Neil Griffiths prepares to announce the shortlist
Two weeks ago I travelled to Manchester to attend a book event that is close to my heart. Having been invited to join the reader panel for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses early last summer, I have been immersed in the many excellent books submitted for consideration for many months. The longlist was announced in December and was, in my view, an outstanding collection of some of the best literary fiction published in recent years.
Whittling this down to a shortlist proved a challenge. It was done over dinner in London, in January, in preparation for an announcement that then had to be delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. I wrote briefly about the the rescheduled event, held in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, here.
The night, though, was about more than announcing the six books that had made it onto the shortlist. It was an appreciation of the literary achievements of the small presses. As Charles Boyle, author and publisher at CB Editions, said in his guest post for my blog last month (which he told me when I met him in Manchester he really hadn’t wanted to write!):
“Does there have to be a winner? Boringly, yes. It’s how the world tick-tocks. But that doesn’t matter, because the real point of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is to celebrate a movement and a community.”
This sense of community was well in evidence at the Manchester event, despite the obvious disappointment of the authors and publishers that were not shortlisted.
Before the announcement there were panels and talks which I summarise in some detail below for anyone interested.
As an aside, I had not previously been aware that certain other prizes reveal to the publishers beforehand what is to be announced, that print runs may be adjusted to ensure books are available for the anticipated increase in sales. At this event, as far as I know, we judges were the only people who knew the shortlist beforehand.
The evening opened with an introduction by the founder of the RofC prize, Neil Griffiths, who posed a few questions designed to make authors think about what they wanted from a book deal. Neil has published prize winning novels with an imprint of Penguin, enjoying a large advance but little ongoing attention from those he hoped would work to help promote his books. His most recent novel, As A God Might Be, has been published by Dodo Ink, a small press that has offered him a more satisfying experience.
A selection of the longlisted publishers were then invited to form a panel to discuss the recent emergence of the small presses as leaders in literary innovation. Those taking part were Carolina Orloff from Charco Press, Chris Hamilton-Emery from Salt Publishing, Elly Millar from Galley Beggar Press, and Kevin Duffy from Bluemoose Books.
Neil asked why small presses are flourishing.
Kevin suggested that although they still have to sell books (they are not after all a library) they have a different economic imperative.
Elly mentioned some stats that she shares with the publishing students she teaches: in 2001 a literary fiction title written in English would sell on average 1200 copies; by 2015 this average had fallen to around 260 copies per book.
Chris commented that sales are impossible to predict. When Salt started it sold poetry and would be lucky to sell 50 copies of any title; these days it hopes to sell around 200 copies – some perform considerably better, of course.
Carolina added that their longlisted book has sold around 800 copies to date. When asked why she chose to enter the publishing business given these figures she replied it was out of a sense of frustration, that so many good books were simply not available to English language readers. She wished to change the conversation, to bring a wider variety of books to readers.
Kevin suggested that the decline in publishing innovation started with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. From then, authors were dropped if sales did not meet targets – publishers were no longer willing to carry poor sellers. Libraries were also having their budgets cut and buying fewer books.
Neil mentioned media reports about the fall in sales of literary fiction but the rise in sales of books from small presses (Elly whispered, we have the good stuff!)
There was acknowledgement that most of the authors the small presses publish will already have submitted to the larger houses and been rejected.
Neil asked about the role of agents who are also focused on the bottom line as they need to earn many thousands of pounds from book sales simply to pay for their desk space.
Kevin said that, where there is only so much publishing pie to go around, those looking to ‘pay for their desk space’ were not focusing purely on great writing. Some agents have also been known to express concern when writers are not London based.
Chris mentioned that agents tend to look to the small presses last.
Carolina commented that more interesting work could be found by approaching authors directly.
As an aside Neil added that following his Penguin publishing deal he was taken out to lunch but didn’t get invited into the publisher’s building for a year, until he was regarded as established.
Chris talked of the dramatic explosion of authors going it alone, who see no advantage in a small press. In the early days some were earning six figure sums publishing on Kindle but the market quickly became saturated. Authors should ask what benefit an agent will offer them. Small presses are willing to collaborate in such areas as rights sales.
Elly mentioned that most authors have agents but also approach small presses themselves. She currently has 457 submissions in her inbox, despite only accepting for two weeks twice a year. She believes agents may be worthwhile if sales explode, such as if a big prize is won. She pointed out that most people who run small presses, and most writers, also have day jobs to pay the bills.
Chris suggested that writers whose work fits into a fashionable genre may benefit from an agent. He hoped that the many writing schools now in existence teach the realities of publishing, pointing out that even a Guardian review may lead to just 20 extra sales.
Neil added, and others concurred, that despite it being a writer’s dream to write full time, this may not actually be good for their art. He then asked what the wider industry could do for small presses that is not currently being done.
Elly mentioned that reviews are hugely useful, that she sees spikes in sales when reviews appear in such publications as The Sunday Times, women’s magazines or on Front Row. Neil questioned if reviews were really so important in driving sales. The consensus was that what is required is visibility. It is to do with readers spreading the word, such as happens on Twitter.
Kevin commented that this was why they started the Northern Fiction Alliance. He said that readers are looking elsewhere and are now finding the small presses.
Chris didn’t believe the trade owed small presses anything. He takes on books that have commercial potential but this is hard to call. A bookshop may order a thousand of one title while for another, that he considers fantastic, they may order only six.
Dostoyevsky Wannabe, in the audience, chipped in that they print on demand so do not need sales (although they would like them!) Chris added that Salt started in the same way. Dostoyevsky Wannabe believes agents may still be looking for books about wizards, or cookbooks.
Authors Isabel Waidner (Gaudy Bauble) and Preti Taneja (We that are young) then came to the front of the room to give talks.
Isabel spoke of what literature can do, that it can offer cultural assistance and has the potential to affect political and social change. She wishes to see the small presses offering alternative narratives to counter the prevailing conservative one. She stated that the Tory party are good at turning what they wish to become normative into stuff that resonates with people. The arts should come up with alternatives. They need to resonate with audiences not currently engaging with literature. If it remains commercial, middle class, then it excludes a huge readership who thus remain invisible. Where are the working class writers, the queer writers, writing about their subcultures? It is these writers who are featured in an anthology she has been working on recently, Liberating the Canon. There is much still to be done but it can be done. She hopes the small presses will be more willing to look at diversity and cultural innovation.
Preti talked of her experience of getting published and the prejudices she encountered as a woman of colour. Reactions to her novel, a rewriting of King Lear, suggested that what she was attempting was fantastic but that Shakespeare did not belong to someone like her, despite being British born. At one stage the agent who took her on would not submit to a publisher as they already had an unanswered submission from another British-Asian writer, as though such writers are identkit. Eventually her manuscript was hand delivered to Galley Beggar Press, at home, by the tiny Gatehouse Press who had published a novella she had written and recognised the potential of We that are young. Preti was unsure at this stage if a small press would think this work was right for them. Having published she believes that they can offer the mixing up and integration needed to move forward. Literature should be innovative, nuanced, it should be playing with ideas and making something new.
Isabel and Preti were then joined by Simon Okotie (In the Absence of Absalon), David Hayden (Darker With The Lights On) and Ben Myers (The Gallows Pole) to form an author panel.
Like Neil, Ben has been published by both large and small presses. He pointed out that the big advances paid may be for five years work so perhaps not quite as generous as first appears. He mentioned that one of his books was regarded as big but turned out to have a short shelf life. He has enjoyed the autonomy Bluemoose Books have given him, for example he chose the striking cover for Gallows Pole. Picador would never have allowed that.
David was not allowed to choose his cover! Little Island Press has an award winning ‘house style’ which permeates every aspect of their beautiful books. He has been in the book trade since 1989, working in bookshops, as a commissioning editor, a non-fiction publisher – he knows the book trade from every direction. He mentioned that one publisher he submitted to couldn’t be sure his stories would sell, and the commissioning editor is granted only one wild card choice per year. There is a fear element in acquisitions meetings. Commissioning editors can lose their jobs if the finance people are unhappy with how books perform. In talking of the potential for diversity David pointed out that across almost all literary imprints, key decision makers are white, male and privately educated.
Simon described his book as a story about a man taking a set of keys out of his pocket. His next book will have even less action. Neil commented that, like Isabel’s, Simon’s work sits on the extremes of literary fiction. Simon expressed his gratitude that his books can be published as they are very particular, stemming from his work on public transport while studying philosophy.
Neil talked of books as works of art, the author having command over their material, getting it to do whatever they want. He mentioned the longlisted book by Kevin Davey, Playing Possum, which, if written by a renowned author such as Pynchon, would have people doing PhDs on it. If the culture narrows, such books will never be published.
With so many books being published each year, Neil asked the authors if they had any sense of where British fiction is – if it is good, bad, on hold, exciting.
Preti mentioned that from visiting bookshops she noticed more translated fiction.
Ben added that the best novels he has read recently have come from the small presses, been crowdfunded, or authors have been cherry picked by the bigger publishers after a small press success. As a reviewer he is sent so many books that sometimes quality is drowned out.
David talked of all literature being contemporary as all language (writing) interacts with what has gone before. He stated that segmentation and a focus on marketability can be disheartening for readers. The book becomes a product, offered up and then forgotten.
Neil commented that when something works all the big publishers seem to desire their own version. David reminded everyone that commissioning editors are readers first but work within restrictions.
The idea of hybridity was mentioned.
Isabel believes this is improving but literature is still far too homogeneous. She wishes to see more authors working with language and form, crossing intersections, a diversity of writing and also writers.
Preti stated that she does not consider a small press to be a stepping stone to a bigger publishing house. She values the relationship built stating that such things help make the whole process more worthwhile.
Simon commented that he would like to read more books like his own. He wrote it because he couldn’t find it elsewhere. He was eager to emphasise the value of the small presses and the writers they are finding. So much interesting work is coming through.
Isabel believes that reaching readerships that aren’t yet being tapped into matters more than copies sold.
Neil reminded everyone that the RofC prize was set up to reward small presses willing to take a risk on ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. The reaction to the longlist has been intense, but how many people want to read such super premium literary fiction?
Ben does not believe publishers should underestimate readers. He mentioned Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing (first published by Galley Beggar) which has proved a cultural phenomena, sold 57,000 copies and is still much sought after.
Simon suggested this book was still recent, that we should be looking at a book such as Ulysses, its cultural impact, and what is possible.
With that Neil drew this part of the evening to a close. The packed venue (many were by now standing at the back or sitting in the aisle) decamped to another room for wine and conversation before the shortlist announcement was made.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to introduce myself to several publishers I interact with regularly on line but had not previously met – Chris had come across a poet sharing my name which caused some confusion when I introduced myself – as well as authors whose work I have reviewed. At this stage I was unsure if I should be mentioning that I was a judge given that some would, inevitably, go home disappointed by the evening’s outcome.
13 books had to be whittled down to 6. This is the more negative aspect of judging, that favourites from what was a truly outstanding list had to be selected.
The next stage will be to choose a winner which will be announced on 20 March at an event to be held at the University of Westminster. Another difficult decision must be made.