Adventures in Independent Publishing
– Tabatha Wood talks to Steve Dillon about Things in the Well
I first ‘met’ Steve Dillon online via Facebook at the end of 2017. I emigrated to New Zealand in the July of that year and had recently returned to writing fiction after a hiatus of many years. Steve introduced me to a number of other New Zealand and Australian writers, and very quickly became my mentor, advisor and a valued friend.
Steve does an amazing amount of charity work through his small press Things in the Well, and in 2019, when I first decided to put together a charity anthology (Black Dogs, Black Tales) I knew immediately that Steve was the right publisher to work with.
He took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about his experiences as a publisher, how it all began and what sorts of things he looks for in new stories.
Welcome, Steve. It’s funny, we’ve known each other for a while now, but we’ve never had a chance to sit down and chat like this. What actually made you decide to start Things in the Well?
Oohhh… I used to be in traditional publishing years ago, so I knew I could do it. But prior to Things in the Well, I was compelled by the global refugee crisis to do something about it, even if I could only make a small difference. Not knowing how much work it would entail, I envisaged and began creating a shared world for others to write stories about (called Refuge), and then published two books called The Refuge Collection, which actually consisted of six volumes of six stories, all interlinked in some way. All this was only achieved with the collaboration of over forty writers, artists, website designers, and so on. They were all-for-charity books and that money went mostly to the Sanctuary Australia foundation, and some to the Refugee Action (UK). We helped three families to be re-united in Australia from war-torn and famine-stricken countries as a result. A small difference to us perhaps, but a vast difference to them.
Wow. That’s an amazing outcome. You must have been really proud. Forty writers is quite a lot. How did you even begin?
With the Refuge Collection, I reached out to see who’d be interested in helping. Ramsey Campbell came back straight away with his support, and that helped secure other writers. Kaaron Warren and Lee Murray were also among the first to climb aboard our little ghost train, and other notables like Martin Livings and Marty Young, Brian Craddock, Noel Osualdini, quickly followed suit.
So this was before Things in the Well. Tell me, how did that come about?
I started Things in the Well in 2017 when I decided to publish an anthology of railway-themed horror stories (Between the Tracks – Tales from the Ghost Train) built around the Clive Barker classic ‘The Midnight Meat Train,’ which I got permission to reprint, and which I also annotated with comments garnered from Clive, the Director of the movie, and several others. As far as I know, it’s the only annotated version of The Midnight Meat Train.
I know how big a fan you are of Clive Barker, and I also know that you actually met and interviewed him back in 1987. (Excerpts of that interview can be read here: https://thingsinthewell.wordpress.com/clive-barker-interview-1987/) When it comes to publishing, do you have any help or staff?
I’m a lonely, one-person publisher, I’m afraid. Although for some books I’ve relied heavily on a whole group of supporters like yourself Tabby, especially as co-editor with Cassie Hart, along with with your ideation of Black Dogs, Black Tales. Marie O’Regan and Lee Murray also kindly co-edited the charity Halloween magazine Trickster’s Treats 3 last year (and which was nominated for an Australian Shadows Award) with the help of several sub editors, and Louise Zedda-Sampson and Chris Mason generously co-edited Burning Love and Bleeding Hearts, another charity anthology. I must also mention Eugene Johnson who co-edited Tales of the Lost 1 (and the soon to be released second volume) and I also have lots of willing and talented proofreaders, and so on. Sadly, I don’t make money – many of the publications are for charity anyway, so these are all wonderful volunteers.
So, Things in the Well is very much a labour of love. And love it, you certainly do! How many titles have you published so far?
Besides The Refuge Collection books and another book called The Book of The Tribes (A celebration of the Cabal Cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed — https://www.blurb.com/b?ebook=470520), I think there are 27 Things in the Well titles available with a few others in advanced planning.
Is there any story behind the Things in the Well name?
I find wells fascinating. I love stories about wells, especially supernatural or scary stories. In the U.K. I used to go ‘well-hunting’ as there are a surprising number of holy wells, healing wells, haunted wells, etc. I mean, hundreds, especially in Cornwall where we lived. And one of my favourite childhood photos is of me and my brother sitting on the wall of a wishing well, clearly imagining the possibilities if wishes could come true.
It seems like some of those wishes certainly have. When it comes to choosing stories, what genre do you tend to focus on?
I look for (and write) dark supernatural or psychological tales, and some creature stories. Stories with a message, a story-within-a-story. Stories you’ll remember, hopefully. Some stories are standouts for their humour value as well.
And are there any essential qualities that you look for in new stories/projects?
Unique value. What makes this more memorable, better developed, more relevant than all the other stories, even those I’ve read in just the past few years, which stretches to the thousands.
You’ve said that it’s a one-person operation, but can you tell me what goes on behind the scenes? What sort of things do you do for the authors?
An incredible amount of work goes into publishing. From issuing the callouts or approaching authors directly, reading the (sometimes endless, it seems) submissions, to helping develop the story at times (only if needed and it’s good enough to warrant the work). Formatting, of course, never-ending proofreading, pre-publication approval, contracts, publishing in several places (Amazon, Smashwords, Ingram, with local printers…) And then there’s the promoting on social media, submitting individual stories and collections for awards and best-ofs. Phew!
That’s a massive undertaking. What’s the best part of being an indie pub?
Um… Never having to worry about things like being bored, or getting too much sleep!
Given that you do all that work as an independent publisher, would you recommend that a new or upcoming author choose a small press over self publishing?
No, I wouldn’t suggest they do necessarily. Publish your work yourself if you have a following. But if you don’t… Well, maybe publish with a small publisher who is also publishing bigger names alongside lesser known writers. Maybe one like Things in the Well. *grin*
A lot of people say they’re wary of buying books from independent publishers, citing poorer quality than traditionally published books. What should buyers look for, and what do you think are the warning signs that people should be wary of?
Covers can be a good indication, and titles, but mostly it’s the quality of the stories. Don’t judge a book by the cover is my advice, but do try to read a sample of the book before buying. You can’t always trust reviews, whether they’re great or whether they’re scathing.
You’ve been at the helm of Things in the Well for four years now, what would you say are the biggest challenges facing indie publishing at the moment?
Too many publishers, both indie and self-published. There are millions of new stories published each year, plus reprints of classics, often for free. It’s still growing, whereas the audience for reading is narrowing all the time, I think. It’s an oversupply and under-demand, and that has led – sadly – to the average quality of stories being published to be lowered, and the prices people are willing to pay for a story to be lowered. There’s so much free fiction available, including horror, so people derive less value in buying books, even an ebook for a dollar or three. Perhaps people think they might as well spend another couple of dollars and get a nice cup of coffee rather than actually paying to read a story? Plus, Amazon have eroded the profits of publishers and raised their own profit margin (plus shipping, plus tax) such that increasing the price isn’t an option. For example, if I increase the price of a book, Amazon gets more money. So I have to increase again to compensate, and so on. Eventually, the book is priced out of the market. I’m sure Amazon (and Ingram) make more on the shipping alone than the publisher makes.
That does sound rather depressing overall. The counter argument to that, I suppose, would be that people know what they’re going to get when they pay $4 for a cup of coffee, but a book is often an unknown, and therefore a “risk.” Indie pubs have to somehow make their products more alluring than a caffeine hit! How do you see independent publishing changing over the next five to ten years? Do you think it will change?
I think Indie publishers like myself, who focus on traditional quality and values will diminish in number. We will be left with an ocean of self-published authors trying to make a few sales, and a few higher echelon of publishers with a stable of known writers. We’re already there, but the rest of us smaller indie publishers refuse to acknowledge it or give up, because, hey, this is something we wanted to do all along and now we can, and we will do it until we’re exhausted or broke!
Agreed. And when you do something purely for the love of it, it’s that passion which keeps you going, regardless of any obstacles. Out of all of the books you’ve published, which one are you the most proud of?
That’s too tough… Probably The Refuge Collection book 1 (Heaven to Some), as it was such hard work but made such a huge difference to the lives of various people.
So, to wrap this up, is there anyone who would you really love to publish? (Dead or alive.)
I don’t have any aspirations of that kind. I’ve already published stories by most of the authors I read when I was young, and many of the more recent writers who I admire and I respect. Having said that, I’d prefer to publish an unknown author with a great story than a well-known author with a so-so one, so there’s still hope out there for authors who are still learning their craft.