Is this the age of small presses? An interview with Neil Griffiths, founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize

Thanks to Francesca Zunino Harper for setting up this interview.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize is a passionate tribute to small presses’ hard work, original authors’ inventiveness, and high-quality, unconventional books. The ceremony for the second year of the prize was held last Tuesday 20th March in the University of Westminster’s Fyvie Hall.

Author Neil Griffiths, the prize’s mastermind, gave an amusing and fervent opening speech, a love-letter to the courage of small presses. He proudly also highlighted how this is the only prize in the British Isles that puts together the full range of the existing literary fiction genres in one category, and this year there were translations, short stories and extremely experimental fiction.

The beautifully painted panelled room was packed and buzzing with camaraderie and excitement. Everyone’s solidarity and pride was palpable. All the shortlisted presses – Charco Press, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, Les Fugitives, Galley Beggar Press, Influx Press and Little Island Press – and their authors – were still jubilant also after the winner was announced. Journalist Michael Caines from the TLS, one of the sponsors of the prize, announced the winner: Influx Press and Eley Williams for Attrib. And Other Stories.

After the ceremony I managed to ask a few questions to Neil Griffiths.

1) Describe the Republic of Consciousness prize’s mechanism: How does the selection and judging work?

Submissions can come from any small press employing 5 or fewer full-time staff. It’s one book each. Because we’re looking to reward ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’, I act as first filter so judges don’t get bittersweet novels about country life etc. All the submissions from this point get read by all the judges. Long list is decided by a mixture of talk and personal ratings; short list was a long dinner in central London; winner is a vote.

2) Is it easier to set up a publishing house or a literary prize? Or is it easier to be published as an author, or set up a literary prize?

I imagine setting up a small press is nigh on impossible these days without financial support. Being published is – or at least was for me – a very emotional experience. Setting up a prize is just a lot of admin and fund-raising.

3) What are the three main obstacles and challenges for small indie presses and authors today in their struggle for visibility and sales?

The question contains the answer: visibility is the obstacle. Which means how to you get on to the front tables of Waterstones. It’s not necessarily about reviews coverage, but that helps. Someone somewhere in Waterstones makes a decision about what they’ll bulk order and make visible, and that will lead to sales. The main houses can pay for promotions, small presses tend not to have that kind of spare cash. I’d like all the city-centre Waterstones to have a small press table.

4) And what are their three main advantages and strengths vs. big conglomerate publishers?

There are real advantages in terms of writer / publisher relationship – it tends to be closer / more integrated. Commercially – if that’s the right word – small presses don’t have the financial or marketing director muscling in on creative decision-making. Small presses want to produce beautiful books and therefore look to cut quality costs, even if it were to improve their profitability.

5) What are the differences between a translated book and a niche or high-end literary fiction work in terms of their difficulty to reach a wider audience?

Neither ever really reaches a wide audience unless it gets help – film adaptation or something. Translated fiction has its advocates in book shops, as does high-end literary fiction – they just need to keep hand selling the books they love.

6) Finally, the million-dollar question: what should the publishing world do or keep on doing to support and promote small indie presses and their authors?

It’s the ‘visibility’ thing again – any event, promotion, conversation that keeps small presses as part of the publishing narrative helps. And over time, a critical mass of noise will mean it becomes a ‘thing’ people talk about as widely as indie labels etc. Let’s remember, while we all might long for a runaway success – selling a couple of thousand copies is a victory of difficult literature. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s not as challenging as having to sell ten thousand.

EVENT: Join BookMachine on Wednesday 16th May when representatives from three of Britain’s most exciting small publishers bring their unique insights and passions to the table. Tickets here.

Neil Griffiths, publishing prizes, Republic of Consciousness Prize, Small presses, working in publishing

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