made Greta Thunberg ‘author of the year’ yet positioned her books at the till, surrounded by plastic toys and all sorts of environmentally ridiculous bits and bobs. I got told that’s where the profit is. It’s not in books. And then you have great indie publishers putting out some terrific work that are one flop away from going bust.
I also think distributors have too much power. So I wanted to see if things could be done differently. Subscription builds a community among Seventy2One’s readers and also means the cost can be kept low. Times are so tough for so many at the moment, that spreading the cost of four storybooks over a year at just £1.50 a month means that perhaps people might be able to manage that, rather than an outlay on one individual book.
Books are, after all, a luxury item. At least when compared to food and energy costs.
Wow, that’s pretty telling.
I must admit my (and a fair few others’) eyebrows were raised when last year’s Waterstones Book of the Year was Paul McCartney’s book (selling for around £75 no less!)
I think the booksellers at high street bookshops do a great job, and I’ve got a lot of time for them, but it’s pretty interesting to get that insight from a higher-up commercials point of view.
Yes, the McCartney book is another good illustration as to what’s wrong.
No one loves McCartney more than me, I think he’s up there with Mozart as just the greatest composer we’ve ever known, the definition of a living legend. But for a £75 book to be Book of the Year suggests someone somewhere is trying to claw back a huge advance!
I noticed that you published an anthology on climate change in Sunburnt Saints – you’ve got some really talented writers in there!
What impact do you think writers, and indeed publishers, can have on influencing positive action towards climate change?
To a certain extent we’re preaching to the choir. If you have a book subtitled ‘An anthology of climate fiction’ it’s not going to be bought and considered by those in denial. By the same token, I think it’s vital that we, everyone, not just writers and publishers, continue to engage with the subject, learn more, demand more, take action, make better decisions.
And the one thing writers and publishers can do is use their voice, their platform, to continue to raise awareness, to show what’s happening. If one story in that collection made one reader out of hundreds stop and think and make a better choice with the environmental crisis in mind, it’s done its job.
What are the main challenges you face as an indie publisher? In an ideal world, what would you change overnight?
Seventy2One’s challenges are those that face any new brand: awareness and customer acquisition. The quicker we can grow, the sooner we can bring out more books and do more things.
But it’s very easy to lose money in publishing! So it’s a constant battle between seeking growth and finding out what works.
In terms of changes, my initial reaction was to restore the net book agreement, but in retrospect that ship has sailed. I think changing the distribution landscape would bring most benefits to indies. Distribution deals that don’t allow for more than a certain percentage of returns would make a more level playing field. At the moment the publisher takes the risk at both ends of the market and that can’t be right.
Yeah, distribution returns can be a real pain point for small press. I can imagine it’s incredibly hard to manage the budget with that in mind.
For my readers who aren’t aware of distribution agreements, essentially, how it works is that a publisher sells an inventory of books to the distributors, who then move them on to retailers.
If the stock isn’t shifted by the retailer (or not shifted after a stipulated period of time) the books get sent back to the publisher and the publisher essentially has to reimburse the distributor accordingly.
Pretty much, plus a distributor can, for example, charge the publisher for its services on a weekly basis and then agree to pay the publisher for books sold monthly or quarterly, so it becomes a cashflow issue too.
Do you think there’s an appetite for that sort of change? Presumably it would have to come from the bigger publishers.
There are a number of small distributors out there, but since Bertrams’ demise it’s basically Gardners, so it’s fair to say a large percentage of the market is sewn up. And of course, the big publishers have their own distribution services, too. Grantham Book Services, for example, is owned by Penguin Random House.
But things are changing, indeed have been changing since Amazon entered the UK 15 years ago (yes, it’s only been 15 years!). Don’t forget, Amazon’s original offer was built around books. They were the first real modern disruptor to the books market and offered all sorts of differences to the consumer and to writers.
And from a Seventy2One point of view, I see lots of things being sold by subscription that in times past you’d never have thought would have been: wine, fruit and veg, beauty products, vinyl records, gadgets, cheese… they’re all available on subscription. We’re just adopting a retail method that’s proven in other sectors.