Six of the Best: Independent Publishers Outside London

This year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist features three innovative independent publishers based outside London. Who are they?

Alongside Bloomsbury, Faber & Faber and Fourth Estate – names synonymous with literary publishing in Britain – this year’s Man Booker shortlist threw a handful of less familiar presses into the mix: And Other Stories, Myrmidon and Salt. While authors and critics regularly rail against them, prizes matter in publishing. Funding cuts, shrinking disposable incomes and the mutable world of digital publishing have left smaller publishing houses, operating out of what Londoners condescendingly refer to as “the provinces” (ie the rest of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), struggling to stay afloat.

This year the Booker committee chose to seek out the “pure power of prose” and “shock of language”, forging on to pastures dense following last year’s debacle over “readability”. The decision will have proven gratifying to independent publishers for whom a commitment to new and experimental voices, even at the risk of poor sales, has long been paramount. While last year’s list was also praised for a decent indie showing – Canongate, Granta, Atlantic and Serpent’s Tail all made the cut – this year is a little different, as none of the publishers listed are part of the London-Edinburgh publishing circuit. Nor did any of them exist before 1999. In fact, two of them were only founded after 2005.

So who are they, where are they based and what are they up to? Below is a run down of the successful three, along with a further three publishers changing the way books are commissioned, sold and consumed. And not one of them could give a monkey’s about self-publishing.

Salt Publishing, Cromer, Norfolk. The publisher that picked up Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse is enjoying an impressive year. After having their Arts Council funding cut in 2009, Salt announced a 60 per cent drop in sales, prompting a “Just One Book” appeal in which they asked supporters to purchase one of their over 1,000 titles in order to stay afloat. Compare this with second quarter sales up 243 per cent in 2012 and it becomes clear exactly what prize nominations can mean for a smaller publishing house. A new crime imprint and expansion into the popular sci-fi and fantasy genres are underway, but Salt’s bread and butter remains new poetry and fiction. They publish a popular Best of... series in which top editors mine the year’s literary journals and magazines to cull the very best poetry, fiction and as of 2013, fantasy. Their mission statement boasts an interest in “new authors of any age” and they run the prestigious Salt, Crashaw and Scott Prizes as a means of unearthing fresh talent.

And Other Stories, High Wycombe. With only three paid members of staff, And Other Stories fosters a collaborative approach. Founded in 2010, AOS operates a subscription system, a sort of variation on crowd-sourcing, searching out editors and reading groups worldwide to work together and shape editorial direction. Much like the brilliant Maclehose Press they are responsible for bringing a number of previously untranslated works to the UK, such as the Argentinian novel The Islands by Carlos Gamerros, about a hacker trying to put his experiences during the Falklands War behind him. After publishing two novels with Jonathan Cape and one with Bloomsbury, Deborah Levi’s decision to publish her fourth novel Swimming Home with a nearly-new publisher came to some as a surprise. “Deborah had been publishing by a range of different publishers but never really settled,” AOS’s editor-at-large Sophie Lewis told The Telegraph’s Anita Singh. “We were able to give her the attention you can’t get at a larger publishing house. We provide the personal touch.”

Myrmidon Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Independent’s literary editor Boyd Tonkin, in his review of Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden Mists wrote: “That a novel of this linguistic refinement and searching intelligence should come from a tiny Newcastle imprint tells us a lot about the vulgarity of corporate publishing today.” Later, while praising the Booker committee’s decision to include the novel in their list, he pleaded for more discrimination in the industry: “Critical gate-keepers, editors, curators, arbiters, judges – all those sifters and assessors so abused in the pseudo-democracy of the online self-publishing age: come back, there is nothing to forgive. In fact, we could do with many more of you.” Myrmidon is perhaps the least well known of the three publishers on the list, as well as the least developed. Their list is mainly made up of crime and genre fiction, as well as the excellent Sebastian Beaumont and of course Tan Twan Eng. Perhaps given Eng’s success, the “literary” section of their list will continue to blossom.

Seren Books, Bridgend, Wales. Housed in a barn attic behind a sandwich shop in south Wales, Seren Books (Seren is the Welsh for "star") have set themselves the goal of an uncompromising commitment to “well chosen words” in whatever form they take. In 2011 they published Costa and Booker-longlisted The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness, set in Bucharest during the final days of Ceaucescu’s communist regime. This year, Bridgend-born poet Rhian Edwards’s debut collection Clueless Dogs was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. While they mostly publish in English and their author list is international, Seren acts as a focal point for literary collaboration in Wales. They commissioned the series New Stories from the Mabinogion in which writers including Gwyneth Lewis, Fflur Dafydd and Owen Sheers reimagined eleven myths from the ancient Mabinogion manuscripts.

Bloodaxe Books, Tarsett, Northumberland. An institution in its own right, Bloodaxe has always striven to publish the best and most diverse poetry. Founded in 1978 by Neil Astley, who remains the company’s editor and managing director, Bloodaxe were the first to publish Simon Armitage, David Constantine and Helen Dunmore. The press has won pretty much every prize going (2012 Booker-nominated author Jeet Thayil edited the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets in 2008), brought an endless list of authors from every corner of the globe and compiled the best of each in numerous popular anthologies. Rich and continually refreshing, Bloodaxe’s self-proclaimed “poetry with an edge” remains the beating pulse of contemporary British poetry.

Comma Press, Manchester. Notable for their emphasis on growing the status of the short story in the UK, Manchester’s Comma Press are a not-for-profit initiative whose ventures range from city-themed anthologies – The Book of Liverpool, The Book of Istanbul – to competitions and collections from new writers, as well as a strong selection of fiction from overseas, including Czech writer Emil Hakl and “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive” Hassan Blasim. Garnering a great deal of attention for their involvement in the BBC National Short Story Award, Comma offer plenty of help and resources for new writers, create opportunities for publication and possess a provocative philosophy on short fiction: “Something happens in good short stories that's quite unique to them as a form; the imaginary worlds they create are coloured slightly differently to those of the novel. Their protagonists are more independent and intriguing. The realities they depict more arbitrary, accidental and amoral.”

The lighthouse in Cromer, Norfolk. Home of Salt Publishing. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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