On 18th February 2017, Newcastle City Library hosted the latest Reading and Being Read event from the Contemporary Small Press. The day included talks from two local publishers Red Squirrel Press and Myrmidon Books, readings from two local writers Ellen Phethean and Valerie Laws, and an afternoon workshop on the material aspects of book design with Frania Hall from London College of Communication’s MA Publishing course.
The Contemporary Small Press’s Leigh Wilson welcomed guests to the event, commenting that it’s often been the case for poetry to be published by small presses, but there has been a recent rise in small publishers of fiction which the day’s event was designed to explore. Sheila Wakefield from Red Squirrel Press and Ed from Myrmidon Books gave fascinating and insightful talks about the workings of a small press, what they’re looking for from their writers, how to make a successful submission, and more.
Both Sheila and Ed suggested that sales and marketing are vital for keeping small presses in business; while Sheila suggested that her writers play an important role in that process and Ed spoke about the role of bookshops and online retailers, it was clear that small presses’ survival is dependent on the small profit margins involved with book sales. Ed admitted, ‘on every ten books you publish, you’ll lose money on seven, maybe break even on two, and hope that one makes enough to cover that cost’. However, both Myrmidon and Red Squirrel are thriving examples of small press publishers based in the North East, with Sheila publishing her 180th title next month.
Reading submissions is an enjoyable part of the work for both Ed and Sheila, although it can get overwhelming – when Sheila first opened up Red Squirrel Press for submissions her postman had to get a bigger van to deliver all the manuscripts she was sent! Ed reflects that he feels like ‘the Grim Reaper, destroying people’s dreams’ when he has to turn down a submitted manuscript, while Sheila shared the extraordinary and unsettling lengths that some writers will go to when desperate to submit, saying that ‘publishers can get stalked by writers’ – which probably doesn’t increase the chances of clinching that book deal.
‘it’s all about the writing, craft, skill. The whole production of book, paper, fonts. I’m a book geek.’ Sheila Wakefield
When making a decision on whether or not to publish a book, Ed needs to know if it’s going to sell and if it’s going to make it onto the table at Waterstones. He says, ‘if we like it, if it turns us on, it’s probably going to turn other people on too.’ For Sheila, ‘it’s all about the writing, craft, skill. The whole production of book, paper, fonts. I’m a book geek’. Ed remarked that ‘by taking open submissions, [Myrmidon is] doing what the big publishers can no longer do’, highlighting one of the key differences that being a small press makes to the way that they are able to engage with new writers. Sheila’s ringing advice for anyone wishing to submit to a small press publisher was to get as much feedback from supportive peers and groups as possible before making your final submission, and most importantly reading the submission guidelines for your chosen press.
Two writers, both successfully published by Red Squirrel Press, Ellen Phethean and Valerie Laws, spoke about their experiences of writing and publishing with small presses and gave readings from their books. Ellen commented that great small presses will develop a personal one-to-one relationship between the editor/publisher and the writer, enabling the writer to publish the book they want to write. Valerie praised small presses for giving writers the freedom to write differently every time, thus experimenting with new styles, forms and genres. Both highlighted the importance for a writer of having a complete manuscript to send to publishers, rather than just a ‘book idea’. Ellen said, ‘a writer is somebody who finishes. Getting to the end of the book, redrafting, submitting, publishing. Once upon a time publishers might be interested in the “idea” of a book or the first three chapters. Now it has to be the finished manuscript.’
‘a writer is somebody who finishes. Getting to the end of the book, redrafting, submitting, publishing. Once upon a time publishers might be interested in the “idea” of a book or the first three chapters. Now it has to be the finished manuscript.’ Ellen Phethean
The afternoon session was a hands-on workshop with Frania Hall from LCC’s MA Publishing, who spoke about the material aspects of book design and production, and got everyone involved with creating new book cover designs for the eight titles on the Republic of Consciousness Prize short list.
Look out for our next Reading and Being Read event coming to a UK city near you soon.
Reading and Being Read events are supported using public funding by the Arts Council England.