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“Just keep swimming” – persistence and running a small publishing business

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Yesterday, I wrote about winning the Young Company of the Year award at the Growing Business Awards. It’s one of those moments when you feel – really – privileged to be part of a community of small business owners and managers, and when you’re struck by the enthusiasm and expertise they bring to things that might not seem in any way glamorous or even interesting.

Running a small business can be great, and days when you win awards make you love it unreservedly. I am happier owning and managing a small, independent business than I was working for a conglomerate. But when I think about running a small business the image that comes into my head is often one of swimming. I say “image” but it is sort of more of a feeling. I feel, as I think about the day ahead, or the business trip ahead, or the meeting or presentation ahead, that it’s going to be like swimming in the sea off the UK. It’s something I’ve 100% chosen to do, it’s challenging and it’s exhilarating, but it’s not entirely comfortable, it’s a little bit dangerous, and I have a sense of being in an element I can’t entirely know or predict. It’s an effort, but it probably looks less effortful from a distance. There are waves, some bigger than others, and there are currents to negotiate, and sometimes it’s hard to keep sight of land or where I am going.

In explaining this, I am making it seem much more of an intellectual metaphor than it seems to me to be when the image/feeling comes into my head. At the time, I just think of myself as doggedly swimming and don’t deconstruct the image/feeling at all.

The image/feeling is about persistence, of course. And, though I am not a huge fan of motivational quotes, I do like this from Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” When we talk about Nosy Crow’s business in our blog posts, we inevitably talk a lot about the good bits of running a small independent publishing business: the books we’ve managed to acquire; the deals done; the high sales ranking; the prizes won. We don’t, really, talk about our failures, disappointments and annoyances. But, big and small, they happen: times that sales don’t meet our hopes or even our expectations; times when books emerge from production late or faulty; the times that cash is really tight; the times that the author or illustrator can’t (or, infrequently, won’t) make the changes to the book that we believe would make it even better; the promotional slots we aim for but don’t get; the experienced and great picture book designers we look for but can’t find to employ; the constant battle with the publishing schedule and the need to move books and apps because we don’t have finished material when we hoped we would; the emails from editors outside the UK telling us that, despite their enthusiasm for the project at Frankfurt, they’ve been unable to persuade their sales team to take on one of our books in translation; the handful of books that, despite our enthusiasm, get sold to another publisher; the times we don’t win the award.

Earlier this year, Daniel Menaker allowed us to quote in a blog post from his memoir a section detailing the challenges of corporate publishing culture. Nosy Crow is free of many of the specific frustrations he details, but that sense of how challenging, and sometimes rather arbitrary, publishing and business life can be rang true to me. And his marine metaphor – a shipping one, not a swimming one, but still… – rang true too: “Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate round the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet – even sturdy vessels – founder.”

When I am cycling to work, or on my way to the airport for a business trip (within the last seven weeks I have been in as many cities outside the UK: Frankfurt, Cannes, Boston, New York, Harlem (in The Netherlands), Shenzhen and Shanghai), or going through the door to the big meeting or presentation, the theme tune that runs through my head to accompany my swimming image/feeling is Dory’s song from Finding Nemo, which was released on DVD, or maybe video, when my children were tiny and was a huge favourite of theirs. It feels a bit grandiose to lay claim to a Winston Churchill quote as my business mantra, so maybe I’ll settle for Dory’s “Just keep swimming.”

It’s a good thing I like wild swimming.

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