When I lived in that there London, my flat was right around the corner from Penguin Random House (the one on Vauxhall Bridge Road). I’d walk by the large stone building most days, wondering what it would be like to work inside, or even better, to cross the threshold as a published author. Hey, a girl can dream on her daily commute, right?
When we think about the big players of the publishing world, our thoughts immediately turn to the capital. Like a moth to a flame, writers are drawn to take their wares to the giants in The South. As a result, the rest of the country is all but absent from the conversation. Back in May 2017, The Bookseller reported that Faber chief executive, Stephen Page, criticised publishing for being “too London-centric”.
And yet, with a significant percentage of books ‘written’ by celebrities or those in the public eye (social media influencers, winners of reality TV shows, Instagram famous dogs), it makes you wonder: where do all the brilliant, innovative and talented new writers go with their manuscripts? Well, it seems like they’re heading up North.
Enter the Northern Fiction Alliance (NFA). The collective, made up of some of the most exciting small presses in the UK, was established in 2016 to spotlight the North of England as a hub of creativity in the publishing sector. It comprises Manchester-based Comma Press (winner of Best Northern Publisher at the inaugural Northern Soul Awards earlier this year) which was awarded £56,167 by Arts Council England’s International Showcasing Programme to lead the NFA, and two other National Portfolio Publishers – Sheffield’s And Other Stories and Leeds’ Peepal Tree Press. Also involved are emerging publishers like Liverpool’s Dead Ink Books, as well as Hebden Bridge’s Bluemoose Books, Newcastle’s Mayfly Press, Route, Salford’s Saraband and Tilted Axis from Sheffield.
The aim? To showcase the diversity and creativity that’s beginning to position Northern publishers not just on the domestic market, but on a global stage. They’ll be heading to four international book fairs in Frankfurt, New York, Beijing, and Buenos Aires where, as detailed on the NFA website, they will “showcase and sell the work of several exciting and diverse authors to help build the cultural identity of strong British writing as well as British publishing based in the North”, and gain experience in the international publishing market.
The end of September marked the NFA’s first roadshow, showcasing the different presses and the books they are publishing, with networking opportunities, plus talks and readings from some of the authors and editors. And it seems like the word was most certainly out. As I made my way into the events room at Waterstones Deansgate, the first thing that struck me was just how busy the event was. A whole room hot with bodies and so full that it was tough to navigate.
I grabbed a glass of red and attempted to make my way through the throng of people and look at the titles on offer. For me, the best thing about the collective – other than shining a light on The North, of course – is the inclusion of a range of diverse publications. There’s experimental new ‘underground’ writing from the likes of Dead Ink Books, then Caribbean and Black British writing from Peepal Tree Press, non-fiction, as well as translations of stories that might not otherwise make it into English from not-for-profit publisher, Tilted Axis. It was heartening to see such a broad representation all under one roof.
After an initial 15 minutes spent perusing the stands (oh, how I do love to peruse a good book stand), and another 10 listing all the reasons why I’m not allowed to purchase any more titles (my TBR pile is huge because I am chronic book buyer), Comma Press’s founder and managing editor, Ra Page, and sales and production manager, Becca Parkinson, took to the stage to say a few words about the NFA, to which they received a rapturous welcome from the crowd. The excitement and support for the cohort was palatable.
We were then treated to an introduction to each publishing house, plus a live reading from one of their authors (unfortunately a representative from Tilted Axis informed us that she would have read the work on behalf of her author because, although she wanted to be there, she was unable to get the required visa, to which the audience collectively emitted a sigh that can only be translated as “that’s bloody ridiculous”). A huge fan of live literature events, my inner book-nerd squeaked with excitement but I managed to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for the written word. Well, that is until Dead Ink’s Nathan Connolly introduced Naomie Booth.
I’m familiar with Dead Ink having previously read The Night Visitors, and I’ve interviewed their authors Jenn Ashworth and Richard V. Hirst for Northern Soul (it’s a fantastic, experimental, eerie, socially-aware novella that will leave you with a lingering sense of being absolutely creeped out). As I listen to Booth (who hails from West Yorkshire) read from the pages of her debut novel, Sealed, I immediately pick up a copy from the stand next to me (I’m standing right next to the Dead Ink stall -that’s serendipity, right?) and clutch it in my free hand. When it comes to books, my willpower is non-existent. I take a sip of wine and resolve to begin my book-buying abstinence the next day. Obviously, that then meant I’d given myself a free pass to buy as many books as I wanted that evening.
As each publisher introduced their company, and each author continued to read aloud, I was struck by the immense talent, diversity and passion of the Northern Fiction Alliance. It’s a fantastic collective that really does showcase Northern writers and publishers at their very best.
So, move over, London. It’s time for the North to take centre stage.
(All images supplied by Comma Press)
For more information about the NFA, please visit the website.