Scotland’s Young 404 Ink Publishing House: ‘Believing in What We’re Doing’

In Feature Articles by Alastair Horne

What Margaret Atwood calls ‘an essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now’ propels a new publisher to success.

Heather McDaid, left, and Laura Jones created their 404 Ink publishing venture in response to Donald Trump’s ‘nasty woman’ campaign comment. Image Alastair Horne

By Alastair Horne | @PressFuturist

‘Building a Fan Base’
In the space of nine months, the independent Scottish publisher 404 Ink has gained extensive media coverage and an endorsement from Margaret Atwood for its Nasty Women anthology of essays on womanhood today.

Publishing Perspectives spoke with 404 Ink founders Laura Jones and Heather McDaid at last month’s London Book Fair.

Jones and McDaid are in their mid-20s, and both of 404 Ink’s publications so far–Nasty Women and the first issue of an eponymous six-monthly literary magazine–have used crowdfunding models. The magazine gets donations through the Patreon subscription service, and the anthology was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly four times the £6,000 (US$7,496) initially requested.

The crowdfunding approach was an obvious choice, McDaid says. “We’re both fans of people who crowdfund, like comic writers and artists, and bands, so it’s always been second nature to us to support creators.”

But the opportunity to raise funds ahead of publication was only part of the appeal, she says. She and Jones also wanted to prove that a publisher could attract the same kind of loyalty as a band.

“It’s partially been a way of getting money,” McDaid says, “but also building a fan base. We wanted to get as many people as possible behind us as soon as possible, believing in what we’re doing. This felt like a really good way of doing it, and offering something in return rather than just following us on Twitter.’

The magazine effort has raised more than $500 per issue, but that’s been dwarfed by the success of Nasty Women, which was inspired by the election of Donald Trump as US president.

“We were on this Facebook group for women in publishing the morning after the election,” McDaid says, “and everyone was deflated and angry. Everyone wanted to do something, but no one really knew what, and I just had the idea of doing this book.

“It all clicked really quickly. We met up to see how feasible it was, and in the first hour of the meeting we had three people commissioned.”

The essays were delivered in under two weeks, and the book was funded almost as quickly.

“We got £2,300 on the first day,” McDaid says, “then when Margaret Atwood backed it, it just skyrocketed immediately.”

Reading a proof copy a month later, Atwood described the book on Twitter as ‘an essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.’ That blurb adorns the cover.

‘We Want To Stay in Scotland’
“If you look at a list of all the publishers in Scotland, we’ve been rejected for jobs by more than half of them.”Laura Jones

Jones and McDaid are graduates of the publishing masters degree program at Scotland’s Stirling University.

“We wouldn’t be here without it at all,” says Jones

“It got us the contacts, and we still refer to our old university notes and our textbooks for the business stuff,” says McDaid.

The course proved inspirational in several ways, say McDaid and Jones.

For one, it encouraged them to believe that they could start their own business. “It’s terrifying when you’re a student and people talk about starting something up,” says Jones. “It seems beyond your capabilities.

“But then, as you get that little bit of experience, you look back and realize, ‘Oh, that completely set me up, that planted the idea.’ It also taught us the traditional way to do things,” she says, “which highlighted to us what we thought we could maybe do better.”

After graduation, full-time jobs in publishing proved hard to come by. “If you look at a list of all the publishers in Scotland, we’ve been rejected for jobs by more than half of them,” Jones says. The pair ended up freelancing.

Moving to London, the traditional solution for Scottish would-be publishers, didn’t appeal to them. “We want to stay in Scotland,” Jones says, “and we’d like to have a successful career in Scotland. We’d rather stick it out and try to make something new and sustainable than just hop down south.”

So they decided to create 404 Ink. “We felt that there was a gap in the Scottish publishing industry,” Jones says, “a lack of titles being marketed in a way we’d like to see. We felt it wasn’t quite as exciting as it could be.”

‘Everybody Loves a Startup’
“I think we originally just hoped for advice, but they’ve all got our back and actually want us to do really well.”Laura Jones

Jones and McDaid are quick to express their gratitude for all the support they’ve received from what McDaid describes as the “super-tight” Scottish publishing network.

“I don’t think we’d have got very far without everybody helping us out,” says Jones.

“I think we originally just hoped for advice,” McDaid adds, “but they’ve all got our back and actually want us to do really well.”

Creative Scotland provided some initial funding that Jones says “guaranteed the sustainability” of the venture, while Publishing Scotland helped out the pair long before they became members only a week before London Book Fair. They spoke to Publishing Perspectives on Publishing Scotland’s stand at the fair.

Jones says she thinks the support that 404 Ink enjoys goes beyond the novelty factor. “We have the advantage of being this fresh new thing,” she says, “and everybody loves a startup.”

More credit, she says, goes to the collegiality that characterizes the Scottish publishing scene, something McDaid agrees with, saying, “Everyone just champions each other. When Graeme Macrae Burnet got shortlisted for the Man Booker, everyone was just so chuffed for Scottish publishing.”

“It wasn’t just a victory for Saraband, it was a victory for the whole community,” Jones says.

The next few months should keep Jones and McDaid busy.

A second issue of the magazine releases in May, and will be followed in July by another book, this time a collection of short stories from Glaswegian writer Chris McQueer.

“He appeared in issue one of the magazine,” says McDaid, “and as soon as we read the story, we just laughed: he’s so talented, so funny.”

The new title gives 404 Ink another opportunity to experiment with funding models that, like Patreon and Kickstarter, combine marketing with revenue creation: they’re selling a ‘preview pamphlet’ of three stories in ebook format ahead of print publication.

About the Author

Alastair Horne


Alastair Horne has served Cambridge University Press for more than a decade in roles including Innovation Manager and Social Media and Communities Manager. He speaks regularly at industry conferences, and was the author of the 2011 Media Futures report on the Future of Publishing. Outside the office, he is researching a doctorate on novels about novelists and blogs intermittently.