Two large hardback books sit on my desk. One is the latest novel by David Almond, A Song for Ella Grey and is brilliantly, often breathtakingly written, a modern retelling
through Tyneside teenagers of the Orpheus & Euridice myth. Its powerful language haunts me.
I am also haunted by the second hardback. But in a very different way. It is more than 400 pages long, printed on high quality paper and has a full colour cover. Not so long ago, you would expect the writing in any such book at least to achieve some fairly high level of professional competence.
This no longer applies. Democracy has been unleashed upon literature. Modern technology means sisters and brothers are now doing it for themselves. Can’t find a publisher? No problem. Armies of firms are queuing to run off your magnum opus, with scarce a regard for the content. Publishing in many instances, has simply become printing.
And where traditional publishers were once restrained by the need of economies of scale, such links are now irrelevant..
You can have as few or as many copies as you like, same unit price. One copy? You’re on! And suddenly the world is awash with published writers. Whether they can write or not is another matter.
This second book was sent to me by the author seeking IRON Press’ interest. Would we now like to publish it (republish it)? This is increasingly common. Where once you would get a typed mss from aspirant scribblers, now you often get a perfectly formed print-on-demand copy of their work. In this case, the author’s self-belief shone through the covering letter, convinced that here was a major contribution to the literature of the 21st century and would be acknowledged as such the moment it was exposed to the public at large.
I began to read the book. By half way down the first page, my jaw dropped. By page two I was forced to put it to one side, and exclaim ‘phew!’ At the bottom of that page I took myself off to lay down in a darkened room. Few novels have had such an extreme effect on me in such a short space of time.
Quite simply, it was the worst writing I have ever encountered. And I speak as an editor of some 45 years standing who during that stint has probably read the work of more than 10,000 authors, most of them doomed never to be seen in print. Except now they often are in print. In a way. There again, they’re not. Take your pick.
I put the book down and stare at it. I pick it up and glance through the pages, pausing at a random paragraph in the forlorn hope that glinting there will be some small diamond of creativity, a possible hint of submerged writing talent. None appears. I am in a wasteland, a barren desert devoid of the waters of the imagination.
I become depressed. It seems a travesty that such writing should be presented in such a
lavish manner. It is as if a lower Sunday League footballer were to run out for Man Utd with no raised eyebrows. The book is a denial of natural law. The book offends the eye
of someone who believes that one way or another a book had to earn the right to be in print, any print and that the process of any book coming to fruition is a special one.
And now I am faced with this! I tell myself it is none of my concern. I tell myself the person has every right fork out their loot if it makes them happy. No-one has to read the book, after all. What harm can it do?
Yet I cannot rest. Something is not right. For some weeks now, I have passed the book on the stairs. Each time it pulls me up short. Each time I realise I have thus far failed to reply. Yet I feel duty-bound to reply in some way. I sit down at my desk. I prepare to type.
An editor’s lot it not always a happy one.
It had been a long time since I'd been so nervous. Me and Max Farrar from Remember Oluwale were at the Saboteurs in London, palms sweating, heart racing, waiting for them to call out the winner for “Best Anthology”.
Getting here had been a long road, and I don't just mean the train journey from Leeds to London. In March 2016, Max had approached me to edit a book that responded to David Oluwale's life and death. The anthology had been a voluntary, time-intensive project involving lots of hours on my part, with support from Leeds Big Bookend, Fictions of Every Kind, the Remember Oluwale charity, and Valley Press.
During the editorial process I had felt huge amounts of pressure to get it right. To do justice to this man's memory, and to make sure that everybody involved in the process met deadlines. Though there were a lot of people involved, there had been one person mainly steering the project – me, and now here I was at the Saboteurs, with Max, hoping that we'd win.
I must confess that I initially knew little of David's story. To prepare, I read Kester Aspden's “The Hounding of David Oluwale”, a thorough and shocking book, and discovered that David Oluwale was a man who had immigrated to Leeds from Nigeria in the 1960s, who had spent most of his time in the city either homeless, or in a psychiatric ward. He was victimised by members of the police force, and eventually found dead floating in the River Aire. Nobody was ever convicted for his murder.
Far from trying to create a comprehensive book about David Oluwale, (we are far from the first group to create works of art in his memory), I aimed to put together a book that responded to the themes in David's life, that anybody could delve into even if they weren't familiar with his story. During the Writing Prize, we received over a hundred entries of prose and poetry. All entries were blind-read by a wonderful, very experienced and diverse reading team, who then voted on their favourites, with each “yes”-voted entry getting a second read by me.
Choosing twenty entries to publish was not easy. Some of the entries referenced David directly, many didn't. A lot of entries were similar to one another in approach or form, and as editor, I wanted to find a balance between those which talked about David directly, and those which used his life story, and the issues, in a more oblique way.
Two stories that caught my attention early on were Koyejo Adebakin's true life story, 'In the Cold', in which our narrator and his family are evicted and told: “Neither... of... you... has... recourse... to... public... funds”, and Gloria Dawson's 'Promises (for David Oluwale)', which covers poverty, social justice, work, and exclusion, in just under 2,000 beautifully written words: “I sit with them, I am the man with the city's disorder, I am the woman in the crumpled skirt.” Though each covered similar ground, their diversity of approach was enough to make me want to include both. While Adebakin's story felt real, something you might overhear on a bus, Dawson's story showed us a desperate world glimpsed through poetic vignettes.
The poetry category, similarly, gifted us with a range of material and approach. Alan Griffiths' 'In The Day Room' was a reading team favourite, with its powerful image of a man completing a jigsaw: “the pictures perfect on the lids / a country farm yard, park gardens or dales, / all stone walls, daffodils and clouds, / but the pieces never all the right way up”. This poem, with its resonances of psychiatric-ward boredom, I liked for the simplicity of its approach.
Another poem which I included was 'He Remains', by Cherie Taylor-Battiste. This was one of the many pieces sent in that talked about David Oluwale directly. It struck me with the immediacy of its voice, as though being spoken right into my ear. “David's last run with head broken heart strong pushed on all our thighs / Carrying The Black Man's burden and tripping on Darwinian ties”. As a poem, it spoke so directly, so distinctly, that I couldn't help but want to put it in the anthology.
I could talk about each individual piece directly, and what it was about each that I loved: their telling of the lived experience of asylum-seeking, or of social exclusion and prejudice (David Cundalls' 'Signs and Wonders', Helen Forbes' 'The Curse of Naples'); their mention of the particulars of David's story – the geography of Leeds in Ian Harker's 'Aire', the policemen who taunted him in Char March's 'Son-of-the-Mother-Whose-Children-Are-Like-Fish'; the characterful exploration of identity and history by an Efik narrator in Anietie Isong's 'The Storyteller' – but I suspect that there isn't room here. I will say though, that one thing that struck me over and over again during the editing process was how current “David's issues” still are. Those facts of institutional racism, of systematic social exclusion, don't and have never gone away. The diversity of entries to this competition was testament to that fact.
Our longlist was a brilliantly varied collection: Max Farrar and Sai Murray of Remember Oluwale both had chance to read it before it went to press, and helped with their input and comments. We were keen to include works that had formerly been published and created about David Oluwale, and were lucky to be able to include work by Caryl Phillips, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Rommi Smith and the Baggage Handlers, among others.
Getting it all to press on time wasn't easy: negotiating with 20 poets and writers during the editorial process, as well as juggling the judging process for the competition, and bringing in all the previously-published material and getting everything into the manuscript in time for it to be typeset, is probably the editors' version of riding an unbraked bike downhill towards a clifftop.
When the book came out though, I realised it had all been worthwhile. Gathering those previously published works together with the new pieces, in a book with David's picture on the front, was a fitting way to remember David Oluwale. Ian Duhig read at the Leeds launch; we gave prizes out to our competition winners. Max sourced a CD player and some boxed wine for the party. Authors came from as far away as London to celebrate the anthology launch.
We knew that the book was something to be proud of, and that it was a good artistic response to David's story. The only thing we didn't know was, would anybody else agree?
So it was with train tickets in hand, and a set of pre-booked Eventbrite tickets, we found ourselves at the Saboteur Awards, hoping to win. Max was primed with a bottle of champagne from the bar, perhaps he knew something I didn't, and when the Saboteur judges read out the name, “Remembering Oluwale,” a cheer went up so rowdy I felt as though I was back in Leeds again, watching football in a pub. We'd won!
It was a validating end to an immersive and important project, something I was very proud to have been able to be a part of. I went home with a head full of happy memories, and a banging headache from the afterparty.
The Best Anthology trophy now sits in pride of place on my writing desk.
Buy the book here.
Scarborough-based publisher Valley Press is helping to raise the profile of translated books in the UK – currently just 1.5% of general fiction – with a seven-book series by acclaimed Chinese authors.
This comes just days after author A L Kennedy blasted British publishers for not producing more literature in translation.
She said British publishing’s aversion to risk meant it currently had ‘little appetite’ for foreign works, especially since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement which fixed prices for books, leading the industry ‘into a territory of simple calculations of profit and loss’.
However, Valley Press, founded by publisher Jamie McGarry in 2008, is setting itself up as one of the exceptions that prove the rule with Mountain Stories by bestselling Chinese writer Ye Guangqin, due out in July, followed by six more translated titles in 2018 and 2019 all by authors from the Shaanxi province of north-west China.
‘Readers might not have heard of Shaanxi before, or be particularly familiar with the bestselling Chinese-language authors who call that province their home, but they soon will be,’ said Jamie.
‘We've signed an agreement to publish a whole series of titles from the region's finest authors, translated with great care by a team at Northwest University in the city of Xi'an, then edited and proof-read by native English scholars.
‘These books offer an astonishingly fresh literary experience for UK readers – and for us at Valley Press. It's something genuinely new for us to get to grips with and, as you can probably tell, I'm very excited by the whole idea.’
But just how did the ‘whole idea’ of bridging the 5,000-mile gap between Shaanxi and Scarborough come about?
‘Dr Robin Gilbank of Northwest University’s School of Foreign Languages was looking for a UK publisher for this project. He has a family connection to Scarborough and they suggested Valley Press. So, we met in local independent bookshop Wardle & Jones and the arrangement progressed from there,’ said Jamie.
‘It really was a chance encounter of deeply engaged literary people thousands of miles apart.’
:: Mountain Stories, a collection of six tales about the colourful legends and everyday absurdities of life in China’s Qinling Mountains, is available to pre-order from Valley Press, and is represented to the trade by Inpress.
From a talk I gave at the brilliant Writing on the Wall Festival in Liverpool last weekend.
1. You can judge a book by its cover
That’s what book jackets are there for. Readers need signposts, the visual signpost of a jacket is the most immediate hook you have to engage with a potential buyer. Publishers who ignore this essential part of their book production do so at their peril.
2. Sales is not a dirty word
If you are putting all that effort into writing or editing or designing something to the best of your ability it has value and should be shared with people!
Publishing is a commercial art form, if you hope to publish more you need to sell the books you have.
The best independent publishers manage to bridge the gap between integrity and breaking even.
3. Metadata rules
Not the most glamorous of subject matters, but definitely the most important. Statistics show that the more detail and visuals you attach to ISBNs, the better the sales. Get the metadata right initially and the sales and publicity will follow.
4. You don't need to invest all your cash in stock
Digital printing, short run printing and print on demand have transformed publishing. The old days of having to pay upfront for a print run with no idea of how many books might actually sell are over. Independent publishers are capitalising on this, these days a new publisher doesn’t even need to print a single stock copy, they can just print to demand. (Although some stock does help Inpress!)
5. You can be a global sales and distribution network from the minute your book is published
Companies like Ingram Lightning Source can be your worldwide distribution network. Share your book files with them, and their network of printers will ensure your title is orderable through online and bricks and mortar retailers worldwide.
6. Writers, no matter how obscure your potential bestseller, there is a publisher out there for you
The PA, Publishers Association, the biggest body representing publishers, who lobby government and put on major conferences has approximately 1200 members.
The IPG Independent Publishers Guild has approximately 600+ members
Inpress has 45 members
And there is a huge amount more out there, Inpress is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to smaller independent publishers
You can look them up – the Writers and Artists Yearbook 2017 with over 4,000 entries of who to contact where across marketing and the media
Mslexia publish list of literary independent publishers which includes 250 small indie presses and 200 literary magazines.
I have no idea how many publishers there are out there, but will find out and update this blog!
7. People won’t buy books if they've never heard of them
One of the perks of big commercial publishers is that they have departments dedicated to sales, marketing, publicity, online communities. That doesn’t mean small indie publishers can’t achieve as good results as the big ones, they have the advantage of knowing their market intimately. Poetry publishers have nurtured their communities way before the advent of social media.
8. There are more people writing poetry than buying it
This point is based on no empirical evidence, just a feeling….
I had no idea until I started at Inpress how many small indie publishers there were. I had no idea how many poetry publishers there were out there producing not only books but pamphlets and chap books. And I certainly had no idea how many people out there are writing poetry!
9. Don't let your mum phone your managing director
Or, don’t go on a work trip to the Middle East a few days before the US invades Afghanistan. Staff insurance policies were discussed, I’m reliably informed.
10. Print or Ebooks, they all have a place in the modern publishing eco-system
Yes, ebook sales are declining, but that is just all the many formats finding their place in the market. I like reading physical books in the main, but I do enjoy a Georgette Heyer on my phone, so many people I know now love audiobooks, it’s an ever changing confusion of delights.
11. Biggest is not necessarily best
What are smaller independent publishers doing?
Shaking things up
Publishing from passion
Being commercial with integrity
Being supported by ACE
Not being supported by ACE
Publishing print only
Publishing digital only
Doing what they want
I am constantly amazed at the ingenuity, agility and doggedness of independent publishers and publishing. I’ve said it before elsewhere, so apologies for repetition, but what they lack in resource they make up in resourcefulness. Long live the independent publisher!