How the North became a powerhouse of independent publishing - NFA star in Arts Council Case Study

This blog has been re-posted from Arts Council England's Case Study on Northern publishing, written by Literature Relationship Manager's Alison Boyle and Stephen May.
Read the article on the Arts Council website here.

Publishers have been established in the North for many years - some for as long as 40 years - and the region is now recognised as a strong base of independent publishing.

After plugging away in the North, spotting the individuals with a business head, we are now seeing the impact of publishers working even more closely together.

And it is this independence that enables them to champion authors and focus on particular writing strands in a way that the major mainstream conglomerates may not be able to do. For example, Comma Press primarily publishes short fiction and 98% of Carcanet’s output is poetry. Comma Press has also led the way in digital innovations with MacGuffin, its self-publishing platform for fiction and poetry.

Diverse talent
Northern publishers can also lay claim to be discoverers of diverse talent - Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy were both first published by Sheffield’s The Poetry Business – and nurturers of that talent - Bloodaxe Books first published the late Helen Dunmore in 1983 and subsequently built a 35 year relationship over 10 collections with her.

Others have brought international work to British readers such as Tilted Axis Press which focuses on translating Asian fiction. Peepal Press concentrates on bringing Caribbean writers to new audiences and it partners with Leeds Soroptimists in supporting a literary prize for Black and Asian women writers of fiction.

The Northern Fiction Alliance
Founded in 2016 by Comma Press and supported by an Arts Council International Showcasing Grant, The Northern Fiction Alliance is another initiative which has helped to foster a strong cultural identity of British writing across the area. This started when four publishers - Peepal Tree Press, And Other Stories, Dead Ink, and Comma Press – travelled to a number of international book fairs to showcase and sell the work of their diverse authors.

The Alliance has now expanded to also include Bluemoose Books, Tilted Axis Press, Mayfly Press, Route, Wrecking Ball Press, Valley Press and Saraband and it highlights the increasing national and international significance of publishers in the North. We are supporting the development of the Alliance into the Northern Publishing Network through increased National Portfolio funding to Comma Press over the next four years.

And Other Stories was the only publisher to take up the challenge from author Kamila Shamsie to publish a women-only list in 2018 to help address the gender imbalance in literature. The publisher, which made its name with Deborah Levy's 2012 Booker Prize-shortlisted Swimming Home, produces about 12 books a year and this year will be able to get behind female authors it might not otherwise have had room for on its list.

Our support

The Arts Council is investing £2,781,552 through our National Portfolio for 2018-22 in seven organisations – Carcanet Press, Commonword and Comma Press in Manchester, Peepal Tree Press in Leeds, Hexham’s Bloodaxe Books, The Reader in Liverpool as well as And Other Stories which moved from High Wycombe to Sheffield in 2017.

And we support many others through our National Lottery funded Grants for the Arts programme such as Blue Moose Books, Dead Ink, Knives, Forks, Spoons, Wrecking Ball Press and Tilted Axis Press. Saraband, which moved from Glasgow to Salford in 2017, is supported through our International Showcasing Fund.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, a Ugandan novelist and short story writer living in Manchester, was awarded £12,000 through our Grants for the Arts scheme in 2014 to help her to write her award-winning first novel Kintu. Our support gave her the time to develop her writing; she also received mentoring from Michael Schmidt at Carcanet Press and attended Commonword/Cultureword writing workshops. In March 2018 she won one of the Windham Campbell Prizes from Yale University and an award of $165,000 (£119,000) for Kintu.

A host of prizes have been won in recent years by publishers in the North. Comma Press won a Northern Soul Award in June 2017 as Northern Publisher of the Year 2017 and Adam Crothers, whose debut Several Deer was published by Carcanet Press, won the 2017 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry First Full Collection Prize.

The Arts Council believes that the North should be a place where artists can live and work without feeling that they need to move elsewhere in the country to gain success. The strength and diversity of the work by talented writers published by Northern organisations is testament to this belief.

After plugging away in the North, spotting the individuals with a business head, we are now seeing the impact of publishers working even more closely together. These talented Northern teams have two things in common: the passion and the skills to produce great works by writers wherever and whoever they are.

We support publishers - both financially and with advice - who have a clear vision about what and who they want to publish. This distinguishing feature runs through the publishing scene in the North - their very uniqueness helps them stand out among the huge annual output of books and brings new readers and acclaim in increasing numbers. And in a world where literature competes with so many other distractions, this is something we’re proud to celebrate.

Alison Boyle and Stephen May, Literature Relationship Managers, Arts Council England