(Published April 2012)
Rosie Staal meets John Were, innovator, entrepreneur and owner of an independent publishing house
BOOKS mean different things to different people. To some, they are for transient ownership, for distraction on a plane or train, for relaxing with on a deckchair, never mind if suncream and sand decorate the pages. For others, they are objects of desire and delight, to cherish, to excite the senses of sight, touch and smell, and, best of all, to be entertained by and to learn from.
To John Were, a graduate of English literature (Trinity College, Cambridge, 2000) books mean all of those things – but they also mean words in digital format, as eBooks, on Kindles and other e-readers. For much of his life, but especially for the past year, books both physical and digital have been John’s consuming and fabulous passion.
This is thanks to a life-changing move out of London to a rural home near Yeovil with his wife, Amelia, a GP in the town, which triggered a latent entrepreneurial streak. He has become that rare thing nowadays, an independent publisher. But because this is the 21st century, his company, Xelsion Publishing, has a twin focus – traditional book format side-by-side with innovative digital publishing.
There’s a twin focus to his working life, too, as the publishing venture is an offshoot of Xelsion (www.xelsion.com), his digital media company.
What to publish first was a decision that came easily: it was to be a manuscript written by a friend from university days, Will le Fleming.
“Will kept on almost getting published, but would fail at the final hurdle for some reason,” John says. “It was a shame because everyone who’d read this particular manuscript really rated it.”
There followed a long and very busy period through 2011 that could best be described as a roller-coaster ride of discovery as John learnt everything he could about the publishing industry, from front cover to back. Author Will played an important role, too, researching typefaces, coming up with cover designs and pitching in with ideas and support as the venture moved slowly forward.
Will also influenced the decision on whether the book should be a hardback or a paperback. “Books furnish a room,” he told John, firmly, and so Xelsion Publishing’s first book, and Will le Fleming’s first published novel, Central Reservation, is a hardback volume of impeccable standards with a high-quality feel about it.
John recognises his business venture was born partly out of what he calls “a naïve optimism,” but adds: “Without it we’d starve little and sleep better – but learn less.”
Now there’s another whole new world that he’s had to get grips with, because receiving the first consignment of books from the printers was only the start. There’s marketing, pushing for reviews in influential literary publications, the big launch in London, negotiating with Amazon, persuading booksellers to stock it (come on, Waterstones), making that critical decision about a repeat print run, getting the message out to book groups that they can have a discount – all those things and many, many more occupy John as the campaign goes on to get Central Reservation into more readers’ hands.
At the same time, John is busy expanding into e-publishing, using the internet for communicating with enthusiastic writers and readers, making the creation of a book a collaborative process whereby signed-up supporters on Will’s website (www.willlefleming.com) influence the way they’d like a plot or a character to develop between each instalment.
There’s serialisation of fiction, too, something that chimes so well with people’s bite-sized take on life nowadays. Serial-sized chunks of everything hold great appeal for people with time constraints and shorter attention spans.
To mark the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth, Xelsion started on his birthday, February 7, publishing Great Expectations in its original serial format, but this time in a blog. Alongside the text each instalment has a brief synopsis of the story so far. Chapters are available to download as a Kindle blog. (Go to www.charlesdickens.xelsion.com to find out more.) The blog also has a piece by Will le Fleming on how Dickens has influenced his writing.
It is both interesting and remarkable that John has an interest in both sides of the current hot debate about the future of books and whether e-Books are taking over.
On one hand he’s an advocate of ‘furnishing rooms’ with real live books with all their expressive physical qualities, and on the other he’s happy to evangelise about e-ventures and the ease and comparative low cost of e-reading.
While the war of words continues, he’s content to push forward with both, his business head ensuring a measured progress. To this end, he’s already negotiated an option to publish Will le Fleming’s second novel, Perpetual Motion.
John’s willingness to take brave steps into the world of innovation and originality is perhaps not surprising, given his family background.
His father, as a new graduate, embarked confidently on a career in software programming as long ago as 1980 because he could see that business would become more reliant on computers. His prescience, of course, proved correct, and the rest is history.
But it is John’s grandfather who takes the prize as the family’s most unusual yet most dazzlingly unsuccessful entrepreneur.
John, who regrets never having met him, explains. “He had this idea to turn a couple of decommissioned World War II torpedo boats into cross-Channel craft. They could do 50 knots – it was quite mad.
“But it didn’t matter because it didn’t work, unsurprisingly, and he lost a lot of money. At this point he took the family, including my father, who can still remember it, on the Queen Mary to start a new life in Canada. They travelled out first-class and three months later they came back, second-class.”
As entrepreneurs go, John’s grandfather simply didn’t. He ended up selling ice-creams from a van at the foot of Haytor, on Dartmoor. But that desire to try and do something different and an insistence on taking entrepreneurial strides life from the left field has obviously influenced John – not least in his choice of location for his marriage proposal to Amelia. It was, of course, Haytor.
Summarising his attitude to business life, John says: “There is always a smarter way of doing things and constant effort should be made to get smarter every step of the way. It takes a lot of time, but the idea is if you do it long enough you start moving slightly faster than everyone else – and if you keep doing it you stay ahead.”
A good read on many levels
AUTHOR Will le Fleming’s first book is a lot of things: a ghost story, a tale of emotions stripped raw, a commentary on rural life as it is exposed to the barest bones of survival. But first and foremost it is a great read quite beautifully written by someone clearly at ease with words and the complexities of language and its rules.
In such safe hands, no reader could fail to be beguiled by such superbly skilful story-telling.
Central Reservation is set during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 when rural communities suffered so terribly and the gap between town and country widened to a chasm. Within this context, 13-year-old Holly must come to terms with a future without her twin sister, growing up on her mother’s farm where the stench of death lingers and where nothing can ever be the same again.
Will le Fleming knows about the countryside, having been brought up on a farm in the West Country. Although only in his mid-30s, he has led a colourful life so far, working as a stringer in Ecuador, a croupier in New Zealand and a sword-fighter at the Tower of London. He has also shot arrows and wrestled for money, and worked as a paid impersonator of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He’s now settled in London, writing and teaching English.
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