The North-South divide in England can be something fun to joke around about, but it also poses real problems. Alongside the disparities in wealth, education, and transport, the divide is keenly felt by the arts and culture sector in the North.
But this isn’t being ignored completely. The Northern Fiction Alliance is a group of book publishers in Britain who recognise that the publishing industry is still quite white, middle-class, and London-centric and are trying to combat this by setting their headquarters outside of London. In ‘An Open Letter to the London-centric Publishing Industry’, they outline their ‘Eight Point Plan’ that works towards achieving their goals of platforming voices that might not ever be heard in London and encouraging arts in the North. This allows northern talent to shine, both in terms of writers and the people that make up the publishers, without them having to move to the capital. Whilst there is no room to detail all the publishers that form part of the Northern Fiction Alliance, never mind the north in general, here is a quick overview of some of their work and recommendations. I would like to see if I can tempt you to check out any books from your local publishers and support the initiative to bolster northern arts.
As the head of the Northern Fiction Alliance, Comma Press in Manchester is at the forefront of promoting independent publishing in the north. Whilst I am admittedly a bit bias since I worked an internship with them, I think they are a wonderful publishing house with genuine people who care about books and encouraging the growth of northern arts. Their books mainly focus on the Middle East and the Palestine-Israel conflict. This includes politically fraught topics that are handled wonderfully, with authors from the Middle East relating their experiences in the form of short stories. They pack a punch and reduce many complex political issues into digestible and thought-provoking fiction.
Another series they are dedicated to is Refugee Tales, which includes writers retelling real stories from refugees – an incredibly emotional but necessary insight into a vulnerable and often ignored group. All profits made from the series also go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help. If these topics interest you, I would recommend visiting their website and seeing if any upcoming books pique your interest.
Tucked away in Hebden Bridge is Bluemoose Books, a publishing house led by Kevin Duffy, who makes clear on Twitter his love for reading and northern writers. He is a brilliant contributor to the northern arts as a publisher, but also as a propagator for northern voices. A massive success Bluemoose can boast is Benjamin Myers, who won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction with Gallow’s Pole in 2018 and has since garnered a loyal following for his work. From reading his most recent book The Offing, published by Bloomsbury, I can see why, and his descriptions of the northern landscape definitely shine through. However, it was his novels with Bluemoose Books – such as Gallow’s Pole and The Beastings – that springboarded him to further success. Another book published by Bluemoose that I have to mention because of its all-mustard-yellow cover that I adore is Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession. A quirky, funny novel about the humdrum of life, it makes gentle people the centre of its story and is a heart-warming read.
In 2020, Bluemoose Books made it their mission to publish women over the age of 45, a demographic of writers they saw as often marginalised by mainstream publishing. If this is something that interests you, I would recommend browsing their website and the four titles that made up this initiative.
Peepal Tree, located in Leeds, publishes work from Caribbean and Black British writers in a range of different genres – so whether you like to be informed by crafted nonfiction, swept away by lyrical poetry or read the punchy fiction of short story collections, Peepal Tree has you covered. One of their publications, The Mermaid of the Black Conch by Monique Roffey, has recently won the Costa Book of the Year, showing how the publication house is getting some of the love and national recognition they deserve. This is an excellent place to start when choosing a book to read from them. To further bolster marginalised voices is their programme, Inscribe, which aims to assist writers of African and Asian descent with their writing through mentoring and workshops.
And Other Stories
And Other Stories is a publishing house in Sheffield focusing on contemporary fiction and translates a lot of their work. This means that stories that would never get a chance to be told to an English audience are available and some real gems can be found. A book I read at the start of 2021 that set a high standard for the rest of the year was Rita Indiana’s Tentacle. A science fiction that manages to include commentary on topics ranging from climate change, religious fanaticism, gender identity, sexuality, colonialism, and contemporary art, all packed into 160 pages; it is an incredibly impressive roller-coaster of a read. Translated by Achy Obejas, I would never have had an opportunity to read this amazing book without the efforts of And Other Stories.
However, this doesn’t mean they also don’t prop up northern voices as well, creating the ‘Northern Book Prize’ in order to celebrate the best of northern writers. Check out their website to look at their upcoming releases, including a book on the voices from lockdown.
‘Publishing the underground’, Dead Ink in Liverpool pride themselves on producing ‘experimental’ fiction as well as publishing unknown or underground authors. Such works that fall under the experimental category include Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin, a moving novel about illness and pain which was the reader’s choice for the Not the Booker Prize shortlist in 2019. The metafiction The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James is another popular favourite, which uses mixed media in the novel – from phone transcripts, letters, newspaper articles, and emails – to tell its story.
Their passion for supporting new authors and publishing inventive debuts is made clear on their website, as well as their belief that readers are important in helping them reach their goals. They state: “Our readers form an integral part of our team. You don’t simply buy a Dead Ink book, you invest in the authors and the books you love.” If that’s not the most persuasive selling point for checking out some of these new publishers, I don’t know what is.