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.