Kevin Duffy’s novel approach to running Yorkshire independent publisher Bluemoose Books

From masquerading as an Irish writer to discovering one of 2020’s top novels, Bluemoose Books’ Kevin Duffy explains indie publishing’s highs and lows. Sarah Freeman reports.

Kevin Duffy who founded Bluemoose Publishing 15 years ago. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Kevin Duffy is a busy man. The founder of Bluemoose Books has been fielding calls from fellow publishers keen to heap praise on his latest title, there’s a heap of paperwork to sort and in between he’s also had to make a little time to eat his own words.

“I’ve always said that I have never sold a book through a tweet and I meant it,” says Duffy, speaking from his home in Hebden Bridge which also doubles as Bluemoose’s headquarters.

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“But then just after New Year I put a small appeal out, asking people if they could please buy a few of our books. It was a bit of a punt and I was sure that the tweet would disappear as quickly as I’d typed it.”

Kevin Duffy who founded Bluemoose Publishing 15 years ago. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Instead the Bluemoose website began pinging with new orders and within a few hours Duffy had sold more than £2,600 worth of books. It’s not the kind of cash on which retirement plans are made, but in the world of independent publishing it is exactly the kind of sum which makes for a good January.

It also sealed what has been one of Bluemoose’s most high profile years to date, thanks largely to the word-of-mouth success of Irish author Rónán Hession’s debut Leonard and Hungry Paul.

Despite the lack of a hefty marketing budget, the novel was named by the Sunday Times as one of the 50 top Irish novels of this century, it has been chosen by One Dublin One Book as the novel every Dubliner should read in 2021 and the film rights will surely follow.

It’s a book where nothing much happens at all, but the depiction of a quiet friendship between two social misfits in a world where kindness is the most valued currency was perfectly timed escapism.

Author Ronan Hession.

It’s also trademark Bluemoose, which has carved out a niche for literature which champions the overlooked and underrated.

“It was March 2018 when Ronan’s manuscript dropped into my lap,” says Duffy.

“I loved the title and the opening line had me laughing out loud. That doesn’t often happen. I started it on the Friday, finished it on the Tuesday and by the end of the week I’d called Rónán and offered him a contract.

“Someone called it ‘balm for the soul’. That’s exactly what it is and last year it turned out that’s what we all needed.

Kevin Duffy at his home in Hebden Bridge with some of his published books.

“There is no winning formula for a novel and there’s no point trying to find one, but sometimes you do get lucky; sometimes a book finds its time and that’s what happened with Leonard and Hungry Paul.”

Luck might have played its part, but if Bluemoose’s success is built on anything it’s Duffy’s sheer bloody-mindedness. It’s a trait which can be traced back to the company’s origins, born during an ill-fated lunch at The Ivy in the late 1990s.

At the time Duffy was working as a sales agent for various publishing houses, but harbouring ambitions to be a novelist he’d entered – and won – a competition in the Sunday Express. The prize was lunch at London’s then favourite celebrity hangout and the chance to meet various publishing literati.

“Ruby Wax was on the next table and it quite quickly became apparent that this was not going to be a meeting of minds. My face didn’t fit, I got very drunk and was thrown out for attempting to steal a face cloth from the toilets. I was let back in, but let’s just say I didn’t leave with the book deal I’d been hoping for.”

Undaunted, Duffy embarked on a different tack. At the time a new wave of Irish writers like Frank McCourt were riding the crest of the Celtic Tiger and with publishers looking for the next Angela’s Ashes he decided to give them what they wanted.  

“I got my manuscript, changed the name to Colm O’Driscoll and sent it off. I had some interest from Darley Anderson, which represents the likes of Lee Child, and I remember telling the kids, ‘if a posh man from London rings, remember your dad is Irish’. I kept it up for an entire year, but in the end it came to nothing.”

Duffy admits he was bruised by the experience, but it was his wife Hetha who refused to allow him to wallow in a puddle of dashed hopes. Instead they remortgaged the house and in 2006, Bluemoose Books was born.

“The very first book we published was my own, Anthills and Stars, and I’ll admit there was a whiff of the vanity project about it. However, even in those early days I knew I didn’t just want it to be about me and that first year we also published a book by a Canadian writer called The Bridge Between, who we discovered through a friend of a friend in Hebden Bridge.”

Fifteen years on and Bluemoose has chalked up 50 titles and discovered some of the most distinctive voices writing today. Early successes with northern based authors like Michael Stewart and Benjamin Myers, whose novels King Crow and Beastings picked up numerous awards, helped establish Duffy’s reputation and while both have since been poached by bigger publishing houses he’s happy to soak up any reflected glory.

“Awards are important, even more so to a small publishing house like us,” he says. “Financially it is a huge boost to sales, but just as importantly it also raises your profile and increases your visibility; it means you stop having to introduce yourself.  

“There is a lot of snobbery within the publishing industry and I doubt that will ever go away. When I am negotiating contracts there are still agents who will relish telling me, ‘Kevin you have to remember you’re not a London publisher’. We’re not, but as a result we also have a lot more freedom.”

In the early days of Bluemoose, Duffy had no choice but to be a one man band. Today, he pays someone else to process the orders and employs people to deal with any film and TV rights enquiries, but he’s still very much hands on.

“I get about five or six new pitches a day. Each year I probably ask to see 150 full manuscripts and of those we probably publish six. It’s time-consuming, but there’s no other way to do it.

“I have been in meetings where publishing decisions are based on graphs and Venn diagrams, but at Bluemoose we have always published on instinct and gut.

“We now have a small band of readers with catholic tastes which is great. If we all love a particular book it’s a pretty good sign that other people will love it too, but it’s never an exact science.”

While the pile of potential manuscripts never reduces, Duffy still ensures he reads for pleasure.

One of PG Wodehouse’s novels is always close at hand and while currently in a bid to get closer to nature he’s also partway through Merlin Sheldrake’s fungi odyssey This Entangled Life, he hasn’t given up his own writing ambitions either.  

“Ah yes, the difficult second novel,” he says.

“It’s taken a while, but it’s coming.”

Busy 2021 ahead for Bluemoose

Bluemoose’s first launch of 2021 is Captain Jesus, the second book it has published by Collette Snowden.

It will be followed in March by former Punch editor Jane Ions’s comic novel Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters and in May comes Panenka, the new book from Hession about a middle-aged man dealing with the fractured pieces of a broken life.

“If we can sell the first print run then that’s a success,” says Duffy. “The first 1,000 copies means we break even and the second 1,000 means we make a bit of money. We’re not the kind of the company for whom success means flogging 50,000 copies and while seeing our books in Waterstones is great it’s actually a network of independent bookstores which do the bulk of our sales. Without them, we couldn’t exist.”

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