When it comes to small presses, the UK currently has an embarrassment of riches. Loads of new ventures have sprung up across the country over the last decade or so, and collectively they have filled bookstore shelves with unconventional, challenging books that don’t aim to satisfy mainstream tastes. If these are your type of books, please be sure to support small presses by purchasing directly from them. Many have been hit hard by the Covid-19 lockdown — a knock-on effect of the closure of bookstores — and right now they need as much help as possible to ensure that the scene remains as vibrant as it has been, long into the future.
Where to Start?
If you’re looking for an entry point into the small press scene, check out the resources available at The Contemporary Small Press. One particularly useful tool is a comprehensive list of presses with links to their websites.
Afterwards, trawl through the archives of the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Established in 2016 by the writer Neil Griffiths and funded largely via crowdsourced donations, the “RofC” is the only literary prize that specifically rewards the work of small presses. Keep an eye on its annual shortlist to get a sense of the best small presses the UK has to offer, and to get a taste of the best independently published literature of the year to date.
Also valuable is the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction, “fiction that breaks the mould or explores new possibilities for the novel form.” Although the prize seeks to reward books released by major publishers as well as titles by independent ventures, truly experimental fiction tends to be published by small presses and this means that small presses punch above their weight on the Goldsmiths longlists.
Who to Read?
A good place to start would be the small presses that have enjoyed some degree of mainstream success and built a profile on it:
And Other Stories, founded in 2010, attracted national attention only in 2012, when Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home landed on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. It has since published a number of writers who have become major figures in the world of small press literature, including Joanna Walsh and Anakana Schofield.
Galley Beggar Press was founded in Norwich in 2012, the same year that Norwich became England’s first UNESCO City of Literature. It enjoyed early success with Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which went on to win the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, and How to Be a Public Author by Francis Plug (a.k.a. Paul Ewen).
Fitzcarraldo Editions made an auspicious debut in 2014, snapping up the rights to Charlotte Mandel’s translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone and bringing the acclaimed book back into print. Among the impressive titles it has released since then are John Keene’s Counternarratives, which won the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize, and Claire Louise-Bennett’s widely celebrated Pond — not to mention the work of two Nobel Laureates, Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk, before they won the Nobel Prize.
Looking further afield, the Northern Fiction Alliance is an initiative designed to represent the interests of a growing number of small presses based in the North of England. It was spearheaded by the Manchester-based Comma Press, and its core members include the aforementioned And Other Stories, based in Sheffield; Peepal Tree Press, based in Leeds; and Dead Ink Books, based in Liverpool. Casting an eye over its extended membership, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at Bluemoose Books, based in Hebden Bridge, and Tilted Axis Press, based in Sheffield.
Tilted Axis is especially noteworthy for publishing only literature in translation, with a focus on books from Asia. In this respect, it joins a handful of similar small presses including Charco Press (Latin America), Les Fugitives (the Francophone world), Peirene Press (Europe), Europa Editions (Europe), and Istros Books (the Balkans). Newcomers to this part of the scene include V&Q Books, based in Berlin and focusing on literature first published in German, and Fum d’Estampa Press, bringing Catalan books into English. These presses also sit comfortably alongside ventures like Portobello Books and Pushkin Press, both of which publish original English language literature but also devote a lot of energy to translations as well.
Other small presses to have recently published celebrated books include 404 Ink, publishers of the anthology Nasty Women and a journal of new writing; Influx Press, publishers of Eley Williams’ Attrib. & Other Stories; Little Island Press, publishers of David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On and now an imprint of Carcanet; and Dodo Ink, publishers of “RofC” founder Neil Griffiths’ As a God Might Be.
Newcomers include Prototype Publishing, with a gloriously experimental prose list; Boiler House Press, based at UEA in Norwich; Peninsula Press, formed by three London-based booksellers; Open Pen, a literary magazine that began publishing novelettes in 2018; époque press, which publishes novels and short stories; and Platypus Press, a long-established poetry publisher which has now expanded into prose. And, building on the success of the Republic of Consciousness Prize, Neil Griffiths has co-founded a new small press with Damian Lanigan: Weatherglass Books will release its first titles, “fiction and non-fiction of the highest literary merit”, in the spring of 2021.
Honourable mentions based in Ireland include The Stinging Fly Press, affiliated with the literary magazine of the same name and publishers of Kevin Barry and Wendy Erskine, as well as the trailblazing Tramp Press, the original publisher of Bennett’s Pond and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. Other impressive Irish publishers include Lilliput Press and New Island Books.
But this isn’t an exhaustive list! There are loads more independent publishers, of course, as you’ll see if you browse through the listings at The Contemporary Small Press. And there are some publishers that dedicate themselves to bringing out unconventional, commercially risky literature, even though they are larger operations on more solid financial ground. These include presses like Faber and Faber, Granta Books, and Canongate, all of which often sign up writers who first come to prominence thanks to the support of one of the smaller presses named above. To really plumb the depths of what’s on offer out there, you’ll just have to dive into one of their catalogues and explore…
What About Starting Small?
Of course, many writers who end up publishing books through small presses actually publish their first work in literary journals and periodicals. The White Review is arguably the UK’s best venue for cutting-edge literature. It was founded in 2011 by the same brains trust that went on to establish Fitzcarraldo Editions, and it runs an important short story prize which, along with the Galley Beggar Prize, routinely turns up some of the best and sharpest short fiction to be produced in Britain.
In Ireland, comparable journals would be The Stinging Fly and Gorse, both of them blending unconventional fiction and poetry with provocative literary criticism. Try also The Tangerine, recently established in Belfast; 404 Ink, based in Edinburgh; Open Pen, based in London; and Slightly Foxed, a quirky quarterly of creative criticism, also based in London. Granta and The London Magazine also publish some interesting work too, although both of them can also be a bit stuffy and exclusionary. The short-lived but influential Egress was similarly reserved in its visual aesthetics, but much less staid in the wildness of what it publishes. More recently, exciting things have been happening in the pages of Extra Teeth, edited by Jules Danskin, the founder of Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh (see below), as well as thi wurd, based in Glasgow.
Online journals that offer reviews and critical coverage of new titles, with a notable bias towards small presses, include the long-running 3:AM Magazine as well as Review 31 and Minor Literature[s]. Print journals with greater financial resources and a rather formal air about them include The Literary Review, the London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement — and all of them publish reviews of small press titles far more regularly than you’d expect them to.
If you’re on the hunt for podcasts that tend to feature some of the same crew as you’ll find working behind the scenes of small presses, your first stop should be Why Why Why: The Books Podcast, which interviews writers, editors, and readers of small press titles. Also brilliant and entertaining are Paper Chain, Papertrail, and Backlisted, as well as the indispensable Unsound Methods. The novelist Heidi James spoke to a series of impressive writers over the course of a year for her podcast First Graft, and Philip Connor Finn has done the same with small press editors on What Editors Want. For brief interviews with authors and readings of their work, check out the podcasts run by Galley Beggar Press and The Stinging Fly Press.
Where to Go?
Right across the UK, there are institutions that exist in part to serve the needs of small presses and their readers. These institutions are especially strong in places that have UNESCO City of Literature status — Edinburgh, Norwich, Nottingham, and most recently Manchester — as well as in and around London.
Important London-based institutions include the London Review Bookshop, the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre, and Writers’ Centre Kingston, all of which run events, talks, and classes that regularly feature writers and publishers from Britain’s small press community. The Poetry Society and the Royal Society of Literature also sometimes run similar events. Spread the Wordruns various writer development schemes, as does The Literary Consultancy.
Beyond the M25, but still well south of the Tweed, Writers’ Centre Norwich, Nottingham Writers’ Studio, and the Centre for New and International Writing in Liverpool all operate along similar lines, and the Manchester Writing Hub looks like it will do, as soon as it’s all set up. In Scotland, the Scottish Poetry Library and the Scottish Storytelling Centre are both mainstays of Edinburgh’s UNESCO City of Literature bid, and both support writers and readers in many ways.
Where to Buy?
Independent publishers couldn’t really exist in the UK without the vital support of independent bookstores and the booksellers who promote the output of small presses.
Online, take your custom to the Big Green Bookshop and look no further. In the real world, Londoners should check out Burley Fisher Books in Haggerston, Pages of Hackney and the Brick Lane Bookshop in the East End, Lutyens & Rubinstein in Notting Hill, the London Review Bookshop in Camden, or any of the various Daunt Books outlets.
Outside London, you can’t go past Five Leaves in Nottingham, News From Nowhere in Liverpool, and the outstanding Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh — arguably the single best bookshop in Britain when it comes to supporting small presses and keeping their titles in stock.