The Contemporary Small Press interviews independent bookseller Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books, a London bookshop specialising in small press publications.
What made you decide to open up a bookshop selling small press books in the difficult climate of bookselling in 2016?
There’s reasons to be positive in bookselling, people’s attitudes are changing. I know that we’re pretty privileged in London and it’s more difficult outside of London, but people realise that Amazon and other online retailers only really offer an illusion of choice where you get funnelled towards certain mainstream titles. So I wanted to offer something which counters that, and to represent small publishers. There’s a real wealth of independent publishing happening – in London but outside of London as well – so I wanted to have a space where that could be represented.
Has it been easy to source and identify the books that you sell?
Mostly, it takes time to build it up. A lot [of small publishers] came to us, a lot of them I was following anyway, and it’s not just me, all the guys here have their own interests [in various small presses].
What do you think your customers value most about small press published books?
Firstly they cover areas that big publishers won’t touch, they take risks on new writers. I think in fiction you get a lot more innovation and risk taking than you get with big publishers, which means that it can be good and bad. I think there is a certain sense that big publishers are gatekeepers, and that can be helpful sometimes, but they miss a lot and they get [it] wrong all the time, and [the small press] gives you access to those things that you normally wouldn’t find, that don’t have a voice. I think people are pleased to come across the unexpected and it means that they come back to look for more. I think that what bookshops need to do now is to show people things that they didn’t realise they wanted until they see it – people grow quite loyal to publishers and start to follow their output. When a new book comes out people notice. Small publishers like Fitzcarraldo know that and are starting to produce their books accordingly. Also Galley Beggar, And Other Stories – they have a kind of coherence.
Small presses cover areas that big publishers won’t touch, they take risks on new writers. I think in fiction you get a lot more innovation and risk taking than you get with big publishers.
What makes a small press published book a bestseller in your opinion?
I think it’s very diaphanous. It’s very difficult to [pin down]. If you join a conversation at the right moment, one example would be Pond, which is a fiction, but I think it speaks to a lot of things that people are talking about in theory and cultural theory at the same time. Intersectionality is very important for small presses because that gets people talking, and small presses need word of mouth because they don’t have the ad spends – those kind of intersectional presses.
What’s the best thing about coming to work at Burley Fisher Bookshop every day?
Because we’re so new, it’s new every day, different things are happening every day. Getting to know the community, what our placement is, how we can become part of it [the community], I really enjoy that part of it. Also being able to talk to people about books like Pond [and others], I really enjoy being able to get people excited about those kinds of things. We do a lot of events here as well. They’re really helpful when you’re starting out. But also with these kinds of books, people read them because they want to talk about them, I think. People are thinking about those issues. It also means that – especially when something is published by a small press, there’s often opportunities to meet the person who wrote it in quite an intimate setting, and then you can have a meaningful interaction with them rather than kind of watching two august figures up on the stage at the South Bank, you know there’s a slightly different vibe.
With these kinds of books, people read them because they want to talk about them.
The recommended titles are what we’re currently reading. I try to read about two books a week. But there’s four of us and we all have different interests.
I’ve been really grateful for the support that small presses have given us in the first few months, the willingness they’ve shown to join with us and do events. So this is a good opportunity to say thank you to those people who have helped us there. And I think that this community building [work] is really important and we should try and do as much of it as we can.