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.

Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem