Alan Mahar, former Publishing Director of Tindal Street Press (1997-2012), writes about his involvement with the press and the challenges facing small presses today. Alan will will be speaking at Reading & Being Read: Birmingham at Ikon Gallery on 27 June, along with writers Gaynor Arnold and Alan Beard.
I must talk historically because I am an ex-publisher, no longer associated with the imprint of Tindal Street Press, which in 2012 became part of Profile Books, under the wing of Serpent’s Tail. Just to be clear: I have no current connection with the imprint and can only speak of a period of adventurous publishing in Birmingham between 1997 and 2012.
Tindal Street Press was characterised within the hegemony of London’s publishing world as a feisty indie from Brum which punched above its weight. We aspired to be more than a small press. Because, with three listings for the Man Booker Prize (Clare Morrall shortlisted in 2003 for Astonishing Splashes of Colour; Catherine O’Flynn in 2007 and Gaynor Arnold in 2008) and two Orange Prize listings, two Costa First Novel winners (What Was Lost and Raphael Selbourne with Beauty in 2011), plus Commonwealth Writers and Desmond Elliott prize listings, we felt ourselves worthy to sit alongside indies such as Faber and Canongate. We were as serious about prize-listings as we were about consistently glowing reviews in metropolitan newspapers and magazines. It was an exciting time.
The Blair era was probably the golden age of public arts funding. The National Lottery got us started with a one-off project: a collection of short stories from Alan Beard, whose deserving manuscript Taking Doreen Out of the Sky (several respected magazines had published his stories) had been turned down by mainstream publishers – we thought unjustly, so we decided to publish it. The outcome was impressive reviews and an offer of re-publication by a mainstream publisher. We thought: QED. It’s possible to publish quality fiction in Birmingham and get national notice for it. Alan will be reading at Reading & Being Read.
We began by producing two new titles annually and graduated to twelve a year, altogether sixty-five works of new fiction: novels, short story collections and anthologies, a third of them garlanded. Our regional fiction focus beginning with the prizewinning Pig Bin by Michael Richardson and the crime anthology Birmingham Noir, then covered Black Country literary titles such as Anthony Cartwright’s Afterglow and Heartland and branched out fiction from other provincial cities Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham – but definitely not London; that was for the mainstream publishers. We published the BME anthology Whispers in the Walls and later three distinguished Caribbean writers: Austin Clarke, E.A. Markham and Lawrence Scott and a provocative anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough. I have happy memories of the summer success of Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold (who will also read at the Ikon).
After the financial crash of 2008 UK book sales faltered, the bookstore chain we relied on, Waterstones, came close to closure in 2011, a Tory coalition had different ideas about the arts, Amazon began changing the rules of discount and sales altogether, ebooks threatened the end of the printed book, newspaper review space began to shrink inexorably – they were tough years for publishing.
Rollercoaster, maybe, but we had a good ride. We had an office in the Custard Factory and a regular presence in London. I can’t list all the people involved in the achievements of this team, but I should mention Penny Rendall as the originator, and the most meticulous editor Emma Hargrave; and also my colleague, Luke Brown, a greatly talented all-rounder.
I have the greatest respect for contemporary small press fiction publishers such as And Other Stories, Fitzcarraldo, Salt, CB Editions and many more. In our heyday we tried to emulate imprints such as Serpent’s Tail and Arcadia. It’s heartening to see that the Arts Council is still supporting small presses to take risks with unknown authors and challenging works.
Small presses need the very best creative and editorial talents, plus ambition, determination, energy and business nous. A clear vision for their brand. And to take risks with every single title. Some things may have changed since I was Publishing Director of Tindal Street Press but I hope on June 27th at the Ikon Gallery (in company with my two Tindal authors) I can offer encouragement to other publishers, writers and readers.