6th Jul 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Kohl Publishing
Kohl Publishing recently announced that their first novel, Fremont will be hitting the shelves in October. The Scottish indie publisher is still in its infancy, but co-founders Lesley-Ann Dickson and Leila Cruickshank have got bags of ambition, and an enthusiasm for modern publishing to match.
“I wanted to start up my own publishing company since I studied journalism at undergraduate level,” explains Lesley. “I was interested in the changes the industry was undergoing as a result of eBooks and Web 2.0”.
After meeting Leila in 2009 and discovering they had the same passion for progressive publishing, Lesley suggested that they started their own company.
“I felt frustrated by the excruciatingly slow pace of change, especially towards the eBook revolution,” says Leila. “I saw ePublishing as a fantastic way of reducing publishing’s traditional reliance on other people selling books for you – whether that be supermarkets, bookshops or Amazon”.
They recognised that ePublishing was a great opportunity for small indie presses to produce great literature with reduced costs, and used their experience of the publishing and distribution industries to create Kohl.
On the difficulties of starting a new business from scratch, Leila responds confidently that their experience of web content, marketing and liaising with booksellers, printers and typesetters has made the process a lot smoother. “Convincing people to invest in your business is really the time-consuming part,” she admits.
Fortunately, Kohl has received a remarkable amount of support from entrepreneurial schemes in Scotland. Lesley confesses that she is “astonished” by the mentoring and funding they have obtained from organisations such as Starter for 6, Entrepreneurial Spark and the Scottish Institute for Enterprise.
To keep their start up costs down, Leila and Lesley both maintained part-time jobs, and were therefore limited to the amount of time they could spend on the venture. However, after recently being awarded funding through The Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust, Leila explains that they have been able to focus their attention on more on publishing.
Kohl is evidently a female-centric organisation, with a focus on producing good quality ‘women’s fiction’, so why do they believe it is still important to have publishers primarily aimed at female readers and writers?
Lesley, although quick to reiterate that they do not discourage men from submitting manuscripts, explains; “We very much support and celebrate female authorship because a disparity remains between the amount of women winning literary prices compared to men, and the amount of female authored books reviewed in literary magazines and supplements”. She sums up concisely; “we are targeted, not sexist”.
Kohl have already sparked a little controversy, over their emphasis explicitly on ‘women’s fiction’ over ‘chick-lit’. “The industry is so quick to define what women like reading,” says Lesley. “So they market and package books as chick-lit, which I know frustrates a lot of authors who don’t feel that their books should be identified that way and angers many readers who are mislead by book covers.”
For Kohl, industry defined ‘chick-lit’ represents something akin to romantic comedy in film, often funny and heart-warming but in the most part “formulaic, idealistic, frustrating… and forgettable”.
They consider ‘women’s fiction’ as a broad term, catering to the diverse appetites of female readers, and they are quick to point out that their publications are still likely to fit some characteristics of genre fiction (“Fremont has elements of epic, romance and drama”). Most importantly, Lesley explains, “we want our books to be memorable, original, clever and beautifully written”.
Word started to spread about Kohl and their radical approach to the industry when they ran a competition to find an artist to design their first book jacket.
They ran a series of Illustrator Interviews on their website with a short-list of five artists, and eventually settled on Glasgow-based artist Emily Chappell, whose previous clients include indie pop icons Belle and Sebastian.
When asked what about Emily’s portfolio made her stand out from the 60 other portfolios that were submitted, Leila refers to her draft for the book jacket, which showed “a great connection with the book as well as being a beautiful design”.
The competition was fierce, and the final decision came down to two artists. “Our other front runner’s cover was stunning too,” says Leila. “But we felt we couldn’t use it because the subject was a baby, which unfortunately echoed pro-life campaign posters in the US.”
In the end they agreed that Emily’s portfolio was the stronger of the two, with Fremont’s author, Elizabeth Reeder, being involved in the decision process at every stage.
The cover art competition not only generated a lot of publicity for Kohl, it also helped to create a sense of anticipation for their first publication.
At the end of May, Kohl announced the title of their first novel and released a short video interview with the author. Despite an open call for submissions, Fremont was not actually one of the manuscripts submitted for their consideration, instead passed on by a third party.
But how did they know Fremont was The One? “The quality of the language,” Leila explains. “Graceful, with some proud flourishes, yet with a dark edge.”
Fremont is a domestic tale of an unusual family living in an unspecified area of a fictionalized mid-West of America. The parents, Rachel and Hal Fremont, who met in a diner and were married within twenty-four hours, were desperate for a big family and name all their children after US states.
“I fell in love with the characters,” says Leila. “They’re not all likeable, but I felt a real yearning for the ones who behave badly to be understood and to make things right.”
She also notes an affection for the “mysterious, slightly magic-realism elements of the book”, something close to the writer’s heart.
“Fremont started with an interest in maps,” Elizabeth explains. “I’d been reading about cartography, how we find direction when lost, and about places and things that are difficult to map.”
The characters spawned from a free-writing exercise, where Elizabeth crafted a scene containing the characters Flo and Tex (a scene which remains in the novel now, virtually unchanged). She returned to the scene the next day, and realised that the piece “felt bigger than a short story”.
On her influences for Fremont, Elizabeth notes books that “play with storytelling, language and contemporary fairy-tale”, such as Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Judy Budnitz’s If I Told You Once. She also expresses a deep-rooted love of writers whose work often has a slightly mythical edge, such as Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett and Gertrude Stein.
Was Elizabeth ever apprehensive about signing up with a new and untested indie publisher? “When you take a risk with something unproven, you need to trust the people you’re working with, not only their vision, but their integrity, work ethic and humour”, says Elizabeth.
From the initial meeting with Leila and Lesley, Elizabeth was confident in their ability to take Fremont forward. “They spoke about the book and the writing with clarity and enthusiasm” she explains, and was also impressed by their passionate and progressive approach to the publishing industry as a whole.
This enthusiasm comes through absolutely when I ask about what the future holds for Kohl. “We plan to engage readers via social media platforms and through our website,” explains Lesley. “For example, there may be an opportunity in the future for readers to get involved in the commissioning process, but that’s all I’ll say about that for now!”
Now that the publication date for Fremont is in sight, Kohl are currently reading potential manuscripts for publications 2 to 5. They have plans to bring out 4 titles in 2013, with a long-term goal of increasing the number of publications each year.
With so much support from local business enterprise schemes and their first novel hitting bookshelves in October, Kohl look like they might be the ones to watch in the world of women’s indie publishers over the coming years.
If you want to be part of the process, they will soon be allowing readers to vote between 2 book jackets for Fremont on their website. Or, if you’re eying up those potential publication slots, their submission guidelines can be found here.