A second interview with Nic Bottomley of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights & Fox, Finch & Tepper
So, a lot seems to have happened in the last two years. Mr B’s seems to go from strength to strength and you are now a bona fide publisher.
When we last spoke I asked – “have you been inspired by this success and the example of Shakespeare & Co/Ulysses story? To create a Mr B's publishing imprint?” and you said – “A Mr B's publishing imprint would be an altogether different proposition -the beauty of what we've done here is that we've worked together with a publisher and borrowed their expertise on the printing side and used an existing title but just created our own special edition to get a bit of artwork experience. I'm not sure we're ready to dedicate the time to producing a book from scratch (and all the other complications that go with it). What changed?
Good question! I suppose the thing is that we’re always looking to do new and different things and we hate standing still. That’s both from me and Juliette as owners but also from every one of our team who thrive on new challenges. To set up a publishing effort of our own needed a big commitment in terms of time dedicated to the project and we spotted a gap in our schedule when that could begin once we knew we would be having a hiatus in our role as official bookseller for the Bath Lit Fest for at least a couple of years (for 2014-2015). That Lit Fest project is a mammoth one in terms of logistics, preparation and stock management time and not being involved gave us an opportunity to dedicate the freed up time to learn something new.
Can you tell us a bit about Fox, Finch and Tepper - what was the impetus to create a publishing house?
We had thoroughly enjoyed creating our special editions of Rogue Male and The Howling Miller in collaboration with Orion and Canongate respectively and it had definitely given us a taste for having a go at publishing all by ourselves. There are so many books out there that we love and that have dropped out of print and we’re forever hearing of others from customers. We’re in the business of championing unsung books as booksellers and I think we just fancy the challenge of championing unsung books to other bookshops too via publishing.
From a more pragmatic business perspective too, people often ask about a second Mr B’s shop and my answer is always “no” because it would inevitably put me on the busy South West motorways for a couple of days a week and I don’t need that in my life whilst I’ve got three lovely young children who want their bedtime stories read to them on those days that I can get back home. A publishing venture as an add on is a different matter though, it doesn’t require that constant geographical pull and it can begin at least from our existing premises.
(The one and only Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delight's - 14-15 John Street, Bath, Avon BA1 2JL
Obviously the most important part of the process is choosing the name, why Fox, Finch & Tepper?
Three characters that reflect what we want to do. Fox is Fantastic Mr Fox, the soon tail-less hero who battles adverse conditions in the most creative and pragmatic fashion. Finch is Scout Finch, soon to return to our consciousness as it now turns out given Harper Lee’s forthcoming second book, the brave young girl who confidently marches to the beat of her own drum. Tepper is Murray Tepper, the hero of an obscure American novel by Calvin Trillin that we love and who, when he finds the ideal parking space, sits in it, luxuriates in it, and reads.
How did you go about choosing the books? Tell us a bit about them.
We have a long list of books we admire and that we think should be in print. These two were high on the list. I don’t want to spoil our introductions to each book which detail exactly how we began our relationship with them.
Basically though, with The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland I had seen the 80’s TV adaptation with Bryan Brown (who gave us a quote for our edition) and loved it as a teenager. Then my Penguin rep showed us an Australian import back in 2009 and my interest was piqued immediately as I remembered that TV show. I read the novel and was blown away. Partly because my eldest daughter was two months old at the time and, if nothing else, this is a novel that gets to the heart of what it is to be a father.
The novel was published in 1955 originally and it sees itinerant worker Macauley take his four-year-old daughter Buster on the road with him as he searches for work in the dusty backroads of New South Wales. It’s not a landscape for a kid but Buster, though vulnerable, is tenacious. Shiralee means burden and that’s how Macauley sees Buster at the outset (he only takes her on the road because her mother isn’t looking after her properly and he wants to spite his estranged wife). The novel is about life in New South Wales at that time, it’s about the many dramatic encounters that the pair have, but most of all perhaps it’s about a father and daughter going through the process of connecting with one another and learning how to relate to one another. It has incredible tension right to the end.
We published The Next Step in the Dance because The Missing, also by Tim Gautreaux, was, and still is, our bestselling book ever here at Mr B’s. It just has that incredible blend of plot, sense of place and characterisation that means it appeals to a great many readers. When we decided to create Fox, Finch& Tepper our first thought was “What about Gautreaux’s debut novel?”. We were managing to sell a handful of the ugly print on demand American editions every year and we knew the novel was as superb as The Missing but had somehow fallen out of print here in the UK.
The Next Step in the Dance is set in an economically troubled town deep in watery Louisiana. Tiger Island has community, friends, family and dance-halls which is all Paul needs to survive. It also helps that he’s married to the most beautiful young woman in town, Colette. The problem is that Colette wants something more. She wants a better life and she wants her Paul to be ambitious. When she asks him about the future he sees himself transforming from machinist to machine-shop owner, but that’s definitely not enough for Colette who is brilliantly described as having a tongue like a skillet-knife. The novel is about Tiger Island and it’s about how Paul and Colette deal with the differences between them and whether either is going to compromise. That makes it sound terribly character-led though and yet the beauty of this novel is the glut of memorable tense and incredibly dramatic scenes that punctuate the story. Colette holds no prisoners, and is perhaps too tough on Paul at times, but she can certainly hold her own in a very blokey shooting contest and you wouldn’t want to be a nutria (Louisiana’s loathed invasive species of giant water-rat) when Colette and her gun are out and about.
What were the challenges and benefits you didn’t forsee?
There is one benefit that I recognised but hadn’t appreciated the extent of. Namely, our trade contacts from the last 9 years. We knew that compared to any other start-up indie publisher we would have some doors that we could knock on, first for advice and then to twist arms in terms of stocking the books at other shops. I don’t think that I’d anticipated quite the level of support from my friends and colleagues in the trade though and the extent to which other shops were willing to give the books a go because we were saying they were books we loved.
The challenges really were all around knowing how long things would take (as with any new project) and, especially, in balancing the demands of doing all this for the first time vs. the demands of our existing and incredibly busy business. That was always going to be the case though and the whole team mucked in to make the project work, whether it was contributing directly on the publishing side or firefighting on the bookshop side at the critical publishing moments.
The books are beautifully designed, was it a team effort? How did you go about commissioning the art?
Thank you! We always wanted them to be beautiful objects that reflected the contents well. They have deep flaps, a detachable perforated bookmark, and each of our illustrators has reimagined our Fox, Finch and Tepper logo for the inner flap too.
With The Next Step in the Dance we wanted a homage to a Hatch Show Print which we thought worked great for the dancehall vibe of the early book particularly. We also knew we wanted many motifs from the book to be in there – steam whistles, shrimp etc. Letter press style was always the way to go and anyone in Bath will tell you that when you think that you need to be thinking of the magnificent Meticulous Ink on Walcot Street. Athena Cauley-Yu read the book and created our beautiful cover for us. It was a fantastic local collaboration.
For The Shiralee we spent a long time looking at graduate design student work hunting for someone who might create for us the perfect image of the evening road-side camp or the two wanderers walking. There have been a lot of covers for this book, many howlers and a couple of gems. We found Mark Boardman’s work and loved what he did with firelight – on his website you can see images he made after having read Murakami novels and they are stunning – and as he was a Bristol man we thought we’d get in touch and see if he fancied working with us. Again, a great local collaboration.
The books are not just sold in Mr B’s, was distribution difficult?
We were supported from the off by Gardners and Bertrams the two trade wholesalers who deliver next-day to most shops. They understood we’d be talking direct to our bookselling contacts across the trade (both in independent stores and chains) to persuade them to take our books and give them a go and they realised it made sense for them to take a decent stock-holding so that those shops could order quickly. That meant the only distribution we had to worry about was restocking Gardners and Bertrams. I certainly wouldn’t have taken on self-distribution given that we published the books in November at the start of our most hectic season of bookselling.
You are concentrating on reprints, have rights been an issue?
For the first two, actually no. With “The Shiralee” I contacted the Australian publisher first as I had assumed they might hold rights, but the literary estate soon got in touch with us and asked us to approach them formally. With “The Next Step in the Dance“ we dealt with the author’s American agent. We invested a lot of time in explaining and presenting exactly how we envisaged this venture would work and would resurrect interest in these titles and to our relief and, to a degree, surprise, the representatives of both authors quickly expressed a willingness to consider entrusting us with the rights to the books.
With the books we are working on now it has proven trickier to identify rights-holders. But we’re still learning not to be put off the scent by radio silence to a given enquiry, and we’re getting better and better at our detective work now.
Which books with a deep sense of place (that would fit the Fox, Finch & Tepper ideal) that have come out in the past few years would you recommend?
American Rust by Philipp Meyer for its intense characterisation and its sense of a broken wooded Pennsylvania steel-town in the recent recession. It is actually a great companion piece for The Next Step in the Dance.
If Kate (Mr B’s assistant manager and the one who typeset the first two books and steered the creation of Fox, Finch & Tepper) was answering this I think she’d say “Strange Weather in Tokyo” by Hiromi Kawakami for its Japanese insights.
Also, I just read an incredible novel called “All This Belongs to Me” by Czech novelist Petra Hulova which gives the most incredible insight into, wait for it, Mongolian life – both on the steppe and in gritty Ulan Bator. How a Czech novelist can so brilliantly transports you to Mongolia is a fair question, but she does it.
Any hints of what’s coming next?
I’m afraid not, but there will hopefully be at least 4 this year and we’ll be in a position to announce a couple of them very soon. All have been published previously, all are magnificent and it’s a scandal that they’re not in print in the UK already.
Many thanks to Nic for chatting with us - go check out Fox, Finch & Tepper's books & if you are in the area drop into the shop. Be warned though, you won't leave empty handed and once the staff know what you like you won't be short of recommendations either!