Reading & Being Read: Birmingham – Review

‘People want good books, wherever those books come from’. Small Presses publish good books!


On Tuesday 27th June, readers, writers and publishers met at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery for the final event in our Reading and Being Read series, organised by The Contemporary Small Press’s Georgina Colby, Leigh Wilson and Sally-Shakti Willow.  The evening was introduced by Georgina Colby, who opened the discussion into the role of small presses in contemporary UK publishing.  What difference does it make to a publisher to be a ‘small press’?  What does this mean, and what are the associated challenges and opportunities?  Publishers from two Birmingham-based presses took to the floor to offer an insight into their own experiences.

Alan Mahar, Publishing Director from 1997 to 2012 at the formerly-independent Tindal Street Press (now a subsidiary of Profile Books), spoke proudly of the press’s record as a regional publisher of writers and fictions based outside of publishing’s main hub, London.  With humble beginnings as a local writing group based in Birmingham’s Tindal Street, the idea for a press that would publish good books by local writers was born.  ‘Larger publishing houses in London weren’t interested in regional writers and regional stories,’ he said, but setting up a small, independent press enabled those writers to be published and reach a wider audience.  Publishing these books was never a simple vanity project for the team, Alan’s assertion that ‘people want good books, wherever those books come from’ is borne out by Tindal Street Press’s record: as a very small regional publisher publishing regional writers, the press published three Booker Prize-listed titles, long before the current recognition for smaller presses among large international writing prizes began.  In fact, Tindal Street Press can be proud of its tally of having a total of twenty out of its sixty-five published books listed for prizes in its time.

‘People want good books, wherever those books come from,’ Alan Mahar.

The Emma Press‘s founder and editor Emma Wright spoke about her initial focus on the publishing aesthetics of poetry pamphlets, a decision which has recently been rewarded with the Press winning the 2016 Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets.  Emma’s aim is to publish books which will be ‘loved, enjoyed and appreciated’, and the palm-sized poetry pamphlets were designed to make poetry beautiful and accessible.  Publishing her first poetry pamphlet, The Flower and the Plough by Rachel Pierceyenabled Emma to discover what she loves most about the books, the materials and the processes of publishing.  Emma set up The Emma Press in 2012, deliberately breaking the unspoken convention that sees so many presses named after men.  In 2013, the press first opened its doors to themed submissions for its anthology The Book of Mildly Erotic Verse.  Since those early days, The Emma Press is on track to publish its fiftieth title by the end of this year.

Both The Emma Press and Tindal Street Press are characterised by a ‘can-do’ attitude to publishing, by which their founders saw something missing from the mainstream market and set about to create it despite the obstacles.  Alan suggested that the dwindling space for literary reviews in national media is a challenge for small and independent publishers, and Emma has previously mentioned the challenges of representation and the financial difficulty of running an unfunded press.  The value of funding from external bodies such as The Arts Council has been of critical importance to both presses.  Regional Arts Council funding and Arts Council funding enabled Tindal Street Press to focus on publishing regional and BAME writers, while The Emma Press has conducted two Arts Council funded poetry tours.  The financial reward for winning the Michael Marks Prize has also enabled The Emma Press to expand its efforts in publicity and marketing.


Following the publishing chat, writers had their opportunity to discuss what it means to them to be published by a small press, and to read from their books.  Alan Beard and Man Booker Prize-listed novelist Gaynor Arnold, both published by Tindal Street Press read from their fiction; Racheal M Nicholas and Richard O’Brien, both Eric Gregory Award-wining poets published by The Emma Press, read from their poetry collections.


With Arts Council funding, The Contemporary Small Press has been bringing small press publishers and writers together with readers for networking and conversation about the work of the independent presses.  Reading and Being Read: Birmingham was the last in this series, which has also included events in London, Manchester and Newcastle.  We extend a huge, warm thank you to everyone who has taken part in these events – all the publishers, writers and readers who have made the conversations buzz.  That conversation isn’t over, so follow us on Twitter and our main website for more!

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow, Research Assistant, The Contemporary Small Press.

The Days of Birmingham’s Tindal Street Press

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 MAhar BMI2 Sep 08

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.


READING & BEING READ: BIRMINGHAM – Ikon Gallery, 27 June 6-9pm.  Tickets £5 / students register for FREE.


Poetry in Good Hands

Emma Wright from The Emma Press will be speaking at Reading & Being Read: Birmingham at the Ikon Gallery on 27 June.

Emma Wright from The Emma Press will be speaking at Reading & Being Read: Birmingham at the Ikon Gallery on 27 June.

Recent winner of the 2016 Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets, The Emma Press publishes a range of poetry anthologies, pamphlets and e-books.  Here’s Emma’s acceptance speech (reproduced with permission), and you can find out more about the Award and the thriving small press publishing scene in Birmingham on The Emma Press website here.

Emma Wright delivering her speech at the British Library (© Tony Grant)

Emma’s speech at the Michael Marks Awards

I’m Emma Wright and I started the Emma Press just over four years ago, after quitting my job at Orion Publishing Group. I never thought I would start my own company, let alone a publishing house, but then – in 2012 – I got tired.

I got tired of seeing men’s surnames in the names of the imprints I was working on, and I got tired of looking around the publishing industry and seeing women pretty much everywhere other than at the very top. And I was tired of waiting for other women of colour to rise up the ranks and show me that it was possible, and that this wasn’t exclusively a white man’s club.

I needed representation in a way that’s hard to understand when you’re already represented everywhere. I was tired of waiting, so I moved back to my parents’ house in Reading, I quit my job and I decided to try and be part of the change.

And now I’m here. I’ve published 33 poetry books, with 17 more due out next year. I’ve run two Arts Council-supported poetry tours and, though it’s always a financial struggle running an unfunded press full time, my developing sense as an entrepreneur has allowed me to keep the press – and myself – afloat in my new home city of Birmingham.

Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright, after the awards dinner

I’ve worked with my good friend and brilliant poet and editor Rachel Piercey to champion writers we believe in and produce books which appeal to readers beyond the usual poetry book-buying audiences. We work hard to develop our authors and bring them opportunities, and we’re especially proud of our three pamphlet series: the Picks, which are themed and have black and white illustrations; the Pamphlets, which include introductions from other poets as another way in for the reader; and the Art Squares, which are lavishly produced, with full-colour illustrations.

And it’s hard. Of course it’s hard. I’m running an unfunded poetry publisher, putting books out into a wider cultural conversation that is dominated by vocal, entitled white men, voicing their opinions often without a clue about the toxic state they’re contributing to. It’s dispiriting, but I’m hopeful that things are changing. Other people are tired too, and I’m seeing more movement now to tackle publishing’s lack of diversity.

So, recognition like this means a lot. It’s wonderful to be here tonight amongst other poetry-lovers, celebrating the poetry pamphlet, and I want to thank the Michael Marks Awards team for drawing attention to this small but vital part of the poetry ecosystem. Being here tonight, I’m feeling positive about the future.

* * *


Reading & Being Read: Birmingham

Reading & Being Read Birmingham with The Emma Press and Alan Mahar, former Publishing Director with Tindal Street Press.

Reading and Being Read heads to Birmingham for our final Arts Council funded event of 2017.



Emma Wright, Editor of The Emma Press 

Alan Mahar, former Editor at Tindal Street Press


1 Oozells Square



B1 2HS

Tuesday 27 June, 6-9pm

Tickets £3 before 12 June / £5 after

FREE tickets for Midlands-based MA and PhD students – Register here

Twitter hashtag: #ReadingBeingRead

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 local independent press The Emma Press, and former small-press editor Alan Mahar.

Join us for this informal discussion on challenges related to small press publishing. A roundtable conversation with Alan Mahar, former editor of Tindal Street Press, and Emma Wright, editor of The Emma Press will be followed by readings from authors Alan Beard, Gaynor Arnold and others published by The Emma Press and the former Tindal Street Press.