It began as a battle-cry from the north, with a declaration challenging the entitlements of the soft south; a roar of anger that poured, not into politics, but into the nation’s cultural heartland, the London-based publishing industry.
If this were a film, it would not be directed by Richard Curtis.
In a thrilling, well-executed manoeuvre, the opening scene revealed four independent northern publishers firing a single arrow directly into the open wound of the industry’s compromised conscience. In An Open Letter to the Industry, published in The Bookseller in 2016, they wrote of industry reports demonstrating a white, middle-class and London-centric focus in terms of workforce and the range of writers being published.
Their attack was a shaming that warned: “The lessons from these findings are clear: if you don’t have a diverse workforce or product, sooner or later you will disappear.”
They had a plan: “If our industry is, as it claims, committed to tackling inclusivity then we need to start diversifying our workforces and … dispersing across the UK in order to better engage with and embolden a new generation of writers, readers and aspiring publishers. The provocation, the invitation, then, is this: set up outside of London.”
The original four signatories, Comma Press (Manchester), Peepal Tree Press (Leeds) And Other Stories (Sheffield) and Dead Ink Books (Liverpool), had formed themselves into a new collective, The Northern Fiction Alliance, with moral righteousness on their side: “What message do we send …when entry to this industry relies so heavily on insider networks and the wealth within one’s background?”
Their vision embraced a reconfiguration of the industry, new dialogue in relation to decision-making and acquisitions, between publishers of all sizes, and concrete commitments including paying interns a Living Wage (and offering them accommodation through the Spare Room Project if needs be), monitoring the demographics of workforces, publishing more regional writers, setting up regional offices outside London. Their message rang through the liberal national media and struck home.
If we were looking for a suitable director to capture their passion – Mike Leigh perhaps? – the central characters would be filmed in northern pubs, improvising arguments about an inescapable ethical quandary faced by any ambitious writer or publisher involved in literature: how can an industry that thrives on creativity from the margins ever be comfortable with the realities of selling within the mainstream?
Yet increasingly, independent presses are publishing work that grabs public attention and lucrative prizes. They include Oneworld Publications, responsible for two Man Booker Prize winners, Marlon James and Paul Beatty; Galley Beggar Press, whose support for writers including Eimear McBride, Lucy Ellmann and Preti Taneja, brought them to publication when others turned them down. Independents are also agenda-setting, And Other Stories (with a stable including Deborah Levy and Angela Readman) devoting one year of their publishing to women writers from around the world. They are described as “nimble” by the larger houses, and mostly because independents have to take risks. Recognition doesn’t easily translate, however, into influence, and certainly not into monetary reward.
Small publishers are the talent-spotters, the editors and marketers of books they passionately believe in. Major publishers may be largely London-based, but the most successful are also global conglomerates who fulfil the same publishing roles as the smaller presses but with teams of specialised staff and the guiding demands of the international market-place.