Ten years ago, I walked into a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, with a rucksack full of Smoke: A London Peculiar, the magazine that I'd made with my friend, Matt Haynes. I went up to the front counter, found a nice man called Mike Atherton, and explained to him what it was: a magazine of words and images inspired by London.
Mike took 20 of them for Foyles. They sold out in a week. We took along some more. We did similar elsewhere. By issue 3 of Smoke: A London Peculiar, our two-person distribution network was selling 5,000 copies per issue in over 80 London shops, thanks to the relationships we had built with individual booksellers.
That world has gone. Ten years later, Matt and I are launching our first Smoke book, From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea, into a very different marketplace. Now, centralised distribution and buying are king, and the personal approach has little power. In many cases, it's not even allowed—and this position fails booksellers as well as independent publishers.
Take what happened to us in 2007. Before then, we would hand-deliver 340 copies of every issue of Smoke to Malcolm Hopkins, the wonderful magazine buyer at Borders Oxford Street. He shelved them well, and every one would sell—a good return for both parties. But then we received a letter from Borders head office saying that, in future, branches would not accept deliveries direct from publishers; we would need to use a “recognised distributor” instead. Malcolm left, and the last issue we’d hand-delivered was left in the storeroom; over half came back as returns.
This was at a time when our sales were increasing elsewhere. And what a grim irony it was that Borders went bust not long after its approach became so impersonal.
And all distributors, not unreasonably, demand an exclusive. So we were forced to pay a distributor to do something that we did perfectly well ourselves for next-to-nothing, given all of our outlets were in London. Then there were the environmental issues: all that packaging and petrol just so that we could ship the magazines to a distributor who could then send them to the shop at the end of our road, who we were no longer allowed to approach directly. It didn't make sense. And there was another problem: magazines get damaged easily in transit, making them unsellable.
This time round however, we are doing something different. We are selling our first book. From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea is a compendium of stories, observations and images, which traces the life of London from 2005 to the present day, through an event that has changed the city more than anything else in the last decade—the Olympic and Paralympic Games. We have compiled it over the last year with care and love, and we know that our past reputation as an indie will help us a lot .
But we also know something else. We would never have had a reputation at all if we hadn't been able to deal, ten years ago, with the people who knew what their audiences wanted most – the booksellers themselves.
Jude Rogers co-founded Smoke: A London Peculiar in 2003. Since then, she has worked as an arts journalist for the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, the Word, the New Statesman, Q, Elle, Red and Marie Claire.
From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea will be launched on 10th August at Greenwich Market.