Small Press Superstar

On February 20th we’ll be at the British Library for our reading, writing and publishing event: Reading and Being Read.  To get you in the mood, we’ll be presenting a series of features throughout the month focusing on the great work of some of the writers and small presses who’ll be joining us on the day.

Here, Tony White, founder of Piece of Paper Press, talks to us about his experience as a reader, writer and publisher in the small press…

Tony, you set up Piece of Paper Press in 1994, did you have any idea what the potential for small/independent presses might have been then?

Interesting question. Maybe not. If people don’t know what Piece of Paper Press is, it is a series of publications that is usually described as an artists’ book project. Alongside my own work, maybe once or twice a year I publish a new work by a visual artist or a writer. I designed Piece of Paper Press very quickly in 1994 to suit certain conditions and constraints of the time. I needed a format that would create a space for collaboration and commissioning, but that would be cheap, sustainable and infrastructurally light. That wouldn’t need funding of any kind to continue, but also wouldn’t need to rely on sales or to break even. It needed to be deliberately punky, lo-fi, and set against ideas of ‘craft’ value, but also distinctive and catchy, and to address evolving and diverse readerships. Those were the parameters as I saw them. I costed an A5 pamphlet format, but then thought hang on, if I fold it one more time and get an A6 pamphlet that will halve the printing costs. This was during the recession of the early ’90s: cost was important. Then I thought, why stop there? The result was Piece of Paper Press. The books are roughly A7 (after trimming), they are usually produced in an edition of 150, and always given away free by me and whichever artist or writer I am working with.

To answer your question, I had absolutely no idea of the potential even of Piece of Paper Press, or that the project would last as long as it has, let alone of the small press more widely. If any aspect of it had been any more complex, I think it would have folded years ago. I also didn’t know then what small presses would mean for my own writing, but from 1995 onwards my own fiction—short stories and novels—started to be published, initially by small and independent publishers, all more or less short-lived: Pulp Books, Low-life books, Codex, Attack. All of which punched well above their weight. And today, with recent novellas such as Dicky Star and the Garden Ruleor Missorts Volume II, I continue to work with small presses.

Piece of Paper Press not only subverts traditional/mainstream publishing and distribution methods, but also the book form and its relationship with content. To what extent is this kind of subversion central to the work you do?

There’s no schedule, no catalogue, no ISBNs and the books are never for sale… The format constituted practically the least that I thought I could do and still have the result be legitimately described as ‘a book’. Some aspects of the project which may seem subversive now were simply physical and empirical truths of the media landscape in 1994. It is hard to imagine now, but in that pre-digital age, everything was scarce. If you couldn’t get hold of something, you couldn’t have it, or even see it. You might spend ten years trying to find a copy of something. There was no on-line version. That was just a fact of life. Now it seems like an ironic or radical form of manufactured scarcity, where in truth it is a happy anachronism, though one that I choose to pursue. Actually I would say that Piece of Paper Press is generally quite conservative (small c) in terms of the relationship between form and content. I wonder if the kind of subversion of content and form that you describe is more evident in—or central to—some of my fiction.

You recently reviewed Place, Waste, Dissent by Paul Hawkins (Influx Press). Which other books from the small presses have impressed you recently and why?

Same as everyone, I currently keep half an eye out for stuff from And Other Stories, Galley Beggar, Influx, Book Works, CB editions—when Charles Boyle worked at Faber he was copy-editor on my novel Foxy-T—Nicholas Royle’s Night Jar press, etc. etc. As a reader I’m also interested in the even smaller presses, the one-offs and un-gathered works (think B.S. Johnson without the box), or the ultra-ephemeral where publishing meets performance, or where publication is a one-off event that may or may not leave a trace. I had a gig with the artist Liliane Lijn at October Gallery last year where she performed—once—from an unpublished manuscript, for the first time since it was written in perhaps the 1960s, and which there would perhaps be no possibility of anyone ever publishing. Even the audio recording off the mixing desk didn’t come out! But conversely, too, the persistence of the apparently ephemeral as a long term practice—Tim Etchells’ solo performances—or when there is a collision of scale and value or time. Where a torn up piece of paper by Martin Creed published by Matthew Higgs’ Imprint ’93 twenty years ago is now a seminal early work. Or those corrective moments where small presses intrude into the mainstream and change it, as with Victor Headley and the X-Press in the early ’90s, or more recently, differently, with Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, or Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

You often write about ‘the future of publishing’ on your blog – can you summarise your thoughts on this?

I am as interested in low-tech futures such as the incredible Cartonera movement in South America as in the potential of digital formats and the new kinds of reading and story-telling that they make possible. But for me it is not just writing about the future of publishing from a distance, it is about being opportunistic as an author and exploring that from project to project, book to book, story to story, and sometimes collaborating outside or alongside the book trade to do so. For example a project of mine called Missorts is a permanent sound work in Bristol that is delivered as an app to your smart phone; a kind of GPS-triggered short story anthology that you can only encounter in the locations where the stories are set. Another high-tech project was having my last novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South published by the Science Museum, and using the Museum’s networked information kiosk infrastructure and the improved ebook software on readers’ smartphones to create a touchscreen ebook dispenser, which worked at scale and in punishing Museum conditions for two years. But I think the future of publishing that we should be paying just as much if not more attention to is exemplified by the library in ‘The Jungle’ at Calais.

Finally, what’s the most exciting/interesting/surprising part of your daily routine as a writer, speaker and publisher?
All of it. I’m lucky to be here.
Thanks so much to Tony for these valuable insights into the small press.  Catch Tony at Reading and Being Read on 20 February, or visit his website for more.
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