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Inpress Festival of Publishing

Inpress works to support independent publishing companies throughout the UK. Each year they host the Inpress Festival of Publishing to celebrate their publishers’ success and to create the opportunity for their publishers to meet, network, and share ideas. In January 2018, the annual festival centred on the mantra “I Did It My Way”, and was held at Friends House, London.

The opening panel addressed the searching question “Why Do We Do It?”, and started interesting debates surrounding commerciality and artistic integrity. The speakers included Susan Curtis-Kojakovic (Istros Books), Valerie Brandes (Jacaranda Press), Tom Chivers (Penned in the Margins), and Andy Croft (Smokestack Books). Curtis-Kojakovic began the discussion by stating that she “does it” because Balkan texts are often seen as marginal in a European literary context, and because she wants to counter stereotypical representations of Eastern Europe. Istros Books translates its titles into the English language which, according to Curtis-Kojakovic, is important because “the local can become global through translation.” Similarly, Brandes founded Jacaranda Books to tackle the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, and noted that since its beginning, Jacaranda has been inundated with manuscripts which demonstrates the crying need for BAME (British, Asian and Minority Ethnic) publishers. Jacaranda publishes a wide range of forms, including poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, art and music, because, as Brandes observed, “that’s the burden of race; you have to fill in all the blanks”. Chivers is the director of Penned in the Margins – a publishing company that works to bring together page and stage and encourages literary (written and spoken) experimentalism. He stated that he is passionate about providing a platform for artists who are not afraid to take risks. Croft, who runs Smokestack Books and who was the final speaker of the panel, publishes communist poetry in English. He expressed that he recognises the importance of his work but does it out of a “labour of hatred” because of the economic precariousness and fragility of the independent publishing enterprise. He noted that Smokestack books is only viable because he works three days a week unpaid, and other panellists and audience members agreed and described similar experiences.

“More Than Just A Publisher” was the title of the second panel. Pete Mortimer (Iron Press), Kadija George Sesay (Peepal Tree Press), and Peter Sansom (The Poetry Business) spoke about how they go beyond their professional obligation to further enhance their publishing. In addition to running Iron Press, Mortimer founded the Iron Press Festival in 2013. The festival was intended as a one-off celebration to mark Iron Press’s 40th birthday, but the positive feedback was such that there have been several more since. The most recent was in 2017 with the theme Cold Iron: Ghost Stories of the 21st Century. Sesay is the publications manager for Inscribe (the Black British Writers imprint for Peepal Tree Press), is the founder of SABLE LitMag, and edits anthologies of work by authors of Asian and African descent. She is committed to providing a rich publishing experience for her writers. One of the ways she achieves this, aside from providing detailed, critical feedback, is by developing ‘chapbooks’ (a small pamphlet) with inexperienced members of Inscribe, which works as an introductory step towards having their first collection/piece published. Like Sesay, Sansom also recognises the importance of teaching. As well as co-directing The Poetry Business, he started a writing school for published poets which not only promotes writer development but also creates a community through which writers can meet and workshop each other’s ideas and writing.

The next two presentations focussed on developments in the publishing world. Co-owner and brand director of Zed Books, Kika Sroka-Miller, informed us about the company’s unique structure and re-brand. In addition to championing marginalised voices, Zed is the world’s largest publishing collective, which means that it is non-hierarchical and is owned and managed by its workers. Since 2015, every Zed employee has been paid the same amount, regardless of experience, level of qualification, or role, and they devote half a day every month to unlearning hierarchy. Together, Zed employees write the annual business plan and budget. When it comes to choosing which books to publish, they do not aim for unanimous agreement, but instead use a framework of consent e.g. “I have no objection to the books being published.” Since it underwent this re-structure, Zed has enjoyed its most successful financial years to date. Jo Forshaw (freelance consultant) provided a practical guide to audio publishing, and discussed how independent publishers can strategically implement this new direction in their own publishing houses.  She highlighted many benefits of audio publishing, such as: it is economical and therefore has huge potential for revenue, it gives the customer a degree of flexibility, and they can consume books at a faster rate. Furthermore, a short taster audio clip, she suggested, is far more likely to draw a customer in than a book cover or a blurb.

Yen-Yen Lu, Eleanor Holmshaw, and Sabeena Akhtar sat on the panel titled “A Road Less Travelled”. Lu, Holmshaw and Akhtar discussed how they got into the publishing industry and the advantages of engaging with independent publishers. Lu praised the organisation Creative Access, who help BAME people get a job or work experience in creative industries. Holmshaw, however, found her way into the publishing industry through a creative apprenticeship with Tilted Axis Press, whereas Akhtar began a blog about postcolonial and diasporic literature, and is now a freelance editor (she is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Cut From The Same Cloth), and co-ordinates the Bare Lit Festival.

The literature director of Arts Council England, Sarah Crown, presented interesting statistics about the ACE budget and the findings of the commissioned Canelo report, ‘Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction’ (December 2017). Crown stated that 7% of the ACE budget is literature-related (approximately £46 million), and that over the next year, they would prioritise the struggling areas in the literary domain, such as poetry, short stories, and literature in translation. The Canelo Report was designed to test the assumption that interest in literary fiction is declining. It found that print sales were well below where they were in 2007 and only the top 1000 writers in the UK are able to sell enough books to make a living. The latter statistic is influenced by the fact that prices of books have also fallen, and therefore, the advances writers receive has also decreased. On a more positive note, however, The Canelo Report showed that the acquisition and price of film rights and translation rights are rising, as are the availability of creative writing courses which represents more teaching opportunities for writers. Importantly, too, independent publishers are flourishing. Crown stated that ACE will prioritise money in the next period (2018-2020) to help individual authors, to promote diversity across the sector, and to support independent publishers by providing tax relief/credit for them. The following presentation by Matt Smith was also of an informative nature as he demystified The General Data Protection Regulation which comes into effect in May this year. The aim of the GDPR is to protect the individual’s personal information. For independent publishers – and indeed all companies – this will mean that they must check with everyone whose personal information they hold that they still have permission to have this data.

The penultimate panel included Jamie McGarry (Valley Press), Rosie Johns (Seren) and Esther Kim (Tilted Axis Press), and was titled ‘Marketing on a Shoestring’. The speakers addressed the difficulties of marketing with a limited budget and the creative ways in which they negotiate this. McGarry discussed his experience of hiring a publicist and concluded that it was not profitable for Valley Press. He gave three examples of when he had hired a publicist for book promotion. Despite the fact that there was an increase in sales for those particular books, the extra profit from the books did not cover the cost of the publisher. Johns advocated a pre-publication marketing campaign and paying for “boosted” posts on social media. She noted that when she payed to have one of Seren’s posts boosted on Facebook (this generally costs between £20-30), it reached 6000-7000 Facebook users rather than the usual 1000. Johns also recommended “flash” promotion, like 48-hour deals which encompass a discount or free delivery, for example. She also gave an example whereby Seren had tried collaborating with local businesses as part of a promotion called “Civilised Saturday”. This entailed a customer receiving free tea and chocolate samples (provided by local companies) when they ordered a book. She said that this particular campaign was not successful, but this might have been due to lack of cooperation with the companies they collaborated with, and the fact that they did not have much time to advertise the offer before it began. Although “Civilised Saturday” was not as successful as Seren would have liked, Pete Mortimer commended that kind of innovative promotion, and commented that independent publishers need to “think outside the box” when it comes to reaching audiences. Kim divulged 5 tips for being a successful independent company: 1) create a strong brand; 2) build a base of loyal subscribers; 3) don’t be afraid to go digital; 4) support your scene; 5) engage with prize and competition culture. The panel’s chair, Amanda Shipp (senior head of adult marketing and publicity, Bloomsbury), concluded the discussion by revealing that, for some reason, books released in Spring generally sell better.

‘Writing Back’ was the title of the final panel. Julia Kingsford (The Good Journal and The Good Literary Agency), Sarah Shin (Silver Press and Verso Books), Nathan Connolly (Dead Ink), Tamar Shlaim (Repeater Books) spoke about publishing as a political force. Kingsford began the conversation by saying that herself and Nikesh Shukla began The Good Journal and The Good Literary Agency because they wanted to be the change they wanted to see – they wanted to create an agency that could follow talent, not just market trends, and they wanted to see publishing be as representative as society is. Shlaim, on the other hand, came to publishing through politics, and suggested that politically informed publications can effect political change in publishing. Shin launched a small, non-profit feminist press to create a space in which feminist politics could be platformed and discussed. Connelly found himself frustrated with publishing and its systemic exclusion of working class voices. Dead Ink recently published Know Your Place (2017) which has explicit political objectives in the sense that it is a collection of essays about the working class for the working class, and of which Connolly is the editor and a contributor. Although there is no way to accurately track the extent to which publications effect political change, they can be approximated by sales. Arguably, recent political events such as Trump’s election and Brexit have made the political far more public, which is a positive thing for left-wing and inclusive publishing presses.

Sofia Aatkar

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