Along with 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 publishers into the mix: And Other Stories, Myrmidon and Salt. While authors often rail against them, prizes matter in publishing. Funding cuts, floundering sales and the mutable world of digital publishing have left smaller presses, operating out of what Londoners condescendingly refer to as “the provinces” (i.e. the rest of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), struggling to stay afloat.
This year the Booker committee chose to highlight the “pure power of prose” and “shock of language” in modern fiction foremost, forgetting last year’s insistence on “readability”. The decision will have proven gratifying to smaller presses for whom a commitment to new and startling voices, even at the risk of poor sales, has always been paramount. While last year’s list was also praised for a decent indie showing – Canongate, Granta, Atlantic and Serpent’s Tail made the cut – this year’s is a little different, as none of the publishers listed are part of the London-Edinburgh circle, 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 read. And not a 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% drop in sales in 2010, prompting the “Just One Book” appeal in which they asked supporters to purchase one of their over 1,000 titles in order to keep the company afloat. Compare this with second quarter sales up 243% in 2012 and it becomes clear exactly what a prize nominations can mean for a small press. A new crime imprint and expansion into the popular sci-fi and fantasy genres are underway, but Salt’s bread and butter has always been 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 Argentinian Carlos Gamerros’s novel The Islands, about a hacker trying to forget his experience of the Falklands War. 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, when 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 features mainly crime and genre fiction, alongside the excellent Sebastian Beaumont and of course Tan Twan Eng. Perhaps given Eng’s success, the “literary” section of their list will blossom.
Seren Books, Bridgend, Wales. Housed in a barn attic behind a sandwich shop in south Wales, Seren Books (Seren is 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 regime. This year, Bridgend-born poet Rhian Edwards’s debut collection Clueless Dogs has been nominated for the Forward Prize. While they mostly publish in English and their 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 Welsh writers including Gwyneth Lewis, Fflur Dafydd and Owen Sheers reimagined eleven myths from the ancient Mabinogion manuscripts for the modern age.
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 at the moment for their involvement in the BBC National Short Story Award (stories from which are currently being broadcast on Radio 4), Comma offer plenty of help and resources for new writers, create numerous 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.”