sun 26/05/2024

h Club 100 Awards: Publishing and Writing - it's not all about the mainstream | reviews, news & interviews

h.Club 100 Awards: Publishing and Writing - it's not all about the mainstream

h.Club 100 Awards: Publishing and Writing - it's not all about the mainstream

This year's nominees include some remarkable ventures in not-for-profit and diversity

'We have worked hard to make sure the event is socially inclusive': Irna Qureshi (left) and Syima Aslam, founders of Bradford Literary Festival

For more than three decades I reported on the publishing industry as a business journalist. The books, the deals, the authors and the publishers, plus the bookshops that sold then. When I started out in 1984, Waterstone’s was new and exciting, forcing the innumerable independents that had long been the backbone of the trade to raise their game. At Foyles, Christina still presided over a store – just the one – that was modelled on an Albanian department store.

Something called the Net Book Agreement fixed the price of books, which were not yet sold in supermarkets.

When the NBA collapsed in 1995, it ushered in a period of destructive price promotion with which publishers and booksellers were still struggling when Amazon came along. Nobody realised what a game-changer it would be. Then came the eBook: publishers looked at the damage Napster caused to the music industry and took fright. Finally the crash of 2008 proved that books weren’t quite as recession-proof as everyone had thought.

Digital, meanwhile, had significantly lowered the cost of entry into publishing, including physical books, short-run printing available cheaply and on-demand. Young publishers could take their nascent visions and make them reality with minimal overheads. And they were braver and more imaginative than established businesses.

Comma PressComma Press is a good example. Founded in Manchester by Ra Page, former editor of City Life magazine, as an artists’ group it published four short story booklets across four northern cities. The booklets turned into books and were followed by genre-based anthologies, translations, an Arabic imprint. Among the short stories published by Comma, a non-profit, was “Another Country”, which morphed into the internationally best-selling movie 45 Years. Eat your heart out, Penguin!

Deborah Smith, who won the world’s most prestigious translation prize, the Man Booker International, with The Vegetarian by Han Kang, is a rather remarkable figure. Having graduated from Cambridge in English literature, she decided she’d learn Korean in order to explore the literature of that country. That was in late 2009. Eight years later, as well as a string of honours, she has a PhD in Korean Literature from SOAS and she’s set up her own publishing company, Tilted Axis, a not-for-profit dedicated to bringing Asian fiction to the west. Hats off.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah SmithShamefully, British publishing has for too long been white, middle-class and public school. After much hand-wringing it still is, so it’s vitally important that initiatives such as BAME in Publishing – which provides space to meet and talk, make connections and find mentors – and Creative Access, a social enterprise working to change the face of the creative industries, are striving to ensure equality of opportunity. 

And three loud cheers to Syima Aslam and Irna Qureshi, who set up the Bradford Literature Festival to dispel the city’s stereotypes and to create “an international destination festival”. Litfests have been a growth industry over the last decade or so, Hay and Edinburgh – the gold standard for such events – inspiring events across the country, some of which have the feel of a WI meeting. The watchword for Aslam and Qureshi is accessibility. “We have worked hard to make sure the event is socially inclusive and to make sure that cost isn’t a barrier,” they have explained, adding that free tickets and subsidies will be offered to students, pensioners, refugees, asylum seekers and those on benefits.

The 10 contenders for the Hospital Club Awards in Publishing and Writing are diverse and exciting, and they embrace a wide cross-section of the book trade – yet none is from the mainstream. Which is as it should be.

Cast your vote in The Hospital Club's h.Club 100 awards in Publishing and Writing, and nine other categories

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