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.


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.


Reading and Being Read Newcastle: Review

On 18th February 2017, Newcastle City Library hosted the latest Reading and Being Read event from the Contemporary Small Press.

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.

Ed from Myrmidon Books, Dr. Leigh Wilson from The Contemporary Small Press, Sheila Wakefield from Red Squirrel Press

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

Ellen Phethean, reading from Ren and the Blue Hands

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.


Sheep & Skulls: Valerie Laws

Valerie Laws and Sheila Wakefield from Red Squirrel Press will be speaking at Reading & Being Read Newcastle on Saturday 18 February, 11-4pm.

Valerie Laws and Sheila Wakefield from Red Squirrel Press will be speaking at Reading & Being Read Newcastle on Saturday 18 February, 11-4pm.

Valerie Laws is a Northumbrian poet, crime novelist, science-poetry installation artist, playwright and mathematician/physicist. Her thirteen published books represent several genres and publishers.

From Red Squirrel Press, they include two crime novels The Rotting Spot (‘a darkly intriguing debut’ Val McDermid) and The Operator (‘gripping from the very first scene’ Ann Cleeves) set in the north east and two of her four full-length poetry collections: The Facebook of the Dead, and All That Lives, which arose from funded residencies with pathologists, neuroscientists and anatomists researching the science of dying and the ageing brain.

Valerie devises new poetic forms for installations and commissions including the infamous Arts Council–funded Quantum Sheep, in which haiku were spray-painted onto live sheep. She featured in BBC2’s Why Poetry Matters with Griff Rhys Jones and performs worldwide live and in the media. She has had twelve plays commissioned for stage and BBC radio. She has won numerous prizes and awards, including a Wellcome Trust Arts Award and two Northern Writers’ Awards.

To find out more visit

Valerie Laws


Red Squirrel Press is an independent publisher based in Northumberland, founded by poet and Editor Sheila Wakefield in April 2006, has published over 160 titles to date which includes poetry, crime fiction, literary fiction and non-fiction. Red Squirrel Press has never had Arts Council England or any other funding and was shortlisted for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award in 2010 and 2015. Postbox Press, the literary fiction imprint of Red Squirrel Press was introduced in 2015.
Red Squirrel Press publications for sale will include
Breath, Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman (poetry) and Ren and the Blue Hands (Young Adult novel) by Ellen Phethean.
The Tyne & Wear Poems by Ian Davidson.
The Operator (crime fiction) by Valerie Laws.
My Wild Northumbria (non-fiction) by Mike Pratt.


For tickets and more information please click below:




33 New Bridge Street West

Newcastle upon Tyne


11am to 4pm, Saturday 18 February 2017

Tickets £5 / NE Students register for FREE

Twitter hashtag: #ReadingBeingRead