Red Button Publishing
Karen Ings has worked as an editor in trade publishing for sixteen years, commissioning books for the last twelve. Developing projects on a freelance basis for clients such as Quercus and Penguin gave her the freedom to explore new avenues, and in 2012 she founded Red Button Publishing with her friend and former colleague Caroline Goldsmith. Red Button published their fourth novel last summer.
Mark Thwaite: Please tell us why and when (and how) you set up Red Button Publishing?
Karen Ings: Caroline and I worked together at Aurum Press in the early 2000s, and often over drinks after work we’d talk about setting up our own company one day. Back then it was just a pipe dream. Ten years later, we both found ourselves with more time on our hands – Caroline had moved to the country and I was freelancing – and we thought: why not? We’re both passionate about fiction, and if we worked for ourselves we’d have the independence to acquire the kinds of books we like to read, plus advances in digital publishing meant we didn’t need a huge amount of capital to start our own business. Handily our skills complement each other extremely well: Caroline designs and formats all our books and I look after the editing side. We set up Red Button in the summer of 2012 and published our first books the following spring.
MT: What gap in the market do you see it filling? Or what, as they say, is your USP?
KI:We’ve both worked for big publishers and know from experience that new authors, especially those who want to take risks in their writing, can slip through the net, as the pressure to make a profit often leads established imprints to stick mostly to the tried-and-tested. As a small start-up we have the freedom to take a chance on new authors we feel passionate about without having to justify our choices to shareholders. Our mission is to find books that are simply crying out to be published.
MT: You and your partner Caroline (Goldsmith) have a lot of experience behind you – what made you want to become digital publishers?
KI: Most of our experience has been in traditional publishing, where the process of bringing a book to market usually takes months – maybe even years. Publishing digitally means we have fewer overheads, of course, and it enables us to bring a new author to the attention of the public in a matter of weeks. It doesn’t mean we cut corners – it’s really important to us to maintain high standards in editing and production – but being able to make a book available without months of preamble is extremely exciting.
MT: Self-publishing and disintermediation are a threat to all publishers -- if I just want to publish an ebook can't I just do that via Amazon? Isn't this precisely the format that doesn't require a publisher / gatekeeper? Aren't you both too small to add much value and yet "too big", despite being so small, because you mediate between an author and direct access to readers either via Amazon or just, say, via a website like Lulu/WritersCafe/Scribophile and the like?
KI: Yes, of course it’s possible for any writer to publish entirely independently these days – be that in digital or paper. But I think the fact that many writers, including our own, choose to work with professionals speaks for itself. Editing, production, marketing: these things all take time and energy and some writers would prefer to be channelling that time and energy into their writing. It can also be very tricky to market your own books convincingly. Having a publisher to act as a kind of cheerleader for your work can be a real bonus. Because we’re a small outfit, we work very closely with our writers, and that’s an experience that sometimes gets lost within larger companies.
From a reader’s point of view, Red Button can play the role of curator. There’s a vast morass of reading material available online and we act as a filter: readers can trust that we would only give our stamp of approval to something that’s really worth reading.
MT: How do you market your titles?
KI: Of course it’s tough for a new, unknown publisher to get noticed, especially on a limited budget! It’s been important for us to think creatively about how we can work with our own contacts as well as those of our authors in order to create word of mouth. As well as approaching mainstream media outlets, we’ve worked hard to build up relationships with influential book bloggers. We’ve had a great response, particularly from Steve Cromerford (bookemstevo.wordpress.com). People seem to like what we’re trying to do.
We’re also keen to ensure that our marketing doesn’t become too frontlist oriented. A lot of books take time to become embedded in the public consciousness – look at Stoner, for instance. And we’re always trying out different ideas: our next title will offer up a lot more opportunities for cross-media marketing, so that’s a new avenue to explore.
MT: Now is probably a good time for me to ask you a little bit about each of the books that you've published so far...
KI: We launched Red Button in April 2013 with The Human Script, the first novel from Johnny Rich, which is really the perfect example of what Red Button is all about. Johnny enrolled in the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 1999 and the first draft of The Human Script was highly praised by Ian McEwan, Malcolm Bradbury and WG Sebald. He signed up with Curtis Brown and a number of commissioning editors expressed interest – but marketing departments vetoed the book as insufficiently commercial. We read it, loved it and made the author an offer the next day. It’s at once a mind-expanding adventure through genetics, philosophy, theology and literary theory and a poignant modern love story. Tom McCarthy has read it and said: ‘It’s one of the most intelligent novels about science I’ve ever read.’
We followed up The Human Script with The Anchoress, an exquisite novella by Paul Blaney, who’s writer in residence at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Anchoress is the story of Maggie, a fortysomething woman who shuts herself in her closet and refuses to come out despite the entreaties of friends and neighbours. As the days go on we discover what has driven her to hide away from the world. It’s a deeply moving book that’s full of quirky characters and flashes of offbeat humour.
Our third title is Home by Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone. It’s a dark, chilling novel about a caretaker at an old people’s home who discovers that something horribly disturbing is going on in his workplace. We’ve been blown away by the generous support Rebekah’s book has received from Joseph D’Lacey (author of Meat): not only did he give us a fulsome endorsement, but also he’s tweeted endlessly about how much he loved the book and urged all his followers to read it.
MT: We've talked a lot about you as a digital publisher, but a little bird tells me I may well be able to hold one of your books in my hand in the not too distant future – that true?
KI:Yes: we’ve recently signed up with a print-on-demand platform and hope to make all our titles available in paper format later this year. Print was always part of our long-term plan once we’d established ourselves in the digital sphere, but we needed to be able to invest more time and money to make it happen. Digital provides an instant hit – but we know that many readers still prefer to hold a physical book in their hands. Moreover, some literary prizes still won’t consider digital-only titles (the Costa Book Awards and the new Goldsmiths Prize, for example) and we don’t want our authors to miss out.
MT: Is the future bright for publishing?
KI: We believe it is. Having worked in the industry for a number of years, we’ve lived through various crises that doommongers predicted would spell the end for publishing; but our impression is that people are still reading in vast numbers and there is a voracious appetite for great fiction that we are keen to fulfil.
MT: What are you working on now?
KI: We're working on an enhanced edition of our most recent title: Mockstars by Christopher Russell, which has been described as Spinal Tap meets The Inbetweeners. It’s about two boys from a tiny village in Surrey trying to make it as a rock band, and it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. The story is inspired by the real-life tour diaries of Chris’s band the Lightyears, and the enhanced iBook edition will feature exclusive new tracks from the band..
MT: And, finally, what's the best book you read last year?
KI: I have to say The Goldfinch. Too long, self-indulgent – I’ve heard all the criticisms levelled at it, but I loved every single sentence.