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 Piercey, enabled 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.