Spotlight on independent publisher, Charco Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Charco Press contributed a fascinating guest post about the origins and aims of their publishing house last year after one of their inaugural titles, Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, was longlisted for the RofC prize. This title went on to make the 2018 shortlist and was also longlisted for that year’s Man Booker International Prize.

You may read the guest post here.

I did not ask them to contribute again but was grateful to receive a copy of this year’s longlisted book, Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), which I will review tomorrow.

In looking at what has been happening at the press in the past year there was a wealth of exciting news and achievements (summarised on their website). Charco are reaching impressive heights in the literary world and deserve further, wider attention.

A conversation between Ellen Jones and Charco’s Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell, published in Hotel magazine, was of particular interest – you may read it here. Amongst other topics they talk of: the exciting publishing scene in Scotland; their vision for the visual presentation of their beautiful books; the value of bringing established and respected authors who have won awards internationally to English speaking readers.

Resistance has already won the Jabuti Award for Book of the Year (2016), the Oceanos Prize (2016), the José Saramago Literary Prize (2017) and the Anna Seghers Prize (2018). Julián Fuks has gained recognition as one of Brazil’s most outstanding young writers.

Charco’s aims are best summarised in their own words from their website.

“Charco Press was born from a desire to do something a little out of the ordinary. To bring you, the reader, books from a different part of the world. Outstanding books. Books you want to read. Maybe even books you need to read.

Charco Press is ambitious. We aim to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself.

We select authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors that have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.”

Personally I would like to read every book put out by this fabulous publisher. I am grateful that the Republic of Consciousness Prize brought them to my attention.

 

You may follow Charco Press on Twitter: @CharcoPress

Guest post by independent publisher, Peepal Tree Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Peepal Tree Press who published Kitch by Anthony Joseph. On their website we are told that Peepal Tree

“aims to bring you the very best of international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK.”

“We publish fiction, poetry and a range of academic and non-fiction titles. Our goal is to publish books that make a difference”

Do please read on to find out more.

Founded in 1985 by our Managing Editor, Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree press had humble beginnings. Our first title, Backdam People by Rooplall Monar, was typeset on a daisywheel printer after hours in college. In the last 34 years, we have brought readers around 350 titles by Caribbean, Asian, and Black British authors, making a name for ourselves as the leading publisher of Caribbean literature.

The inspiration for our name came to Jeremy in the form of a poem by Indo-Guyanese poet Jacob Chinapen. In the poem, workers tell stories under a peepal tree after a day at work. The peepal tree, which originated in India but was brought to the Caribbean, seemed to Jeremy to be a perfect metaphor for something transplanted – symbolic of putting down roots. And so, Peepal Tree Press was born, out of a desire to help Backdam People be published in a time of Guyanese oppression.

Since then we have survived on various shoestrings, prioritizing great literature that says something new to the world, and editing those books with the utmost care. We have evolved through the development of different printing technologies and are now in a place where we are publishing 20 or so books a year, members of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, and home to Inscribe, which delivers writer development and support. Peepal Tree is based in Leeds, part of a growing independent publishing sector outside of London and the South East, and a proud founder member of the Northern Fiction Alliance. It has been an honour to have the brilliant Anthony Joseph’s innovative fusion of novel and biography, Kitch, longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize. Discovering the books on the longlist has been a delight, and prizes like ROFC are hugely valuable in helping readers discover amazing books from indies that they might not otherwise have come across. Similarly, ROFC’s nomination of Marcia Douglas for the 2016 longlist was hugely beneficial to us, attracting new readers.

We hope to continue developing and contributing to conversations about Caribbean literature and culture, publishing wonderful books, and opening up this world to readers and writers. Our new anthology, for example, The Peepal Tree Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories, featured on BBC Radio 4 Open Book, shines a light on a wide range of authors across the Caribbean and its diasporas, with a strong focus on women and LGBT writers. You can see a list of the books we have planned for 2019 here, and look out too for the New Caribbean Voices podcast, launching soon on Soundcloud. We’d love it if you followed us on instagram, twitter, or facebook – or you can even subscribe to our newsletter.

We wish luck to all of the authors longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize.

 

Book Review: Hang Him When He Is Not There

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner.

This book is disorientating. It reads as a series of short stories that the reader expects will eventually interlink – it is, after all, described as a novel. Some chapters are more straightforward than others. Some are distinctly weird. A threatening undercurrent weaves itself through the pages, shadows not quite glimpsed in passing. There is a viciousness to certain thoughts and interactions. Few of the characters are likable, not that this is necessary.

Settings vary but include: a care home, a vineyard, an apartment crowded by books, a decaying family home, rooms let to tourists by an elderly lady. A proof reader travels to meet a reclusive author; in later stories we learn more about their lives. A chapter tells of two brothers on holiday; they reappear in the background of another tale. Books and how they are read are a recurring feature – meta considering the challenge of pinning down what this book is saying.

One theme I plucked from the many permutations of characters’ narrative and observations was the disturbance felt on registering that a person one is close to is not as thought and treated as, perhaps for many years. It is impossible to fully understand all that goes on inside another’s head and one is rarely the centre of another’s universe however much they appear attentive and to revere.

I pondered if the author is offering a work that demands readers change and change again their interpretations as they progress through its pages.

The Mystics chapter was particularly challenging to read due to the brutality. Sexual or bodily explicit scenes throughout offer nothing pleasant. People within these stories are not conventionally good looking – flaws are described vividly. There is the suggestion of personal darkness that few acknowledge, an innate coarseness veneered by observers as much as self.

So, what was the author trying to convey in writing this way?

“I’ll do better than to tell you about a dream I had. I’ll tell you how it was to have this dream. But not before telling you how it was to recall having had it. Everything is everything.”

There are obvious plays with language and form. More was gleaned on a second reading. Ultimately though this was a book that left me perplexed and somewhat frustrated, despite best efforts. The intricacies offered were tantalisingly elusive, viewed through a glass darkly. I wonder if this was intended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

Guest post by independent publisher, Splice

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Daniel from Splice whose book, Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

The first thing to know about Splice, for readers who have found it recently, is that the small press is only one part of its activities. The second thing to know is that it’s not a commercial enterprise; it’s a not-for-profit organisation. This means that its remit is a lot broader than simply publishing books and making some money off sales and prizes. There’s more to it than that, but naturally you’ll need to take a step back to see the bigger picture.

I set up Splice in 2017 with just one idea in mind: I wanted to create a system for supporting the production of formally unconventional literature. Let me define some of those terms. By “formally unconventional literature” I mean books of any type (short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, etc.) that somehow push the boundaries of style and structure, whether subtly or in revolutionary ways, adopting and defending their own terms of formal “success”. I didn’t grow up in an especially literary household, and in fact literature didn’t begin to speak to me until I was in my twenties and out of university, so the notion of literature as some sort of refined pleasure, or something with cultural cachet, is absolutely anathema to me; it doesn’t jibe with my gut feeling. I like value irreverence, iconoclasm, edginess, messiness, stylistic abandon, wilful disregard and even disparagement of literary politesse. If a work of literature plays by the rules stylistically and structurally, I’m flat-out not interested. I don’t care how provocative its subject matter might be; a book’s “success”, for me, is entirely a question of its aesthetics and their deviation from the centre of the literary landscape.

Two more key terms and then I’ll get to the heart of Splice. By “system” I mean a series of interlocking mechanisms that could offer support to these sorts of books at different stages on their journey from the mind of a writer to the hands of readers. And by “supporting the production” of these books, I mean supporting the authors who write them — but this is a very complex, multifaceted activity, and it’s worth looking at some of the nuances.

To my mind, support for an author isn’t worth much if it doesn’t help the author take a step towards writing something new in future, beyond whatever work that has captured your attention here and now. At the same time, chances of future work greatly diminish if the current work isn’t accorded some value and future possibilities aren’t invested in from the get-go. So, in setting up Splice, I knew I had to create a system that would do at least five things in order to realise my one overriding goal:

  • It had to pay writers up-front, offering a fee as a reward for the labour that has already produced the work. No royalties-only arrangements, where all income is contingent on sales, but something to recognise that the work already has value.
  • It had to pay writers on an ongoing basis, in a way that recognised them as co- creators. That means fifty per cent royalties, higher than an industry standard of ten per cent, from the sale of the very first copy, with no advance to earn out.
  • It had to commission future work from writers at the same time as arranging the publication of their early work, guaranteeing no-strings-attached publication and an additional fee. As a result, Splice’s standard contract for its small press authors involves purchasing publication rights for an existing manuscript and pre-arranging the purchase of two new, as-yet-unwritten works of prose — one for the website and one for the Splice anthology — with extra cash attached.

These three planks of Splice form the basis of all its activities in print, i.e. the small press publications and the anthology. That’s because they do the lion’s share of the tasks I mentioned above, according value to an author’s current work and investing in future work sight unseen. But still, in sketching out the various components of Splice, I realised it couldn’t fulfil its purpose if it didn’t do at least two other things:

  • It had to go to bat for authors of formally unconventional literature even if it wasn’t publishing them, and even if something that would benefit an author published by Splice would work to the detriment of Splice itself. This is a large part of why Splice is a not-for-profit enterprise; there’s just a huge amount of advisory work and advocacy work going on behind the scenes, pro bono. This includes providing detailed editorial advice to authors whose manuscripts have merit but won’t be purchased by Splice; alerting writers to opportunities for grants, bursaries, and workshop opportunities, which can help them to access further remuneration for their work, and assisting with their applications; liaising with publishers overseas who may be interested in acquiring territorial rights to titles, in cases where Splice doesn’t stand to profit because the rights still reside with the author; and so on. There are many more people involved with Splice than can be seen on the surface, and much of the pro bono work entails striking connections, soliciting feedback, helping people get together to help one another — again, with an eye on the future. And ultimately, on Splice’s terms, it would be a success, not a disappointment, if our authors ended up jumping ship and publishing their next books with bigger presses, just as long as they’re not compromising on their unconventional aesthetic visions.
  • It had to reward writers of formally unconventional literature published by other publishers, especially other small presses that take chances on adventurous work, by offering them a degree of serious attention they don’t typically receive. This is the rationale behind Splice’s online activities: we publish at least one long review of a recent book each week, at least 2,000 words in length, and we often supplement the review with an author or translator interview. On one level, it’s a real morale booster for these writers to have their work read in depth and written about at length in an intelligent way, rather than as a superficial publicity exercise. On another level, this can also yield further financial rewards for writers, and thereby help them to snag an investment in future work, because grants and bursaries often require applications to be supplemented with serious, insightful reviews. And on yet another level — which takes up probably one-third of my time — it allows literary critics of great skill to exercise their talents and get paid for it as well. It is excruciatingly difficult to be a critic with a knack for writing these sorts of reviews; it’s even more difficult when you don’t get paid for your work, and when you don’t get the editorial support and encouragement you need to keep going. The Splice website exists as a platform to reward these critics, to commission future work from them as well, to honour their abilities as creative readers and writers — and to acknowledge the indispensable role they play in sourcing, appraising, and adding to the value of exciting new books.

I suppose you could read back over all the things I’ve just said about Splice and think it’s all hokum, overly technical, or too industry-centric, or whatever. But the bottom line is that I believe passionately and absolutely in the value of formally unconventional literature — I’m driven by an evangelising zeal for it — and I’m anxious to do whatever I can to see more of it come into being, to not let authors become dispirited because their work isn’t taken seriously, to not let them fall silent just because their books don’t sell enough to allow them to quit their day jobs. Splice was conceived as a means to that end.

One last note on this point: if you want proof of all this, you’ll find it in the system of Splice itself. If you’ve heard me on the Republic of Consciousness Podcast, or you follow Splice on Twitter, you’ll know that I handle all the editorial stuff while the logistics (slush pile sifting, royalty payments, postage, contracts, etc.) are dealt with by Alec Dewar. I came to know Alec in the months before Splice started publishing online. He’s a young academic based in Scotland, specialising in Scandinavian literature, and I approached him in the dying days of 2017 to ask him if he’d be interested in reviewing a bevy of Icelandic titles that were due to be published throughout 2018. He agreed, in principle, but on two conditions. He hadn’t written for a non-academic audience before, so he needed some hands-on guidance, and he also wanted an opportunity to try out other things as he planned to leave academia. Long story short, in exchange for being able to delegate a lot of the day-to-day stuff to Alec, I arranged to mentor him in his reviewing activities for Splice. In other words, the advisory and advocacy responsibilities of Splice are baked into the structure of it, even at the level of the people who run it with me. And I’ve learned a great deal from Alec, too, such that I’ve now built in a mentoring “scheme” for young critics as part of my editorial activities, helping newcomers to build a portfolio of high-quality work as reviewers and essayists.

Again, there’s nothing to be gained from this financially — it costs Splice money to pay for something like MacKenzie Warren’s recent long essay on Nocilla Lab — but the benefit, in terms of Splice’s mission, is  immense. I get to hone my Socratic skills by pushing MacKenzie to look closer, dig deeper, keep writing, find another way of saying this or that. MacKenzie ends up with a piece of high-quality criticism, plus some cash for her efforts, and hopefully Fitzcarraldo Editions and Agustín Fernández Mallo and the translator Thomas Bunstead get a financial kickback, and some extra prestige, as part of the same exercise. Ultimately, the winners are readers who appreciate formally unconventional literature, either because they become aware of Nocilla Lab or because they have a new perspective on it, a little bit of added value for their £12.99, and so Splice functions exactly as it was intended to do.

It’s hard to say how things have changed in publishing since I started, because Splice is only eighteen months old and its small press activities are even younger than that, but I’ve certainly been surprised by some of the things I’ve seen since I started looking under the bonnet. There are a few questionable practices, to be sure, but most of all I’ve been surprised — and humbled — by the staggering generosity of small press publishers who share the spirit of Splice, even if not in a codified way. There are plenty of publishers who’ve offered me advice and support when they have no financial incentive to do so, purely because they love the art of literature and want to help kindle the flames no matter where they may be burning. I reckon that at least half of the small press economy is powered by charity, goodwill, and quid pro quos, with publishers copping a hit (sometimes financially, certainly in terms of energy) so they can raise the standards of the entire small press scene, with no expectation of material rewards. There are a lot of unsung heroes out there — a great many more than I imagined when I was watching this scene develop from the outside.

Prize listings are beautiful things, especially the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize, because, much as Splice is intended to do, they raise the profiles of formally unconventional books and bring them to the attention of new readers. My experience with them is limited, of course, since Hang Him When He Is Not There is only the first title from Splice to be longlisted for a prize, but across the board I have to say that the entry costs and conditions are reasonable except for major awards like the Costa and the Booker Prize. Splice has also entered books into the Edge Hill Prize, the Desmond Elliot Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and other competitions, and none of these have ever threatened to break the bank. Moreover, the potential rewards are wonderful. The longlisting for Hang Him has certainly garnered the book some new readers, and I hope it will also act as a springboard for it to reach other parts of the world.

Since Splice has such particular and idiosyncratic foundations, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it also has an unusual future — at least insofar as I can picture it. Perhaps this is  a silly thing to admit, but I’ll admit it anyway: when I was putting together a cadre of writers for Splice, approaching critics and authors to see who was interested in signing up, my model was Nick Fury bringing together the Avengers. And that’s still the case because, like Fury, my ultimate aim is to step away from Splice and let all parties involved in it continue to run it collectively. I founded it as a five-year initiative for myself, creating it in a way that would allow me to disseminate some institutional knowledge to various other people and open up windows for yet more people to own a stake in it, and at the end of those five years I want to shepherd it from a two-person not-for-profit into a co-operative enterprise. I’m hoping to do this by liaising with editorial programmes at universities and creating a mechanism for editorial transparency, so that students of publishing (that is, editors-in-waiting) will be able to watch me running Splice, alongside Alec, as if through a one-way mirror. I also want to step up fundraising activities so that we have a subscription model for our books, as well as a Patreon-style system in which financial contributions at different tiers will give people shares in the Splice co-operative, including voting rights and a say on editorial matters. And I want to continuously increase the rates of payment for everyone who writes for Splice. It remains to be seen whether all of this is achievable by, say, 2022, but I’m hopeful, I’m encouraged by the raw passion I see from those who appreciate small press titles, and I’m not the kind of person who likes to say “no”. My door is always open to anyone who wants to be involved in any way, and if Splice is to have a long-term future, I’ll keep it open as long as I can to ensure that everything ends up in safe hands.

Find out more about Splice on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @thisissplice 

Book Review: Doppelgänger

“Nothing is crucial to me, but I don’t realise that yet.”

Doppelgänger, by Daša Drndić, contains two stories that are subtlety interlinked. Each emanates an anguish exacerbated by the protagonists’ loneliness. These are not comfortable reads as they challenge the bland acceptance of society’s expectations of how the old and discarded should behave. There is a deep felt sadness that goes unanswered.

The first story, translated by S.D. Curtis, tells of a meeting between two septuagenarians. The characters are introduced with descriptions of the slow decay of their bodies. They wear adult nappies. Their skin is flaccid. They each live alone having once had families. Between sections that detail their histories are police dossiers. They are being surveilled.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Artur and Isabella are walking the quiet streets of their small town in Croatia. They are very different in their demeanour and habits but accept each other’s company. They engage in a sex act.

“We’re grown-ups, there’s no sense in equivocating. We should give it a try.”

While out, their flats are searched.

The second story, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, opens on a damp autumn day at a zoo in Belgrade. Printz is watching two neglected rhinos in their enclosure. It is a distressing scene to read. We learn that Printz’s mother died recently after a long illness, and that he helped care for her as her body failed. He is sleeping on a camp bed in his parents’ flat. His younger brother is waiting to inherit their many possessions.

Despite being raised by a wealthy family, Printz carries out acts of socialism. His parents valued their coveted things with which Printz is generous, perhaps attempting to bolster his self-worth. He accepts his ongoing descent in the eyes of society. He has a photographic memory, a wealth of knowledge, but lacks experience of feeling loved.

He remembers with fondness a childhood friend, Maristella, although their relationship emerges as tainted due to his behaviour. It calls into question how he was aware at five years old of the acts he performs on her.

The tale is a slow burner with a disturbing undercurrent. There is much for the reader to consider.

Both stories explore the legacy of Nazism and then Communism. Children cannot choose their parents yet are deeply affected by the inheritance of actions both before and after their birth. The writing has a haunted quality. Changing borders, geographic and familial, leave citizens unmoored.

Complex and at times elusive, the observations and actions so tautly and meticulously described can be unnerving. These are stories that ask the reader to step outside their comfort zone and confront a reality of historic dark deeds and their repercussions.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Istros Books.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Longlist Announcement 2019


Photo credit – TLS

On Monday of this week the Times Literary Supplement announced this year’s longlist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Thirteen titles made the cut, chosen by judges David Collard, Niven Govinden and Catherine Taylor, along with a student panel (Ayanna Lloyd, Vijay Khurana and Maya Lubinsky) from the prize’s current academic partner, the University of East Anglia.

Having been involved as a judge on the reader panel last year I both envied them their task – they got to read the best literary fiction recently published – and appreciated the difficulty they faced choosing from such high quality submissions. As to their choices, having read only three of the books on the longlist I can merely attest to these being deserving of their place. Certain books I expected to be included were missing but, as I was not party to the titles submitted, I do not know if these were even put forward. What I unequivocally get behind is the ethos of the prize which Charles Boyle of CB Editions so succinctly put in a guest post he kindly, if somewhat reluctantly, wrote for me last year.

“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”

 

The thirteen titles on the longlist are as follows:

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici, published by Carcanet

Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions

Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), published by Charco Press

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, published by Fairlight Books

Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press

Dedalus by Chris McCabe, published by Henningham Family Press

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić (translated by Celia Hawkesworth and S. D. Curtis), published by Istros

Now, Now, Louison by Jean Frémon (translated by Cole Swensen), published by Les Fugitives

Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, published by New Island Books

Kitch by Anthony Joseph, published by Peepal Tree Press

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated by Margita Gailitis), published by Peirene Press

Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner, published by Splice

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published by The Stinging Fly Press

 

In the coming weeks I hope to be reading further from this list. If you are interested in purchasing any of the books please consider doing so directly from the publishers. This can make a huge difference to their financial viability and therefore their continuing valuable work.

The shortlist will be announced on 2nd March following a symposium to be held at UEA, Norwich – Love Takes Risks: The Poetics of Contemporary Small Fiction. Sign up to attend here before 18 February.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize organisers have a Patreon, with many fine small press books available for supporters, which you may check out here.

The winner of the prize will be announced on 28th March at Foyles, Charing Cross Road.


Photo credit – Graham Fulcher

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Winner 2017

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to London for an event that celebrated the brilliant, innovative and vibrant literary fiction being published by the small presses in the UK and Ireland. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have been on the judging panel for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. In reading each of the submissions I have had the opportunity to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Every book that made in onto the longlist deserves to be read. Please consider buying them – if possible direct from the publishers or from an independent bookshop, many of which will post books to readers.

Narrowing the longlist down to a shortlist was incredibly difficult – like having to choose a favourite child. However, the six books selected each deserved their place.

The event on Tuesday, held in the University of Westminster’s Fyvie Hall, brought together publishers, authors, translators, sponsors and an impressive array of interested parties from the book world to discover which title was to be declared the winner. Attendees were treated to wine and canapés as we mingled and chatted, with gentle jazz being played live in the background. The atmosphere was convivial and sparkling with anticipation.


(Photo credit: FMcM)

The first part of the evening saw the prize founder, Neil Griffiths, present ‘The William Gass award for metafiction and for being the best person in publishing, like ever’ to Charles Boyle of CBeditions. Charles later wrote this about his award.

The second part of the evening was the announcement of the winner. Michael Caines of The TLS took to the stage to present the award to Influx Press for Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams.


Gary Budden, Sanya Semakula, Eley Williams and Kit Caless
(Photo credit: Chris Power)

It was pleasing to see my Twitter timeline come alive over the following twenty-four hours as discerning news outlets and other media spread the word. I link here to the press release as published by the contemporary small press who also reviewed each book on the shortlist – do check them out.

Not all of the judges could attend but those that did duly posed for a photo with the winning author.


Sally Shakti-Willow, James Tookey, Jackie Law, Paul Fulcher, Graham Fulcher, Eley Williams, Neil Griffiths, Alan Crilly, Gayle Lazda, Ann Kennedy-Smith
(Photo credit: Robyn Law)

As Little Island Press said, it is a miracle that this prize exists. The miracle happened because of the hard work and dedication of Neil Griffiths, this year ably assisted by James Tookey. From this grateful reader, thank you. Much gratitude also to the many supporters and sponsors who made the prize viable. And huge congratulations to Influx and Eley.


Neil Griffiths and Eley Williams
(Photo credit: ContempSmallPress)

You may follow The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses on Twitter: RofC Prize (@PrizeRofc)

Click on the photo above to buy the winning book.

 

(Gratuitous photo of my daughter and I enjoying the evening)


(Photo credit: ContempSmallPress)

 

 

 

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Shortlist Announcement Event

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 shortlist

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.

 

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winner(s) Event

Yesterday evening I enjoyed my first literary prize presentation event when I attended the announcement of the winner(s) of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Held in the impressive Fyvie Hall at the University of Westminster this turned out to be a fun and friendly evening. I managed to talk to some lovely people from Cassava and Peirene as well as Becky and Sally, who have also been reviewing the books that were under consideration for the Contemporary Small Presses website.

After drinks, canapes and mingling with the attendees, Neil Griffiths, who instigated and organised the prize, opened proceedings. He told the rapt audience that he has been accused of trying to overthrow the literary establishment. He acknowledged that there is plenty of fine fiction coming from the bigger houses. He was not the only one in the room who believed that the best innovative fiction is being published in the UK and Ireland by the small presses, that they enabled stories, characters and experimentation not found anywhere else in British publishing.

   

This wasn’t an evening for long speeches so Neil moved swiftly on to the first award – for a Surfeit of Multitudinous Energy. He explained that he had decided on the name and criteria for this and was keeping his reasoning to himself. The award went to Galley Beggar Press for publishing Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge. Both the author and publisher, Sam Jordison, accepted the award. It was good to see that under his shirt Sam was rocking his now signature EU t-shirt.

After a short break during which I was able to chat about the books with fellow attendees and more drinks could be consumed, Neil introduced Guardian newspaper reviewer, Nicholas Lazard, who presented the remaining awards.

There were two runners up.

The first went to Anakana Schofield for Martin John, published by And Other Stories. As the author could not join her publisher, Nicky, to collect the award she was represented by Joanna Walsh.

The second runner up prize went to Solar Bones by Mike McCormack published by Tramp Press. The publisher had travelled from Ireland to be there.

   

Moving swiftly on to the winner. The inaugural Republic of Conciousness Prize for Small Presses was won by Counternarratives by John Keene, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. The publishers accepted the award, expressed their gratitude and commented that it is not easy to publish their kind of fiction. This reader is very glad that the fabulous small presses enrich us by managing to do so anyway.

Having concluded formal proceedings there was once more time to mingle. The venue staff ensured that nobody went thirsty – we were well looked after.

   

As Neil has a book coming out next year he will hand over organisational duties to James Tookey. I do hope that we see Neil’s Family of Love, published by Dodo Ink, take its place on the 2018 shortlist.

Thank you to the publishers who have provided me with interviews or guest posts as part of my coverage of this prize. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be involved.

Guest post by independent publisher, And Other Stories

Chatting to independent publisher, Daunt Books

Chatting to independent publisher, Freight Books

Choosing a favourite from The Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist

rocp

Today I will be travelling up to London to attend the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Winners’ Event. My thanks to Neil Griffiths for my invitation. Regular readers may have noticed that I have been running a feature on this prize for the past few weeks. I introduced this here: Reading the Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist. If you click on the covers below you may now read my reviews of each shortlisted book.

martinjohn   born-on-a-tuesday

finefrontsmall   lightbox

counternarratives   treats

forbidden-line   solar-bones-cover

How does one choose a favourite from such a stellar line-up?

This question led me to contemplate a more controversial one – what makes a book good?

A well known, much coveted literary prize has been criticised for being too high brow at times yet this is exactly what certain readers, some of whom admire their own good taste in literature, wish more of the popular books could be. Some decry the number of ‘genre’ titles being published each year despite these enjoying sustained high sales. The book buying public does not always conform to a standard the self professed literary elite consider desirable.

Of course, I understand that readers buy books brought to their attention, which is more likely to happen if a generous publicity budget is allocated, a cost the smaller presses would struggle to cover. Personally I choose not to read many of the most popular genres of books as I do not enjoy them, but those who do help to subsidise the market for everyone else. Bookshops need to shift volumes of these bestsellers if they are to afford the shelf space for more radical works.

To return to this prize, which aimed to draw attention to small, independent publishers producing brilliant and brave literary fiction, the shortlist was a pleasure to peruse. I have read many innovative, challenging, entertaining and all round excellent books from independents over the years – they are well worth seeking out. There are lots of small presses and, between them, they offer a wide variety of works. Some even publish ‘genre’ books.

I have no wish to criticise anyone’s choice of reading matter, although I will always encourage everyone to read more books. What I will also do is to shout loudly about those titles I consider worth reading, which includes several being considered here.

The benefit of literary prizes is that they generate discussion. Word is spread by more people of books they have enjoyed. For each individual reader, perhaps this is what makes a book good.

So, how did I choose my favourite?

Each of the above books is technically well written – the construction and use of language impressed. There was originality, a challenge to thinking and a compelling story to tell. Where I found differentiation was in entertainment and engagement. Not all succeeded in holding my attention to every word on every page.

In the end I carefully mulled between two novels – Martin John and Solar Bones, and two short story collections – Light Box and Treats. From here I chose based on the story that lingered.

I am not on the judging panel, which is perhaps just as well, but if I were asked to nominate a winner from this excellent shortlist it would be Solar Bones. We shall see if any agree with me this evening. Whoever wins, I can see how each would deserve the accolade.

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