Job Title: Marketing Executive
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Alice Curry is the Founder and Publisher of Lantana Publishing, a London-based independent publishing company nominated for the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year 2017. She is this year’s winner of the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize. Norah Myers interviews her here.
I once worked for a start-up in which, with the grand total of four years under my belt, I was the person with the most publishing experience. Like many others in publishing, I found the challenges of growing a company to be immensely satisfying—but also, at times, a little scary.
Joining the Independent Publishers Guild (IPG) helped immensely. I attended its Annual Spring Conference and exhibited on its collective stands at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs. I met and learned from some experienced publishers, both formally and informally, and our business improved in many different ways.
Fast forward some ten years and I now head up the IPG. Our Conferences, stands and membership have grown much bigger; we now have more than 600 members, and our recent Harbottle & Lewis Independent Publishing Report estimated their combined turnover at £1.1bn. But the IPG’s spirit remains the same today as it was all those years ago: friendly, collaborative and generous. Our new members are always struck by the camaraderie of independent publishers and their willingness to share experiences and help one another.
They really value the sense of togetherness. As children’s publisher Big Sunshine Books told us recently, “it’s wonderful to feel part of something bigger.” It is easy to feel isolated as a small publisher, so it is heartening to know that others are grappling with the same issues as you. I left my first IPG Conference armed with a wealth of practical information and a list of people I could turn to for advice. Many of them are good friends today.
Larger publishers can gain just as much as smaller ones from connections, conversations and the chance to look outside their own businesses. Getting together can be especially valuable and reassuring amid challenge and change—as when we organised a meeting a week after last June’s Brexit Referendum to identify the issues arising. And learning from one another can be done virtually as well as face to face. Through the new IPG Skills Hub, we are giving members access to free online training in many areas of publishing, provided by fellow IPG members.
One of the best things of all about bringing independent publishers together is the honesty that results. IPG members will talk not just about what has worked well for them, but just as importantly, what has not. It was seen to hilarious effect when a panel of experienced publishers owned up to some of their biggest mistakes at an impromptu session at our 2016 Annual Spring Conference. Setting fire to tables, printers’ sabotages and an unfortunate misspelling of a title called Let’s Count were among the entertaining anecdotes. Just as anyone who organises awards ceremonies will have drawn lessons from this year’s Oscars shambles, so we can all learn from the failures of others, as well as the successes.
Bridget Shine is chief executive of the IPG.
Jonathan Ruppin is Literary Director at digital start-up Orson & Co and the founder of the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club. He was a bookseller for 18 years, including 13 at Foyles’ flagship branch on Charing Cross Road.
Translated literature is having a moment, the press has being claiming of late. It’s being said by the sort of journalists who have previously claimed that short stories or novellas or enormous doorstop novels are having a moment.
The press, of course, is always keen to portray itself as a keen trendspotter and constantly makes assertions based on having received three vaguely similar books in the post lately or perhaps just one particularly cut-n’-pastable press release.
According to Literature Across Frontiers, translated fiction currently makes up 4.5% of UK sales, up from 3% at the turn of the century. This compares with almost a third in Germany and around half in Italy. Discount unrepeatable phenomena such as Elena Ferrante and Stieg Larsson and the increase is negligible.
If translated literature was really what everyone is buying, it would be reflected in what chain bookshops were putting in front and centre, in bestseller lists, in the pages of magazines as well as literary journals. And it’s not.
To yoke books together on the grounds of their not being originally written in English is arbitrary and senseless.
Except… consider, for example, a novel set in ancient Rome and another in revolutionary France sitting side-by-side on a table of historical fiction: many readers adore exploring the past by reading fiction and plenty of them are interested in more than one era.
Similarly, readers travel the world vicariously through novels. An interest in Italy is unlikely to correlate with a passion for China but, in both cases, the reader is exhibiting curiosity about other cultures. A table of translated literature, therefore, makes perfect sense. Mostly importantly, it works: when I was at Foyles, we had one almost permanently, with an ever-changing selection, and it consistently outsold almost every other themed display.
It’s all very well dreaming of a world where readers are language-blind, but hoping that we’ll get there by leaving translated books to fend for themselves in the run from A to Z is wishful thinking. Positive discrimination is needed, just as we need to highlight female, working class and BAME writers, to avoid the cultural default of just waiting for the new one from Ian McEwan.
Safer choices by publishers lead to a preponderance of male writers. The lack of languages among British publishers means that Western Europe dominates. A lack of familiar cultural references in commercial fiction or British perspectives in non-fiction apparently makes anything other than English-language titles in these areas too problematic to consider. Credit for the translator is often buried somewhere discreet, as well as remaining largely absent from reviews. Random House even removed the diacritic from the name of Jo Nesbø lest such exoticism startle fragile crime fans (although Simon & Schuster have more faith in the child readers of his Doctor Proctor books and kept it).
We chose Senegal as the first destination in Africa for the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club, but were soon stymied: even names of global import such as Mariama Bâ, Ousmane Sembène and Fatou Diome are out of print in the UK. (Literature from any African nation can, incidentally, most often be identified by the hackneyed image of a sunset behind an acacia tree on the cover.)
We can only be grateful to the independent publishing sector, who have stepped in to cater for this vastly untapped market. Istros Books, for example, specialise in books from the Balkans. The main focus of Tilted Axis is books from Asia and Africa. And Other Stories and Peirene Press have achieved the sort of brand recognition that the big houses have long craved, signing up subscribers with a guarantee of literary intrepidity.
This is being mirrored by independent bookshops, who have capitalised on the millions of readers in search of something other than the cosily familiar. Globalisation of every aspect of life on Earth is happening now, whatever the Brexiteers may think of that, and Anglophone literature can only be enriched by embracing the remarkable variety the rest of the world has to offer.
Thanks to Norah Myers for sourcing this guest post.
Earlier this year, Valley Press published an anthology of short stories by writers under 25 featuring yours truly called Front Lines (here’s a review and here’s a buy link, if you should so care), which is how I met Jamie McGarry. I’ve had a soft spot for small independent presses since working at Voiceworks when I was in university – they take risks on new and exciting writers in a ways which larger publishing houses may not (eg: anthologies of short stories and poetry) and are, from my point of view, an incredibly important part of our publishing landscape. With this in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to interview Jamie about what it’s like running an independent press in this day and age.Jamie McGarry was born in Norfolk, raised in North Wales, and has lived in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, since 2006. He likes to think of himself as a ‘creative entrepeneur’, and is currently proving it by running a small publishing house called Valley Press. Visit VP at www.valleypressuk.com, or find tweets @valleypress.
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