Presence : Absence : Silence

Three new poetry collections from the small presses
Moonrise is a beautifully hand-bound book of poetry from small press As Yet Untitled. Editor Rosie Sherwood is a poet, photographer and book artist, whose care and attention to the book as an object in terms of structure, sequencing, materiality, quality and beauty means that every copy of Moonrise – in this numbered edition of 150 – is created in-house from quality inks and papers, and hand-tied to finish.
Ella Chappell’s poetry speaks in fearless, open and tender-hearted reflections – juxtaposing the loss of innocence with the increased knowledge and understanding of scientific study, and creating resonances that ask readers to consider how both might contribute to our understanding of what it means to be in the world right now. Interleaved with the poetry is a set of Sherwood’s poetic photographs printed onto transparent layers that offer alternative perspectives or contact points.
Chappell clearly revels in the opportunity to play with sounds and the textures of language in her poetry. For example, encouraging the mouth around the deliciously mellifluous Honey: ‘You’re all in my mouth / just after I say your name: / syllable syllabub – kinda runny – / I wake up from dreams laughing these days.’ While in other places there’s a depth of presence in the precision of well-chosen words: ‘a scarab carved with a prayer from the book of the dead.’ The present absence is the longed-for simplicity of innocence and magic which permeates every page.
‘Shul.  She’s grateful for this language that names the silent weight of you.’ A testament to silence, to absence, to shul – the traces left behind – Envies the Birds is the debut poetry collection of Angelina D’Roza, poet in residence at Bank Street Arts. Published in satisfyingly weighty hardback by Longbarrow Press, this collection names the silent weight of absence in the traces that are left behind of ordinary and devastating encounters. The surface of Breech, in its seven sets of couplets, recounts receiving a phone call, while leaving only absent traces of the ‘ruptured words’ at its heart.
The archival research and broad ranging stimulus texts open and undo the fixity of the lyric ‘I’; in these poems, I has a shifting and migratory identity becoming another absent trace of something or someone that remains nevertheless present. Like the birds, this collection effortlessly crosses cultural boundaries and is enriched by language and ideas from across the globe, such as the Tibetan word shul, the letters from Zelda Sayre to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aesop’s Fables, and the work of Marina Abramovic and Ulay.
This collection speaks in silence of the weight of absence:
‘Don’t ask lyrics to change the world: / a mouthful of gnarled syllables, dry / as branches. All there is to say / is what we’re not, what we don’t want.’
‘    :      this land is a memory of wind without wind’
Plainspeak, WY creates and energises the semantic potential of spaces and silences that poetry is best-placed to explore and exploit.  Joanna Doxey’s poetry occupies space on the pages and throughout the book as a whole, as phrases are fractured and fragmented across lines or pages with careful attention to spacing and location, resulting in a profound shift in pacing too.  Visual spaces read as silence between phrases, words and punctuation, slowing the reading and giving time for pauses between thoughts.  The location of words on the page plays out as a landscape, echoing the theme of present-absence in a landscape shaped by the memory of wind, snow and ice, even after those meteorological events have ended.  The poetry in this collection enacts an experience that is both temporal and spatial through the interactions between words and silence in both its themes and its aesthetic.
This collection creates a visual record of silence as the spaces between the visible words, just as the landscape it describes creates a visual record of absent meteorology in the presence of sculpted plains.  In this poetry, the plains speak as the record of memory, the landscape of time.  Yet Doxey also asks us to consider future time, as well as the past, and inscribes the sense of loss and absence that comes with knowledge that the earth is changing, and the landscapes we thought were constant will also soon be gone.  There’s poignancy in the description that
‘Core samples taken from glaciers show bits of atmosphere, air bubbles that tell of ages past, ages before humans, ages that are disappearing from history as these glacial bodies melt and calve to their terminal end … a body of melt releasing an ancient atmosphere.’
Ultimately what Plainspeak seems to evoke is ‘A beautiful extermination of mass and time.     /    This is my work.’  By energising the spatiality – and thus the temporality – of the text on the page, Doxey creates the poetic paradox of both inscribing mass (materiality as spatiality) and time (the silent spaces that generate pauses) into the poems and describing the poignancy of their ‘beautiful extermination’ in her work.  The tension between the creation of mass and time within the text and its extermination in the physical landscape vibrates throughout the words and silences of this collection as presence and absence become relative and intertwined.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow is researching for a practice-based PhD in utopian poetics and experimental writing at the University of Westminster, where she also works as research assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.  Sally’s poetry is included in the #NousSommesParis anthology from Eyewear Books; and the experimental collection The Unfinished Dream by Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans was published by Sad Press in October 2016.  @willowwriting

Internal Conflict

Internal Conflict

This Is The Place To Be by Lara Pawson: CB editions, 2016

‘I hate the way the news plasters over the rough edges of truth.’

How do you make the indescribable real to those who have never witnessed it? From dining with ambassadors to negotiating with armed guards, this uniquely revealing memoir provides a vivid insight into civil war in Africa from a very personal perspective. Written by former foreign correspondent Lara Pawson, This Is The Place To Be is a series of interwoven anecdotes and intimate snapshots of life in war-torn Angola and Ivory Coast; some funny, many unsettling, all written in a natural, spontaneous style.

This is a fragmented account reflecting the chaos of war. The crossover between war and peace is explored, as some semblance of routine is maintained in a war zone whilst violence can and does erupt in times of peace. Pawson is like a voyeur witnessing both joyful and horrific moments in other people’s lives while trying to make sense of her own.  Fierce yet compassionate, her strong connection with the African nations she reported from emanates from every page. Having built cross-cultural relationships, she analyses the impact of the people who have entered her life and their imprint on her memory. We witness war’s continuing effect upon her in present-day London as past incidents resurface, revealing the parallels that are present in life even under starkly different circumstances.


The reliability of the mainstream media is called into question and Pawson is open in her struggle to capture the whole story. Having previously worked for the BBC, she describes how she became cynical about the nature of journalism as the news is presented as a revelation of facts when in reality there is often no such certainty. Uncomfortable truths about the UK are brought to the surface, exposing how little its citizens really know due to the media’s ability to manipulate events.  Her experience has obviously instilled in her the desire to communicate clearly and directly but her frustration is evident as it is simply not always possible to persuade people of the truth as you know it. Everything is open to interpretation.

Such an honest approach could potentially alienate the reader at times and it is inevitably not always easy to empathise.  There is both an abhorrence of and exhilaration for the dangers involved in her job and she sometimes seems brave verging on reckless, expressing a certain thrill at coming close to death.

As a white, British woman in a male dominated role, Pawson describes her own internal battle for identity, exploring how gender and race are concepts which can unite and divide us and occasionally succumbing to the pressure society places on women to conform to set ideals of femininity. She tells the story of having lunch with a governor who was ‘generous and gentle’ to her but later turned out to be a key perpetrator in a violent purge.

‘I’d been advised that it was worth showing powerful men a bit of leg’.

This is an explosive book encapsulating the kind of innovation that is characteristic of the contemporary small press scene. Despite her assertion that ‘I don’t feel brave, I feel angry’, Pawson demonstrates a courageous lack of self-censure and an unflinching desire to reveal all, resulting in an intensely powerful and compelling read.

‘Although I have come to understand that the violence of war affects families for generations, I continue to fear the apathy produced by peace’.

Click here to buy Lara Pawson’s This is the Place to Be direct from CB editions.

About the publisher

CB editions specialises in short fiction, poetry, translations and other work of value with a distinctive message. It is run solely by Charles Boyle and publishes unique new titles by brave and talented voices. The Guardian describes it as having ‘the air of a guerrilla operation…great sincerity, good faith and almost quixotic single-mindedness’.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet and reviewer of books. Amongst other things.

 This review was updated on 21 October replacing the inaccurate title ‘former war correspondent’ with ‘former foreign correspondent’.

“Press this memory out of you”

“Press this memory out of you”

Ada Kaleh by Freddie Mason: Little Island Press (Budding New Poets), 2016

This is a book of experimental poetry in mustard yellow hardback and two tones of embossed title text, black and blue; Colourplan papers and a bellyband: in short, a beautiful object with printing qualities more often found in contemporary fine art books. I couldn’t find any other poems by the poet, but wanted to: no searchable poems in online or print journals. The central subject of the book is memory and memory loss, in streams of mostly unpunctuated consciousness that dip in and out of various historical times and locations. Ada Kaleh was a small Danubian island that in the 1930s had a population of 680, a majority of Turkish inhabitants, with Romanians on the north shore, Serbians on the south. It was submerged in 1970 for Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. The strategy for coping with this post-globalised, trans-horizonal world is set out in the opening lines of the book:

Hello I am discussing you with myself

in pieces bit by bit but remember there will

be enough I promise when you need.

As voices try to cope with memory and change, there are moments of accumulative lyricism.

                 the legitimacy of all existence and plummeting away already

dying already needing you for the legitimacy of all existence

and plummeting up give in give in give in give in give in give.

In its repetition, it is reminiscent of modernist poets like Gertrude Stein. The book moves between various locations. Memories are assembled piecemeal, from Finchley to the Finnish river Ivalojoki, and a golf course called Avondale. The Utopian wish to arise and go now to a lake isle is undercut by military violence:

She kept an army of mercenaries in

a small secluded patch of ground near

the park and her Russian accent gave her authority

in the new killing career she was planning

The language of hype and hyperbole is shown with violence: “how are the ways/ in hype this mathematical and held in guzzling/ pastoral tumescence sinking into the careful”. Mason often deploys symbolic language that questions its own symbolic status, that lays bare its own slippery meaning by fluidly shifting between scenes, registers, and subjects.


Ada Kaleh is more of an idea and symbol for the poetry than a linear narrative history, something which Alexander Christie-Miller has examined in more practical terms in The White Review. Blurring, merging, submerging: many islands, voices, and sensations sink into one another through gorges “where the dogs/ bark at false dawns and women pluck grenades out from/ within blackberries”. Concrete images are subject to change: grenades are not hidden within blackberry bushes but the blackberries themselves. For the speaker, reality and the real is subject to fast changes:

I am certainly afraid of this gradient the climate of

a tropical motherland breeding within me like vegetables

on fire I sucked do you remember? out do you remember?

the fire from within those vegetables for you and your followers

This hunger for sustenance, this pull from the isolated isle into the mainland, reads like a strange translation. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Ada Kaleh depended on food, drink and tobacco imports from mainland Romania, and so can not be classified as a self-sustaining Utopia. So while the notion of a lake isle idyll of happy people and no crime rate (the last recorded crime in Ada Kaleh was for a man who did not pay for his meal), there is a tension between remembering and moving on. The question is: what is lost when we sink a civilisation. Ada Kaleh is a beautiful book with some striking challenges to sensory perception, notions of real and imagined places, and the way we construct memories. The illustrations by Alice-Andrea Ewing, “an artist and sculptor trained in the Italian Lost Wax method”, provide a lumpy tactility to the atavistic scope of the poetry.

Click here to find Ada Kaleh at Little Island Press.


About the Publisher:

Little Island Press is an independent publisher run by Andrew Latimer, based in Stroud, working in fiction, poetry, and literature in translation. Budding New Poets focuses on early career newly-flowering poets, its title punning on Edwin Beard Budding, a Stroud-born inventor.

Review by Simon Pomery

Simon Pomery is a PhD Candidate at Royal Holloway and a TECHNE Associate, researching innovative poetry and digital culture in the 21st century. He curates PRAXIS, a text-sound poetry series of events held at Parasol-unit foundation for contemporary art and AND/Or Gallery, with assistance from the Royal Holloway Poetics Research Centre. His poetry and reviews have appeared in The White Review, 3am magazine, P.N. Review, Edinburgh Review, and The Times Literary Supplement.


XxX: 100 Poems

XxX: 100 Poems

Merrill Moore, XxX: 100 Poems : Little Island Press, 2016

Merrill Moore’s (1903-1957) biography is, unfortunately, significantly more interesting than the majority of the poems in XxX: 100 Poems (published by Little Island Press, 2016). A psychiatrist by education, Moore counted among his clients Robert Lowell – with whose mother, Charlotte Lowell, Moore may or may not have had an affair – and Robert Frost’s children – one of whom committed suicide and another who was later committed to a psychiatric hospital. Yet, as a poet, Moore left behind somewhere between 15,000 to 50,000 poems, all written in his own, occasionally loose, interpretation of the sonnet form.

Selecting the one hundred poems that make up the collection must have been an incredible undertaking, but on reading XxX one is left feeling that one hundred may still have been too many. The editor of XxX, David R. Slavitt, writes that while ‘it is easy to find deficiencies in Merrill Moore; what is more important is that there is so much admirable achievement and that the poems, taken together, build to become a persuasive account of a time in the life of America.’ I am much more inclined to agree with Slavitt’s opening claim regarding the deficiencies in Moore’s work than the latter, more grandiose, suggestion. The sonnet form that Moore chose to work in, where a single out of place word or phrase can derail a poem, does not allow the space for the ‘deficiencies’ that Slavitt points towards to be discounted so easily.

‘Dust’, for instance – at points one of the stronger poems in the collection – opens with a display of Moore’s fleeting ability to balance his take on the sonnet form with an ear for rhythm

Dust is always prepared to levitate

When chambers are re-heated by the tall

Columns that surmount the fabulous

Intricate and geometric wall.

but an awkward line half-way through the poem leaves the remaining lines clinging on, unable to rectify Moore’s misstep:

The trustful stone has fallen to distrust

And ships are sunk, and, deep in the Ganges

Dirt settles that was dust.

The holy men

Who prayed for days, return to it again,

Ceaselessly suspended in desire,

Beyond the touch of ice, and out of fire.

While there are issues with the opening lines, the line ‘the trustful stone has fallen to distrust’ is delivered so awkwardly and linguistically naive that the rest of the poem struggles to recover. This is true of much of XxX.

‘Sleeping By My Pad And Waking With A Pen In My Hand’ and ‘In Re Sonnets That Choose To Arrive At Meal Time’ – these are not even close to being the longest poem titles in the collection, one poem’s title runs to roughly eighty words – recounting a poet who finds himself ‘interrupted / By several sonnets trying at the same time / To get release from the net of the unconscious’. Many of the poems of XxX feel like interruptions, leaving behind nothing after their first reading, and would have been served by much stricter editing when Moore were alive. Through reading the collection, Moore comes across as a writer who did not know where his strengths as a poet lay and, more often than not, is unable to carry a poem through to its conclusion effectively.

A number of the poems concern themselves with observational character portraits and this is where Moore may well be at his strongest. In ‘Aunt Dora in the restaurant’ the fragility of the Aunt advancing ‘porously over the floor’, ‘because Aunt Dora was already seventy-two / And she knows that the glistening tiles are hard’ is captured perfectly by Moore reining in his tendency to unsettle a poem with an overwritten line. Having said this, some of the character poems have a misogynistic quality – ‘He said: there is something about a woman’, ‘The Bitch Goddess’ and ‘He was telling me about how he managed to get what he wanted’ being three of the worst – that I’m unsure can be explained away as a simple character portrait or as being wholly satirical.

Obviously Moore passed away almost 60 years ago and this collection, as mentioned in the introduction, is clearly a passion project of Slavitt’s, Moore being someone who sparked the editor’s interest in poetry. Slavitt might be correct, XxX is much more interesting as a collection than the individual poems that comprise it. I am glad the book exists as I’ve now been introduced to the truly eccentric life of Merrill Moore, and all of that credit must go to Slavitt and Little Island Press for bringing Moore back into public consciousness. However, without the biography of Moore that precedes the poems, the poems in XxX simply do not stand up for themselves.  Apart from one.

‘Two Things I will Remember As Long As I Live’ starts from a point of confusion and ends with a line so perfectly weighted that it makes the rest of the collection pale further in comparison. Moore could do it, it is just through the poems in XxX he doesn’t do it often enough.


‘Two Things I Will Remember As Long As I Live’


(And both, come to think of it, are similar;

I had not realized that until this moment)


They are: the look on the face of (believe me) a fish

When he is jerked out of water, by the hook

And is trying to disengage it from his mouth

In a dumb brute animal way that is pitiful

Also the effort in the eye itself

To see, to comprehend this awful state

The look of wild defeated frustration there

As the fish is suffocating in thin air

Gasping, gulping, convulsively moving his gills

And body, seeking water to cure his ills.


The other, I nearly forgot it, the other is

The look on the face of a man dying of heart failure.


Click here to buy XxX: 100 Poems from Little Island Press.

About the Publisher:

Little Island Press is an independent publisher of new and classic poetry, fiction and international literature in translation. Based in the UK, it is the work of a few dedicated individuals who believe that great literature survives in great books: each one a little island of its own.

Review by Mike James

Mike is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching trade union representation in contemporary poetry. He is also a poet, teacher and ex-comedian. He has lived and worked in South Korea, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Germany. None of these things inform his work. 






‘Aesthetic Ownership’ & The Small Press

‘Aesthetic Ownership’ & The Small Press

In an article published in today’s Irish Times, writer Fiona O’Connor continues her explorations into the state of the small presses by asking, ‘Can small presses save us from formulaic Fast Fiction?’.  

O’Connor reviews the recent Literary Criticism and the Small Press symposium at the University of Westminster, organised by Dr. Georgina Colby, Dr. Kaja Marczewska and Dr. Leigh Wilson as part of The Contemporary Small Press project, as a hub for bringing together writers, readers, publishers and theoreticians with an interest in the impact of small press publishing on literary production.

“A recent symposium held at London’s University of Westminster, Literary Criticism and the Small Press, focused on the means of production in literature as a shaping influence on literary writing. It’s an area of criticism largely ignored to date, but given the corporatisation of mainstream publishing, one that is badly in need of some attention. To what extent is literature tailored for commercial objectives? Just how much of what reaches the bookshops is decided not by writers but by those who, as one writer put it, “couldn’t write fuck on a venetian blind”?”

Quoting Dr. Leigh Wilson, O’Connor raises the question of ‘aesthetic ownership’ as literature becomes more and more generic and increasingly ‘morphs into content’ (O’Connor).

“Dr Leigh Wilson, convenor of the small presses’ symposium and co-founder of the contemporary small press network: puts it like this, “If someone goes to McDonald’s and their Big Mac isn’t the same as always, that’s a failure”. Wilson distinguishes between the legal ownership still belonging to writers, and the notion of aesthetic ownership – the particular writing style, unique trace of ownership as human stain on the writing that says “you can tell this is mine because of the way it’s written”. Wilson fears that it is this aesthetic ownership, gained in the years following the copyright act and the modernist developments of the 1920s and ’30s, that is now in question.”

Click here to read the full article in The Irish Times.

Republic of Consciousness

Republic of Consciousness

The Contemporary Small Press talks to writer Neil Griffiths about his new literary award for books published by small presses, The Republic of Consciousness Prize.

CSP: What are you suggesting by the award’s title?

NG: A grand name for a small prize.  The phrase came to me when I was reading A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, after I’d just read Zone by Mathias Enard from Fitzcarraldo Editions, both of which are deeply written within the… there’s something stream of consciousness about them but they’re not at the same time.  I think they’re articulating almost a kind of theory of mind, and so part of me was thinking that.  Does writing of a certain kind give us a potential insight into what consciousness is?  And what mind is?  Because I work in research there’s a lot of neuro-guff going around.  There’s a lot of neuro-philosophers who have completely rejected any notion of mind, rejected any notion of will, they just sort of think we’re pre-programmed computers, that in fact we live in a kind of causal nexus that means that not a single thing that we do do we have any control over, there’s literally the big bang and then there’s us, and it seems to me to be so palpably silly, and I think that there’s something about this writing that does create a sort of republic of  consciousness, that we can find or get a sense that other people, however it’s articulated, are like us, that we are like each other, and that we can get as close to knowing another through that kind of prose, and I think that’s hugely valuable and moral.  It’s a moral act to write like that.  Even if it is difficult.  Both Zone and Girl have done very well but they’re exceptions.  There are books of equal quality that don’t get that kind of exposure.

What is it about the small presses that enables that kind of writing?  Why do you not find that in the mainstream?

I think you do now and again.  What the prize is throwing up for me, having lots of submissions, is that quality is variable, that’s in the nature of the prose, the nature of the publication, whatever, but there are a number of small presses out there who clearly have a niche sensibility, and that is to publish what might be called avant-garde work, and I think there is a kind of community of people who kind of love and relish and want to support that and they end up in fairly close coordinates of each other, and that’s how the small presses come into being.  There’s almost an acceptance that mainstream presses are unlikely to publish these books and perhaps a rejection of the model that mainstream publishers offer.  I think that’s become my experience.  So the best of the [small] presses who want to do this, I think, are doing it with such commitment… Books don’t make money, but rather than trying to make something that doesn’t make money make money, they go, well let’s just try and get the best possible thing we can.  Publishing is not a very good business model.  There is a fit between the kind of amateur sensibility and the avant-garde.  Which means that occasionally you get these small presses doing it.

Equally with the short story, the short story is a difficult proposition for mainstream publishers, but small presses can take that up and there is a short story market and that’s an area of opportunity for them.  One of my favourite books from last year was Pond [by Claire-Louise Bennett] that is just brilliant: they’re not really short stories, it’s not really a novel – it was published by Stinging Fly who only publish short stories [now also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions].  That’s writing of such high order that it is astonishing: on some level mainstream publishers should be going ‘we will give you anything you want to have this writing’.  If they just set aside the commercial imperative and just think purely in terms of artistic merit – we have a tradition of gently avant-garde female writing, so she’s part of a tradition, it’s quite rural writing and at the moment that’s quite fashionable – but it’s just the sheer quality and the originality of prose and the originality of voice. If I was the head of a mainstream house I would just say ‘buy her, and pay her, and let her do what she wants’ because we owe that to her and the writing community.  That’s the kind of interesting place where that’s what a small press does when a mainstream publishing house should take a decision there.  And there are other books that I’ve been submitted that that’s the case for.

Neil Griffiths

How many entries have you had, how many books have you read and what is your sense of the wide diversity of books being published by contemporary small presses?

I’ve probably had about 20 entries and there’ll probably be about 40 by the time it closes in September.  There’s a couple of books which have been very unique in their own way, and I mean that in a good sense, that just needed better editing, better editorial control, a kind of mentor to guide them.  We’ve had a great book by an African writer based in Africa with a press over here, an astonishing book by an American writer, a couple of great Irish writers, short stories, multinarrative voices, classic modernist works: a [diverse] range, but the quality has been variable.

All the books come to myself and my co-chair Marcus and we read them for a very low level of quality control as gatekeepers, and if it passes that then it gets sent out to the six other judges who are all independent bookstore owners or workers, there’s one in the north east, one in Wales, one in Scotland, one in Manchester; there’s Sam at Burley Fisher Books in London, and there’s the deputy head of fiction at Foyles.  So a real regional spread.  They are instructed only to carry on reading if they think there’s any chance that this book is likely to end up on the longlist.  I don’t want to make it too arduous.  But at the same time I might say that I don’t think this book is right for the prize but actually you might have a readership for it.  So that’s another point about the prize, to give books exposure.

There’s been a couple of books that have been more genre literature than literary fiction and that exposure might help, so even if you don’t end up on the long or shortlist there might be a bit of exposure in those bookshops, so that’s a plus point.  When that finishes we’ll draw up a longlist, then there’s going to be a shortlist ‘do’ at Waterstones Piccadilly in early January.  Hopefully we can get a month of table space for the shortlist.  The big moment will be the shortlist announcement, because that gets more names and more books out there.

How has this experience shaped your understanding of the small press?

If anything it’s made me think that I want to start some kind of small press surgery, which is, if you’re a small press and you want to produce a book well you need guidance from people who know how to do it well.  I absolutely believe in the small presses and I feel as evangelical now [as when I set up the prize] but if I’m to be honest, quite a lot of them need quite a lot of help to actually get into a good place where they’re going to be creating viable novels.

Have you had much support for The Republic of Consciousness Prize since you announced it earlier this year?

There’s a number of ways people can support.  All the people I’ve asked to be judges have been very supportive.  The media to a certain degree have been supportive, The Guardian, TLS, whatever, but I think social media has been just as supportive, lots of people have got in touch through Twitter and Facebook.  While the books come in and we read them and there’s essentially a kind of lull, because that’s all there is to do, social media is to a certain degree keeping the flame alive in terms of awareness.

When I started the prize I threw in a little bit of cash myself, and I said that I would try and raise money elsewhere.  I’ve tentatively started that and that’s not going quite as well.  It’s always hard to get money out of people and I accept that.  I’ve gone to a few agents and I’ve written to them saying that often small presses are their last resort, if they’ve got a novel and they can’t place it with a mainstream publishing house, small presses are always there.  They don’t necessarily want their authors to go with a small press because there’s no money, but it’s better to be published than not.  So did they want to back my prize?  Nothing, I mean, not even ‘no’.  Just completely ignoring the emails.  Someone even emailed me back and said ‘I’m not going to support your prize, I don’t think prizes do any good’ and then he added, ‘you’d be better to spend your time trying to renegotiate financial terms with Amazon’.  This is someone who’s been published by a small press.  That seems to me a very unhelpful [response].

There’s been endorsements, Marcel Theroux, Scott Pack, Anthony Horrowitz, Alistair Campbell – I haven’t yet sent out a load of letters to wealthy writers to see if they’ll support it.  At the moment the prize money is £3000, which is kind of fine for the winner, but I want to get it up so that I can give money to at least the final three or four books that make the final cut.

Do you think this is symptomatic of a lack of support for small presses in general among mainstream writers, agents and publishers?


I think mainstream agents are fairly scornful of the small press enterprise.  I spoke to one agent who just looked at me with a sort of smirk at the idea that he would even go to a small press, he was too important for that.  But I think writers, who I haven’t spoken to yet, writers I hope will respond.  But I think publishing is a difficult business.  The mainstream publishing houses are fighting for retail space in bookshops, they’re fighting for column inches in newspapers, against each other, they don’t want a whole load of attractive, alternative, sexy, small imprints coming up and taking away [from them].  They want to manage that and have their imprint that does that.  I think it’s a battle.

I think British publishing itself isn’t a particularly generous place, there isn’t a great deal of money in it  so the people who have money want to protect it, the people who have jobs want to protect them, people who have power want to protect it.  So I think small presses have a kind of nineteenth century amateur sensibility, they’re still in it for the love, whereas it’s so tough to be in a mainstream publishers, you lose that after a certain period of time.  Someone told me the other day that at UA United Agents, each agent has to make 250k in advances just to pay for their deskspace, before they even start to make any money.  If that’s the case, and you’ve got a difficult novel that you know the mainstream publishers aren’t going to buy, it’s still a financial difficulty.  We’re not in a good place, in terms of the industry.

Neil Griffiths 2

Your next book is being published by Dodo Ink Press, how has the experience been different for you from previously publishing with larger publishing houses?

It’s been really nice!  I courted three small presses with my book and despite being a published novelist it’s still been quite tough.  Just because you want to go to small presses doesn’t mean that the journey’s going to be easier, you go through a very rigorous reading period.  With small presses they’ve got to really believe in it, which means that everybody on the team has to believe in it equally, and if you’re writing a difficult novel your chance of doing that diminishes, because people disagree about things.  But Sam Mills at Dodo made me believe that she loved my book, which was good.  They’re only publishing three books next year and mine’s going to be one of them, and they need to make it work.

We talk to each other as grown ups, I’m not treated like some kind of employee or indentured servant or slave.  We all know that we’re going to try and do the best for it.  They’re quite happy for me to have an input into the marketing and the cover, we’ve discussed the title, we’ve discussed my vision of the book to make sure that that accords with their vision of the book.  They just want it to be the best book it can be on its own terms.  It’s a long, difficult book about faith.  So you just might as well try and make it the best long difficult book about faith.

Leigh Wilson and Georgina Colby set up the Contemporary Small Press research project in response to the resurgence of independent publishing they had noticed as a result of the 2007/8 financial crisis. What do you think might be the impact of Brexit on the small presses, and what would you like to see as their response to the changing economic and political landscape in Britain?

[Brexit] can’t be good for publishing – good books are luxury items in a way.  There’s a rather utopian belief that when the world gets dark that art steps up and finds a place: I’m not sure that is or ever was true.  Certainly artists and writers have something to react to, but I don’t think necessarily that – apart from a small hard core of people – that you’re necessarily going to turn to difficult fiction because the world looks gloomy.  Certainly that audience isn’t going to increase.  I think it’s going to be quite grim.

Publishing on any level is a very narrow margin business.  And I think the financial crisis of 2008 meant that mainstream publishing houses had no wriggle room, and many people who were being published by mainstream publishing houses found themselves on the streets at that point, because they couldn’t afford a loss leader.  I’m not convinced Brexit will happen.  But I think it’s going to have a negative impact on mainstream publishers and a negative impact on small presses because there’ll be less money about – I think that’s just a given.  What will small presses’ response be to that, I don’t think there should necessarily be a response, in the sense that the only objective they should have is publishing the books that they love.  They may have more choice because the mainstream publishers may have to pull in even further and therefore maybe the result will be that agents will have to give more consideration to small presses.

The Arts Council needs to make sure that it carries on with its grants because that’s the only way half of them survive.  It’s actually for people like me and other people – small presses need a philanthropist – if I was a very rich man I’d be their answer because I’d just support the hell out of them.  But I fear it’s going to be tough and I don’t know what the answer is.  But I do think that initiatives like this [The Republic of Consciousness Prize], however tiny… If the prize money stays at £3000 and they give a grand to the author and the small press gets two, that is the price of a first print run of a new book, that just takes some of the risk out of one book.  And if on some level one can think of other ways of getting those small amounts of money it will just prop up what is essentially an artisan, amateur business.

Thanks Neil!  

Follow the progress of The Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

POSTPONED Reading & Being Read: in Birmingham

POSTPONED Reading & Being Read: in Birmingham


The Contemporary Small Press will be hosting two live events at the Library of  Birmingham this month, supported using public funding by Arts Council England.  Our previous Reading and Being Read event at the British Library was a huge success – now we’re taking that show on the road and will be visiting three other city libraries this autumn and winter.  First stop: Birmingham.

Reading and Being Read: Making Books

Thursday 22 September 2016, 6-8pm – POSTPONED

Mezzanine Café, Library of Birmingham

If you think it’s fine to judge a book by its cover – and typeface, paper and page layout! – this is the event for you. Come for an evening of discussion, demonstration and investigation into all that goes into making books as objects with other keen readers, practitioners and local small press publishers.

Tickets are £3, and can be booked via The Box by clicking here.


Reading and Being Read: Readers, Writers, Publishers

Friday 23 September 2016, 6-8pm – POSTPONED

Mezzanine Café, Library of Birmingham

The last few years has seen an explosion of new small presses and independent publishers around the country, publishing new and exciting fiction and poetry. If you are a keen reader and want to know more about the difference being a small press makes to how they work and what they publish, come along to hear from two local small presses, The Emma Press and Ayebia Press. They will each be presenting one of their writers, who will read from recently published work.

Tickets are £3, and can be booked via The Box by clicking here.