Last weekend I went to a writers’ conference in Brighton. It was a really great opportunity to meet with like-minded people; the catering and hospitality were excellent; and the programme provided a valuable insight into the publishing world, with ample opportunities to meet and talk to the very-accessible-and-wonderfully-human writers, agents and literary consultants who gave talks throughout the day.
However, what struck me most was the missing narrative of the small presses. The dominant narrative throughout the talks and workshops was that there were two opposing alternatives in contemporary publishing: pigeon-hole yourself into a pre-defined genre category for the chance to get in with one of the mainstream publishers, or take on all the risk, effort and expense yourself through self-publishing. ‘Branding’ was definitely the buzzword of the day – barely a speaker failed to mention the importance of marketing yourself like a packet of cornflakes.
One writer informed us that the largest UK high-street retailer of books is now Tesco – so he gave us plenty of tips on how to turn yourself into a supermarket-shelf best-selling branded writer. While a husband-and-wife writing partnership told us that ‘your novel is a piece of fruit’ and publishers need to know whether to place you with the bananas or the kiwis. And if they put you with the oranges, don’t try giving them kumquats.
It was good advice for writers who want to pursue that particular route into publishing. It was sincere and well-intended: a really honest perspective on the contemporary mainstream publishing industry. Yet what I saw through that shop-window was not bananas or kumquats or cornflakes but something rotten, and potentially toxic.
Never before has the really valuable role of the contemporary small presses and the vital work that they do been made more clear to me.
Small presses occupy the position structurally in between the big mainstream publishers and the alternative of self-publishing. This means that what they can offer writers, from a purely business point of view, is many of the benefits that come from having a publisher whilst shouldering much of the burden and the risk associated with self-publishing. While the smaller presses are unlikely to be able to offer the temptingly high cash advances that the larger presses may bestow, and they might ask for more in return in terms of promotional work and marketing your book, the burden on a writer will be less than in the case of self-publishing, with the added advantages that having a publisher can offer.
These benefits may include editing, promotion, distribution, advice, nurturing, marketing, having contacts in the publishing industry, and access to an informed guide throughout the process of publication. To be fair, many of these benefits were also advocated as reasons to choose a literary agent by the agents who spoke at the conference – I particularly enjoyed the metaphor of ‘spirit guide’ that one agent used to summarise his role and relationship to his writers. However, again, a self-publisher is unlikely to have access to this kind of support either from a publisher or an agent, while a writer published by a mainstream press is likely to find that much of this nurturing and advice is geared towards maintaining your brand identity as a banana. In any case, the benefit of having an editor in particular is one that very few writers should be willing to do without – we all need that extra pair of eyes and the benefit of a different, less entangled, perspective on our writing.
Aside from the structural positioning of the small presses and the benefits they may bring in terms of helping a writer to gain entry into the world of publishing, though, one of the key differences was this: mainstream publishing seems dedicated to maintaining and perpetuating the status quo, whereas small publishers are more likely to be committed to freedom of expression, artistic risk, literary innovation, and championing new and exciting writers that challenge the way things are.
The most prominent messages and headlines to arise from our recent Reading and Being Read event at the British Library demonstrate emphatically that the small presses we spoke to on the day were dedicated to nurturing, developing and championing innovative new writing from a broad spectrum of writers who may otherwise be overlooked by the mainstream presses. And the risks they are taking are essential to the development of new literature in the UK. More and more books from the small presses are being nominated for prestigious literary prizes in recognition of the high quality of writing that’s being produced by the small presses.
In January 2017 the first literary award for small presses will announce its winning novel. It’s been set up by writer Neil Griffiths as The Republic of Consciousness Prize, because he believes ‘small presses don’t ask how many copies will this sell, but how good is this – what is its value as literature? Quality is the only criterion’.
I knew it to be true before today, but last weekend’s insight into the world of mainstream publishing has certainly put the emphasis on the ultimate value of the small presses as champions of innovative new literature into a new and deeper perspective for me. Without these presses taking a risk to nurture, develop, publish and promote exciting and challenging new literature, it just wouldn’t be being published at all*.
Check out our links to small presses, and click through to buy their books direct.
*It was great to hear Candida Lacey, editor at Myriad Editions, speaking on the final panel of the day at the conference. The panel discussed alternative routes into print and included several successfully self-published and/or e-published writers as well as Candida as a representative from the small presses. The conference organisers were appreciative of the comments I had made about small presses during the day, and have said that they intend to address this as part of their feedback from the event.
Sally-Shakti Willow – Research Assistant, The Contemporary Small Press