Where stories are told by Madelaine Empson
With jam-packed bookshelves and trips to the library a regular feature of her childhood, Sarah Bolland has always been a reader. But she started her career as a lawyer with the IRD.
“Tax litigation, so I was super fun at parties”, she laughs.
After four or five years of feeling like there were just a few too many lawyers in law, Bolland heard about Whitireia’s Graduate Diploma in Publishing (Applied) and slowly built the courage to chuck it all in and go back to study. Delivering an overview of the entire publishing industry in one year, the “fantastic course” helped her realise that publishing books was what she wanted to do. One of her work placements saw her land at Steele Roberts Aotearoa with Roger Steele, and in her words, she “kind of never left!”
Fast forward to today and Bolland, who gets into Formula 1, running, swing dancing, Puzzled Pint, and donuts in her spare time, is now the co-director of The Cuba Press with Mary McCallum. We caught up to chat about the ins and outs of running an independent publishing house in Wellington as part of a small team of just three.
How did you go from Steele Roberts Aotearoa to starting your own publishing house?
Roger had been saying that he wanted to retire. We were sharing office space with Mākaro Press, which was Mary McCallum and Paul Stewart, so Mary and I got together and thought, why don’t we pool our skills? Roger turns out to be unstoppable and Mākaro Press is still doing one book a year, but we’ve combined our skills – her marketing and editorial, all that fabulous stuff, Paul’s all-round amazingness, and my design finesse.
What’s the process from receiving a manuscript to publishing a book? And I’m guessing publishing it is never really the end?
Books never really finish. The marketing keeps going. Ideally, they’ll take on a life of their own. When we started we would do open submissions, and we would sort through them, read them, make some difficult decisions. Then the hard work begins... it’ll go through a couple rounds of editing – big structural changes at the beginning, and then we whittle it down to minor polishing, sharpening. Then we make it look like a book. Design a cover – I do a lot of the design, Paul and I do it. Then we’ll have another read. It’s funny the kinds of things that you see once it looks like a book and it stops just being a Word document. We get another set of eyes over it, because you can only read a book so many times before you know too much about it. You’re filling in blanks that are maybe not filled in. The marketing starts, that’s Mary’s domain. She’s exceptionally good at it. Drum up some interest, get the author to sell themselves. We all know it’s not easy to say fabulous things about yourself – ‘Read my book! It’s so good! It’s the best thing ever!’ And then we send it off to the printer. We proof again because it’s now printed, usually, on the final stock. It might not be bound but you’ll see how the cover is going to come out, how the blurb is reading. You’ll make some changes, send it back to the printer, and it comes back in boxes. It’s very exciting and you open it up and you’re like, oh my God, it’s a real book.
When you’re reading a manuscript, what hooks you in?
I read for story and Mary tends to read for characterisation. Paul reads everything as well. We divvy up the manuscripts and all three of us will probably end up working on a book. We’ve only got one email address, ring and it’s going to be one of us answering the phone. It’s not so segmented, so knowing what’s going on is important. When the author comes in, you want to be able to say, ‘Your book is great’ rather than, ‘Mmm! Yes!’
What do you think sets The Cuba Press apart?
I think the answer with every independent publisher is the people. Because we can only publish a certain amount, it really just comes down to the stuff that we’re excited about, that we’re passionate about, and that we think is good. And we hope that somebody else agrees.
Is there a particular genre you publish more of?
We’ve got Ahoy! as an imprint for our middle-grade fiction, which we all quite enjoy. We try to do one good crunchy nonfiction for the year. This year, it’s a big beautiful book on the history of Otari-Wilton’s Bush. We do poetry, novels, and we’ve found ourselves doing crime novels because we all like them. Set in Wellington, set in Auckland, New Zealand stories.
What launches have you got coming up?
The Ghost House by Bill Nagelkerke, who’s a Christchurch author. It’s set in Christchurch in the Red Zone, but I won’t give away too much. The launch is coming up at The Children’s Bookshop [at 2:30pm on Friday the 14th of October] with Kate De Goldi. Kate and Bill will have a chat about why they love ghost stories.
I heard you love donuts…
[Laughs.] They were the first thing I ordered when I won the PANZ [Publishers Association of New Zealand] design award [the Upstart Press Award for Best Non-illustrated Book] last year. My husband ordered champagne, I ordered donuts. I won for a little travel memoir, essentially, called Towards Compostela by Catharina van Bohemen, which is her walking the Camino de Santiago.
I know there’s quite a few awards to the team’s name – which spring to mind?
Cuba Press won the Best First Book at the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for Spark Hunter [by Sonya Wilson] this year. [In the NZ Book Trade Industry Awards,] Paul has won Young Publisher of the Year, and Mary’s taken out Book Publisher of the Year for Mākaro Press.
All donut-worthy celebrations! What would be your advice to someone who has ideas brewing for a book, or for someone who might be sitting on a manuscript right now?
If you’ve got ideas, the first step is to write them down, or record them if you don’t think you’re good at writing. Talk it, whatever works. And even if it never gets published, especially for nonfiction, I think it’s important that stories get kept and told. It doesn’t matter if they’re not in bookshops. Write them down for your family, for your kids, for your friends, for anyone who might be interested. Even if you think nobody’s interested, somebody will be.
Once it’s on paper, find a writing group. It’s often very solitary writing, but it doesn’t have to be. Everything’s better in a team. I don’t think anyone can achieve something really great by themselves. None of what we do is possible by ourselves, that’s why there are three of us.
Get it as good as you think it can be, and go and have a look at a bookshop, see who is publishing the kind of stuff that you’re writing. If you’re sitting on a manuscript, you’ll probably get a lot of rejections and it’s not personal, which is really hard to remember. It really isn’t. We have limited resources. There’s only so much we can publish, and it might just not be for us. It’ll be for somebody else.
Do you have a favourite book or author?
When you’re young, it’s always writers like Oscar Wilde. That romantic, witty writing. It’s flippant, glamorous – apart from the going to prison part.
It ties into that whole tortured writer, that romantic aspect too. Probably not great when you’re the writer, but from the outside… Then I also love The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And Lolita, which makes you not necessarily like, but understand, an inherently unlikeable character, and takes you on a journey you weren’t expecting. Good writing can be really powerful. But it doesn’t have to be. It can also be fun!