On February 20th, 2016, Contemporary Small Press held the first of its Reading and Being Read events at the British Library, London. The event brought together readers, writers and small press publishers to share a day of talks, networking and workshops designed to stimulate interest in the small press and provide a forum for feedback and communication between publishers, writers and their readers. It was a huge success!
The day was sold out in advance and a full house of around 40 people enjoyed the unique experience of being part of this small press celebration.
The event was organised and run by Dr. Leigh Wilson and Dr. Georgina Colby (University of Westminster, Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture). Leigh Wilson opened the proceedings, setting out the Contemporary Small Press’s intention to ‘bring small presses and readers together’ through the event. She then introduced the first speaker of the day, Lynn Michell, founder and editor of Linen Press.
Lynn confirmed that Linen Press is now the only independent women’s press operating in the UK. Previously, Lynn had revealed in an interview for this website that
Linen Press is now the only indie publisher of new women’s writing in the UK. Virago was founded in 1972 by Carmen Callil to publish mainly women writers – new and neglected – and with a strong feminist focus. It is now owned by Little Brown. The Women’s Press, my own role model, was established in 1978 and was hugely influential in the 80s bringing us Alice Walker, May Sarton, Janet Frame, Stevie Davies as well as minority writers. It is no longer functioning. Persephone reprints books already published.
She shared the highs and lows of being an independent publisher, including editing by the gas fire with 93-year-old Marjorie Wilson, whose memoir Childhood’s Hill was the first book that Lynn ever published. Lynn described the role of Linen Press as a publisher that takes risks to publish challenging, experimental, ‘tender and brutal’ books by women that you won’t find elsewhere.
One of the writers recently published by Linen Press is Susie Nott-Bower, whose book The Making of Her tells the story of Clara, a fifty-year-old female protagonist in contemporary society. Susie read from her novel and spoke about her experience as an older woman writer trying to get published. ‘Ageing is the new taboo,’ she said, describing how ‘older writers are encouraged just to dabble in writing as a hobby, between daytime T.V, gardening and grandchildren’. However, when Lynn read her original manuscript she saw the potential of the book and worked through the editing process with Susie to produce the finished novel, proving that, ‘it’s perfectly possible to reinvent yourself at any age’.
A key message that came out of the day was the dedication of small press publishers to developing and nurturing their writers’ potential: a process which can be challenging, but is ultimately rewarding in creating the best possible book – the best result for everyone. This kind of relationship between writer and publisher is one reason why many writers are choosing to publish their books with small presses these days.
Galley Beggar is one such press that works hard to nurture and develop its writers, and has a reputation for discovering and developing high quality new literary talent. Sam Jordison, editor and co-founder at Galley Beggar, spoke passionately about taking literary risks and publishing the books that matter, regardless of commercial popularity. He said,
As soon as we start asking what’s cool, what’s fashionable, that’s when we’ll stop. Small, independent publishers give writers the opportunity to write the book they want to write, not what the market dictates.
Sam spoke about publishing Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in 2013, a novel that initially needed some editorial development but which he could see had potential as writing that would be ‘moving modernism forward’. The novel won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2013, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize (for debut novelists) in 2014, and was also shortlisted for the Folio Prize in 2014. It is now published by international publisher Faber & Faber and is currently being performed as a play at The Young Vic.
Writer Alex Pheby, whose ‘neuro-novel’ Playthings was published by Galley Beggar in November 2015, agreed that the process of publishing with a small press gives a writer the opportunity to ‘write your own story, whether it’s popular or not’. He also outlined various reasons why a writer might choose a small publisher over a mainstream publisher, including the politics of commercial press ownership which may be off-putting to some writers in some cases. He added, ‘processes can’t be turned into money’, and argued that small presses give writers and readers an experience of being in the world.
After lunch, Frania Hall from the MA Publishing at London College of Communication gave an insight into the process behind the creation of the book as an object, discussing the kinds of decisions that need to be made when considering the most suitable format, size, layout, etc. She posed the question, ‘what’s possible for micro presses?’ and introduced a range of hand-crafted book objects that could be produced on a small scale with a small budget.
Five of Frania’s students then demonstrated their hand-made books and magazines in a practical workshop which really got people thinking about different forms of innovative book production that could be used to publish various literary genres. There was such a buzz as people chatted to the students about making their own books and the possibilities for publishing seemed to open that little bit wider.
Rounding off the day was Tony White from Piece of Paper Press. Tony read his short story ‘The Holborn Cenotaph’ – a daring, funny, surprising and moving piece that calls on us to question our institutions. He also provided free copies of the story in Piece of Paper Press format and demonstrated how to make your own book from a single piece of paper.
Tony set up Piece of Paper Press in 1994 as a low-cost, lo-tech, sustainable method of book production to occasionally publish new writing or graphic works by writers and artists, and distribute them for free. The press produces work in short runs of 150 copies and distributes them freely at organised gatherings and events. They are ‘the perfect format for festivals’, he quips, recounting a previous experience at Glastonbury where another author’s box of hardback books was left untouched, while every copy of his work was given away. He is committed to this process and has collaborated with numerous writers and artists since the press’s beginnings.
In a previous interview for this website, he said:
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.
The final activity was a collaborative writing exercise in which the audience’s favourite quotes from the day were gathered, selected and made into mock-headlines in newspaper hoarding style. These were then reproduced onto coloured paper for everyone to take away.
The day was immensely enjoyable, and we’ve had so much positive feedback from the people who came. Below is a selection of feedback and comments on the event, and you can also read novelist/audience-member Avril Joy’s review on her blog and Tony White’s review too. For more comments and reactions on Twitter, search for the #ReadingBeingRead hashtag.
There was a very welcome message that came across loud and clear from the organisers, the audience and the other contributors at the event at the British Library. We heard not often voiced support for and acknowledgement of the fine books made with integrity and passion by small presses on a tiny budget and with minimal resources. For that we thank you! The day was varied, differently paced, always interesting. Watching the audience, they looked absorbed and engrossed. Personally I loved the students’ projects – their enthusiasm, competence and originality, especially the structural poems by Sandhya. Thank you to everyone who contributed. You created a very successful day. Lynn Michell, Linen Press
What an inspiring, stimulating and rewarding experience! What struck me most was the well organised, friendly atmosphere with just the right mix of listening and interaction. As a speaker, I was bowled over by the warmth and receptivity of the audience and it was a delight to mingle afterwards and talk about writing, reading and life. The after-echoes continue – people are reading and commenting on my novel. And on a personal note, I was so inspired by Tony White’s Piece Of Paper Press and the MA students’ presentations that I’m thinking of making a little book of my own! Thank you to all involved. Susie Nott-Bower
I thought that the event was fascinating and invigorating. It’s always great to have the opportunity to talk to people from other small presses and to share stories. It’s even better to be able to do it along with an interested and engaged audience. The event gave us both an opportunity to exchange ideas and some welcome publicity. Sam Jordison, Galley Beggar Press
‘Great introduction the work of the small press – eye opening!’
‘The speakers and writers were very insightful – a very enjoyable event’
‘Fantastic event! A thoroughly enjoyable day…. Great value for money.’
‘This was a good day all round. All the elements complemented each other.’
‘Loved the presentations and the later participative workshop feel of the afternoon sessions. Inspiring day!’