Educator, Historian, Publisher: a conversation with Anne Samson

Anne and husband John Samson are the proprietors of TSL Books, an independent publisher with a growing portfolio of authors and playwrights. Our conversation took place via email – she is in the English Home Counties and I am in the Irish Midlands.

The decision to set up a publishing business came about “[as] the culmination of skills and experiences developed over about 15 years: working in the City of London as a secretary/PA; as a teacher supporting adult students with limited English qualifications achieving a university qualification; setting my own book for an academic publisher and my subsequent poor relationship with the publishing house; seeing how authors writing in niche areas, such as on the Great War in Africa, struggle to get published because publishers do not see a market for the work. And then how John, my husband and co-Director in the company, struggled to find an agent because his writing crosses cultures and styles.”

Changes in the education environment in the UK also played into the decision. “Changes were brought into British education which took teachers further and further away from teaching and developing students and more into paperwork and policing students. As a teacher trainer in the Further Education/Vocational Sector, and a Professional Body representative, I found it an increasing challenge to translate policy into practice and explain it to teachers, whilst supporting trainee teachers through university level qualifications and, at the same time, supporting their own students knowing they, the teachers, were to be made redundant.

As a result of 2009 legislation we were having to get mature students without GCSE English qualifications through university level courses within two years. We did it with a lot of hard work and commitment on both sides. Many achieved qualifications they thought they never would which spurred confidence and further study.”

So, in 2014, TSL was born. Anne’s guiding principal as a publisher arises from that educational foundation, working with authors to develop their potential.

“A number of our authors have dyslexia and other challenges which impact on their writing, but together we overcome them to allow the creative elements to flourish. It is also the motivation behind my explaining to authors some of the issues involved in publishing – the more we understand each other’s position, the easier it is to manage and find ways to deal with the hurdles, especially when dealing with multiple countries, each of which has its own way of doing things.”

Not being from a traditional publishing background, the Samsons approached things as they believed they should work and developed their model as a partnership between publisher and author. John is the silent partner doing all the accounts and acting as a neutral sounding board bringing the world of business to bear. Anne does the rest: from commissioning work, through to setting the books, proofreading and minor editing, website design and marketing.

Anne pictured during a visit to Africa and illustrating her love of cows.

An important strand of specialisation for Anne, who came to England from South Africa in the late 1990s, is books dealing with the impact of the First World War on Africa. She researched the subject for her thesis and continues to do so. “We have a standing joke that if it’s not about the Great War in Africa, I’m not likely to remember it. In 2011 I took over what is today the Great War in Africa Association which I co-ordinate alongside my work as a publisher. This dictates my ‘pleasure’ reading – which if I don’t get to do on a daily basis, I can be extremely grumpy. The frustration of hearing people say ‘a publisher says there’s no market for my book’ led to TSL starting a GWAA imprint.”

The fact that both Anne and John are authors is something they see as a key selling point for their business – they understand the problems and frustrations experienced by authors in attempting to reach an audience for their work. Anne has published 3 books, first being “the one I had to set for the publisher and which TSL has finally reprinted at an affordable price through the Great War in Africa Association. This was my thesis: Britain, South Africa and the East Africa Campaign 1914-1918: The Union comes of age. My most recent is Kitchener: The Man not the Myth which was released by Helion in February 2020 just before everything closed down. I have a number of other books I’ve edited or compiled and numerous chapters or articles in edited collections. All to do with World War 1 in Africa.”

John is a novelist with 7 books published and another due in the next year. He has written under two names: John Samson and RJ Whitfield, to cover the various styles. Anne believes the great thing about this is that they don’t compete with each other. “And,” she continues, “As a niche-subject historian I don’t compete with my authors. Working with them is often an eye-opener to a different world which helps keeps things fresh. It’s why working in partnership with our authors is so important – together we can negotiate the ever-changing world, although much in traditional publishing hasn’t changed, which provides some challenges, but at the end of the day, I hope TSL provides an outlet for voices which would not otherwise have a chance to get heard.”

TSL provides an outlet for voices which would not otherwise have a chance to get heard.

Another unique aspect of TSL’s output is its support for dramatists and small/amateur theatre companies. “A few years into our publishing life, TSL was approached by an author to consider publishing drama scripts because a company with a similar ethos to that of TSL was no longer operational due to one of the partners having died. The person liked the quality of our publications as well. It’s taken time to grow the catalogue to where it is so that it is recognised and I understand our approach fills a gap in the market for plays that are being performed, or likely to be performed, but not in the theatres the mainstream theatre publishers work in. All our scripts are produced with a dual purpose in mind – being used for a performance but also for the general reader who enjoys reading short stories/novels in a different style.”

The couple are able to separate their business partnership from domestic life. “It can be a bit stressful for John when he has to deal with both his ‘9-5’ job deadlines and TSL accounts, but it’s got easier over the years as systems have become more streamlined. Giving each other space, good communication and trying to understand the other’s position on a matter all helps keep the peace. It helps that he’s generally a very relaxed, easy going person. I think it also helps that publishing isn’t my main focus. I have another life as an historian which means that I try and keep publishing to ‘normal’ business hours – or at least communications with authors are kept to such hours. It can get all consuming as many can testify through my constant struggles for work-life balance. One of my mantras is ‘life happens’ and we work around life – that of our authors and ourselves. It’s give and take – in any relationship.”

Bearing in mind the script publishing house that ceased trading following the death of one of the partners, I wondered what thought had been given to succession planning for TSL. “I can’t guarantee how long TSL will carry on for – who knows how life will take us – but I don’t see it ending in the near future. I enjoy it too much, but we are also both realistic and having had authors come to us because of publishing houses they’ve been with folding or going out of business and authors sadly dying, we are conscious of needing to have contingencies in place should anything untoward happen.”

As you should have gathered if you have read this far, TSL is a long way from those independent publishers who exploit unsuspecting authors, demanding large upfront contributions to costs whilst leaving all of the marketing effort to the author. Having worked with Anne to get my latest book published last year, I can testify that she provides a highly supportive service. The only money that has changed hands between us is the royalty payment received by me. If you are struggling with self publishing, in need of support and encouragement from a publisher with a passion for developing potential, you could find what you need at TSL.

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