Q&A with Istros Books

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards brilliant and brave literary fiction published in the UK and Ireland by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees. Now in its third year, the 2019 longlist was announced last month.

I invited a number of the small presses who made the cut to contribute a guest post as part of my coverage of the prize this year. 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 amongst the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Susan from Istros Books whose longlisted book, Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić (translated by S.D Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth), I will be reviewing tomorrow.

1.Why did you decide to set up Istros Books?

After having spent some years working and living in South East Europe, and always being interested in the literary scene, I decided to move back to London and wanted to change my career from teaching. It was obvious to me that writers from that region very rarely made it into English, and that the ignorance of many British people about that region partly came from the very one-sided ‘cultural exchange’ which consisted – and still consists – of pushing our TV, film and literary culture on other countries (‘the other’) but not returning the favour. Cultural imperialism if you like. This was nowhere more evident that in the Bosnian war, where a lack of cultural and historical knowledge led to the most blatantly ignorant explanations for the carnage.

And so, after a brief period of contemplating being an agent for writers from the region, I decided to go the whole way and actually publish them. The whole thing started on a grant from the EU, and the goodwill of one particular translator, Will Firth, who has translated ten of Istros’ total production of 40 titles.

2. On your website you explain that Istros is the old Greek and Thracian name for the lower Danube River, which flows through the countries whose literature you focus on, and that you wish to evoke the image of the river flowing carelessly across the borders of Europe and encapsulating the ideal of the free-flow of knowledge and the cultural exchange that books promote. How do you go about finding and signing authors from this region whose writing reflects your ethos?

I maintain strong links with the Serbo-Croatian speaking countries due to ties of family and friendship, as well as with Romania. Over the past seven years, I have also attended a number of publishing fellowship programmes, book fairs and literary festivals. So I have an eye on the writers who are making an impression, winning prizes and getting noticed. My taste in narrative and author orientation is always one of inclusion rather than exclusion, and therefore it reflects the ethos of free cultural exchange and tolerance.

3. Do you work directly with your authors and translators?

Yes, I sign all the authors myself and very rarely go through an agent. I have very good contacts in the region, which makes this possible. I also work closely with translators once they have produced the first draft. I edit thoroughly and ask questions and comments when something is not clear. This annotated script then goes back to the translator and we may have a final phone conversation or Skype call to go through any remaining issues.

4. You set up Istros in 2011. Has your experience of publishing and marketing books in translation been as you expected when you started out?

Well, the biggest change for me is the ever decreasing amount of review space in mainstream media, coupled with ever few reviewers who are interested in indy books or books in translation. With Nick Lezard no longer reviewing for the Guardian and the recent tragic death of Eileen Battersby, there are so few places for us to go. And this directly results in fewer sales.

5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers in the UK and Ireland publishing some fine literature. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

The only real difference is that Istros has a very specific geographical remit and publishes exclusively translations. This can be an advantage in the fact that specialsization leads to expertise, but can also appear too narrow to potential readers.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

I’m sure that latest trend is what sells. A lot of people want ‘more of the same’ and this is why larger publishers follow bestsellers with copycat novels. But what really sells, as we know, is having the financial and industry clout to secure front window displays in bookshops, posters on underground stations and in the press, and using economies of scale to print many books for a lower price per unit.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your customers want?

eBooks only account for about 10% of our sales, so our readers still want real paperbacks, although our print-runs are very modest.

8. Do you consider Istros to be niche or mainstream?

Publishing literature in translation from the Balkan region can really only ever be a niche activity. The odd book from the region will occasionally break through into the mainstream if its published by a bigger publisher than us, but even then we are not looking at anything like the sales to be had from Scandie crime.

9. You have impressive experience of prize listings. What are the costs and benefits, monetary or otherwise?

We have had many books on all the longlists of all the prizes that accept translations except the Man Booker International (and this means just the Oxford-Wiedenfeld Prize, the International Dublin Literary Prize and now the EBRD Literature Prize). I proposed the new translation prize back to the EBRD in spring 2015 and acted as chief consultant on its development up until its launch in 2017.

I was inspired to do this because I know that prizes, after reviews, are an excellent way to get publicity for your books and, by extension, your publishing house. Since Eastern European literatures don’t fall under the large language groupings, the EBRD prize helps to balance this a little. In the future, it would be wonderful to have some eastern European languages in the Society of Authors Translation Prizes: Polish has close to 40 million speakers, and Romanian roughly 26, quite apart from Russian!

The Republic of Consciousness prize is a wonderful support because it is the only prize that rewards the publishers. We were proud to have a Bosnian title – Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Sehic – on the very first longlist, and now again with Drndic’s Doppelganger.

10. What plans have you for the future?

Apart from trying to facilitate the above, I strive for what every small publisher must be striving for: more publicity, more sales. Surviving in this market, with huge wholesale discounts, limited review space and a decreasing reading public is tough.

I’d also love to get a book on a shortlist or even win a prize soon – that would be a real encouragement.

Find out more about Istros Books on their website

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

Advertisements

Book Review: Dedalus

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Dedalus by Chris McCabe, a sequel to Ulysses by James Joyce.

In the Republic of Consciousness podcast episode that discussed the prize’s 2019 longlist, Neil Griffiths mentioned that some readers consider Ulysses by James Joyce to be the best book ever written in the English language. I have heard it talked about as one of the most important works of modernist literature. Declan Kiberd (Irish writer and scholar) described Ulysses as

“a demonstration and summation of the entire movement”
“Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking”

The book is vast (730 pages) and, when I have flicked through a copy considering a purchase, written in heavy language. I have not read it.

Ulysses is set in one day, 16 June 1904 – the day James Joyce first went out with Nora Barnacle who he would subsequently marry. Dedalus is mostly set the next day. It is a sequel of sorts although considerably easier to read. Such an audacious concept may be regarded as brave, or perhaps bonkers. It succeeds in being a lot of fun.

The writing plays with and mimics many great and classic works of literature in language and style, referencing and (mis)quoting revered writers with abandon. Interspersed are modern elements such as computer links that suggest you may click to choose your own adventure. Between each ‘Part’ are coded maps that can be slotted together. These summarise the action to date. Certain maps offer suggestions to “>GO TO” earlier or later pages. The book works when read sequentially or as a series of loops.

The story of Hamlet, with its study of a father-son relationship, is a key reference. In a wonderfully meta section the author is interviewed about his own father and his literary inheritance. I have neither read Hamlet nor watched it on stage. I know enough from summary and heresay to appreciate what is being done in Dedalus. Those with more detailed knowledge will likely enjoy the author’s play on particular features.

Dedalus: Act 1, Scene 1, is set in the Martello Tower at 8am. Stephen awakens hungover with memories of the previous day’s activities. He must somehow get to his teaching job so dons the trousers hanging on the back of a chair. They are not his. Outside he encounters Mulligan and then a dead body from the sea over which he vomits. He teaches a lesson at the school, visits a prostitute, goes for a drink in a pub, encounters Leopold Bloom who he calls Leonard. A man in black passes by on several occasions.

Leopold needs to talk to Stephen about Molly, his wife. He picks up the lotion she requested from the pharmacy, a task he should have done yesterday. He returns to the cemetery where they buried Dignam before seeking out Stephen. He is observed and lusted after by a priest.

The story flows and engages yet this is not a book that feels the need to follow any standard ‘rules’ of writing. There are pages that seemingly exist to play with the sounds made by word and letter combinations. A chapter titled ‘Cyclops’ has all the text on each page printed in a single circle, an eye looking out at the reader. There are stylised observations and commentary. Poems explore: urinating, sex, drunken high spirits. Any recoil felt reading descriptions of bodily functions serves to highlight how sanitised life is now expected to be.

“Something is rotten in the state of Dublin”

The paragraphs covering a pub scene are written in the vein of works such as: Gone With The Wind, 1984, Lolita, The Bell Jar, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and more.

A section of ‘Notes’ at the end of the book explores the story as a history of computers and suggests that the machine’s key developments were foreshadowed in Ulysses.

And all of this somehow works. The plot is almost incidental to the pleasure of reading the inventive prose and recognising where the author took each idea from, how he compiles and builds his tribute to Joyce’s work. It is clever but not irritatingly so. This is a writer playing with ideas and granting them the freedom to fly. It is glorious to read.

Max Porter is quoted on the cover saying:

“Parts of this book will remain with me, and pollute my reading of Hamlet and Ulysses, forever.”

I will not be adding these two great works to my reading pile, but I am very glad to have read Dedalus.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.

Guest post by independent publisher, Henningham Family Press

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards brilliant and brave literary fiction published in the UK and Ireland by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees. Now in its third year, the 2019 longlist was announced last month. I felt privileged to be invited to join the panel of judges for the previous year’s prize as this enabled me to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Having experienced the process I was eager to read the books this year’s judges were putting forward for further consideration.

When the longlist was announced I invited a number of the small presses who made the cut to contribute a guest post as part of my coverage of the prize this year. 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.

The first press to feature is Henningham Family Press whose longlisted book, Dedalus by Chris McCabe, I will be reviewing tomorrow. On the back of this book we are told:

“Henningham Family Press is a microbrewery for books.

Our ingenioous handmade editions can be found in the V&A, Tate and National Poetry Library.

Our Performance Publishing shows compress the creation of printed matter into hectic live events.

Now our Fiction brings to you authors who are reinventing the conventions of Modern writing.”

Thank you to David at HFP for providing me with this fascinating guest post about the press, and his thoughts on literary prizes.

We gave the name Performance Publishing to what we do at Henningham Family Press. We’ve even managed to get newspapers to use the term as if it is a thing.

What Performance Publishing means is that we have been, for more than 12 years now, combining Visual Art, Performance Art and Literature in ways that hope to redefine the act of publication.

For example, in 2016 the British Council commissioned A Line of Five Feet, inviting us to join a delegation of artists and writers representing the UK in Moscow. We taught Art and Art History to Moscow students who went on to help us create, screenprint and bind a monumental concertina book in a bespoke bindery provided within the British pavilion.

That year we also led nine other London Artists in staging The Maximum Wage. An ACE funded show about income inequality. This show gathered, produced and distributed publications with its audience. Teams of volunteers manned our gameshow style print production line producing our own Orwell themed currency, valid in the immediate vicinity. An incredibly diverse crowd of 300 took part in our hectic cycle of production and consumption, going home with the publications they had helped make and contributing their ideas to a later glossy magazine.

When we are not on stage you will find us doing fine printing and master binding in our studio. We often represent the same text in different forms, as we did with An Unknown Soldier; a project based on a poem I wrote about the effect of the World Wars on my family. The National Poetry Library commissioned an exhibition of all the books, artists’ books and screenprints that made up An Unknown Soldier for the centenary year. The exhibition was praised highly in The TLS. We went on to make Letters Home with the librarians; a book teaching children about Modernist Poetry that was praised highly in The TES. (We aim to appear in all the T-something-Ss). Another commission from the time was the Active Service Gospel replica. SGM Lifewords have now distributed about a million copies.

I suppose you could call this an art career, in the sense of a car careering wildly from one side of the road to the other at top speed. The mixture of Art and Literature is hardly surprising, though, given that Ping and myself met at St Martins School of Art. Later, when I was graduating from the Slade MA and Ping was studying MA Modernist Literature at Queen Mary UoL, we started Henningham Family Press together.

Last year (a natural development, or a stab at coherence) we joined Inpress Books so that we could bring our collaborations to the shelves of high street bookshops as paperbacks, as well as to the shelves of Special Collections. 2018 got off to a flying start with us publishing split editions, paperback and artists’ books of Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin and the first Ulysses sequel: Dedalus by Chris McCabe. These gained rave reviews (Literary Review, LRB Bookshop, The Idler), effusive endorsements as diverse as Max Porter and Marian Keyes, and our longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019.

We specialise in producing novels by writers coming from other disciplines. Poets, artists and performers who bring to their writing inflections from their training. Especially those who pick up the Modernist canon and kick it further down the road. We like working with people who will take their draft as the starting point for a textual and visual editing process. We think of ourselves as book producers, in the same way that Tony Visconti, Steve Albini and Danger Mouse are record producers.

This is the first year we have entered prizes. Before that our work was mainly given the thumbs up by being collected for the nation by institutions like the V&A, UCL, Tate, National Galleries Scotland and the National Poetry Library. Or they began as commissions for touring shows from places like the British Library, Christie’s, Dundee Contemporary Arts. But for novels there is this whole system that we are dipping our toes into.

We got passed over by the Goldsmiths, which packed no emotional punch for us, but on the day of the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize I found myself utterly useless and completely pre-occupied.

This is easily explained: The Republic.. became (unconsciously) the biggest prize for me personally. It is so well thought through as a premise that it will make a big difference to our survival. Most big prizes present a financial burden. They are locked gates.

The Prize has also formed the backbone of my reading since it started. It feels like a tangible benchmark for ingenuity in art and practice. I went to the launch a couple of years ago as a consumer of canapés. We had no plans to do novels. But when plans began to coalesce they were shaped and encouraged by the existence of the prize and its culture. It would have been harder to focus our wide ranging technical and literary expertise (the unexpectedly prodigious offspring of our dilettantism and a decade-long global recession) into the form of the novel without the reading and solidarity the prize has provided.

Coming from an Art background, though, the big literary prizes (the ones we can’t afford to enter) seem a little over-understated. The ‘party’ finishes and we’re thinking “what, there’s no dancing?” I’ve never seen a fluorescent cocktail at a book event. If book events were an item in the kitchen drawer they would be the wine stopper that keeps wine from going off. We don’t own one, but I saw one once.

What next? 2018 concluded with the first in our series of non-fiction books for children, Colour Experiments for Future Artists, and in 2019 we publish Pattern Power for Future Artists.

Spring sees a second novel from Chris McCabe, Mud, which is a version of Orpheus set in the present day. Borak and Karissa must locate a bubble of air trapped in mud somewhere to end their caustic relationship. The book is “illustrated” with sculptures and concrete poetry.

We are also scouring museums and libraries with Sophie Herxheimer. Looking at Wisdom literature as we embed her sequence of poems 60 Lovers To Make And Do within collages and cutouts.

A version of An Unknown Soldier set to music for the stage with composer John Ringhofer also waits in the wings.

Find out more about Henningham Family Press on their website

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

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)

 

 

 

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Shortlist Announcement

Yesterday evening, at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, an event was held which culminated in the announcement of the shortlist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Prior to the announcement there were panel discussions and presentations from publishers and authors.

When I saw this lineup last week I knew that I wanted to attend and am grateful to my husband for making it possible. As this post goes out we are still in Manchester enjoying an impromptu City Break.

Having been on the judging panel I was aware of which presses would be on the shortlist – you may remember that I attended a dinner in London where the longlist was hotly debated. For four hours the judges argued and presented their cases for including each book. They all had their advocates and, when it became clear that certain titles were not to go forward, passions were in evidence. The chair did a fine job of keeping the discussion steady and moving things along. Votes were taken and taken again, often with only one or two dividing the books to be included and those to be set aside. We knew that we had an impressively strong longlist and the difficulty of whittling it down to five or six titles was evidence of its literary quality.

Our task though was to produce a shortlist. These are the books that were eventually chosen, as announced last night:

 

Attrib. by Eley Williams (Influx)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives)

Darker with the Lights On by David Haydn (Little Island Press)

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Charco Press)

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)

The winner has yet to be chosen. There will be a further event in London on 20th March when that announcement will be made. Whichever book is selected, this entire shortlist is well worth reading.

 

 

 

 

Chatting to independent publisher, Tramp Press

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Lisa Coen from Tramp Press, which published The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo.

 

An introduction – who you are and what you aim to achieve?

Tramp Press is an independent publisher based in Dublin. Officially it’s just two of us: Sarah and Lisa, but we have a growing team of people helping us out. We publish the best writing by new and established authors, and we’re working hard to nurture great talent all the time. Ireland is known for its great writers, we’d like it to also be known for its excellent independent publishing.

How have things have changed in publishing since you started?

We started Tramp in 2014, but even in that short time we’ve seen Irish fiction make incredible strides in the market. Mike McCormack talks about how hard it was for his unusual style of writing to get published, and that’s no longer a problem. The growth of independent publishers like Galley Beggar, And Other Stories and so on has seen the conservatism of the big 5 being somewhat balanced out in terms of representation on shelves. There’s still a long way to go but it’s a good start.

What is your experience of prize listings – costs and benefits, monetary or otherwise?

We put aside money to enter prizes because we think it’s a really important way of bringing an author to a reader’s attention. Critical review space is shrinking all the time, so it’s vital to have another opportunity to demonstrate that someone else has read and judged the novel to be important new work

The future – where you would like to see your small press going?

We always say it’s strange that Ireland has four Nobel laureates for fiction but no equivalent publisher to Faber & Faber or Editions Gallimard. We’re working hard to develop our distribution network in the UK and the US so we can grow and compete on a bigger stage.

 

Thank you Lisa for answering my questions, and congratulations on the part you and Sarah played in getting that other literary prize, The Man Booker, to accept submissions from Irish-published novels. 

You may follow Tramp Press on Twitter: @TrampPress

Click on the book cover above to find out more about The Iron Age. 

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc