The northern literary rebellion

How regional publishers are paving the path for working-class writers

April 28, 2021
At work in John Rylands Library in Manchester. Credit: Paul Hodgson / Alamy Stock Photo
At work in John Rylands Library in Manchester. Credit: Paul Hodgson / Alamy Stock Photo

The publishing industry is facing a slow but sure reckoning with the practices that many writers feel have excluded and isolated them. The Big Four publishing houses—Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, and HarperCollins—are concentrated in the UK capital. But northern literary hubs have taken the lead in reducing class barriers for writers outside of London.

Claire Malcolm tells me there has been a “brain drain” to London among northern writers at least since the mid-1990s. Developing regional working-class talent was being ignored, Malcolm felt, so in 1996 she founded New Writing North, a regional talent development agency—the first of its kind in the UK. Malcolm says: “The mission of the organisation has always remained the same: build bridges, make the opportunities happen here and shift the idea that everything happens in London—that London is the only place where you can be a writer.”

In 2016, at an event celebrating the essay collection The Good Immigrant, Malcolm decided that New Writing North was going to deliberately seek out a variety of writers. Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers was published in 2019. The anthology—and the research report which came with it—meant the organisation could really identify writers from working-class backgrounds to help.

Still, the path to publication is still packed with barriers. Author SJ Bradley, who runs Leeds-based writers’ support network Fictions of Every Kind, had her first two novels published by Liverpool-based publisher Dead Ink Books, which accepts submissions from un-agented writers. “Getting an agent is really hard if you don’t have any connections and if you don’t have a Creative Writing MA,” Bradley says. On those courses you get an introduction to agents and [learn] how to present yourself. Agents do find writers through submission, but the number is small.”

Dead Ink Books, founded in 2011, initially used crowdfunding to publish underrepresented authors and still accepts submissions from writers without agents. Founder Nathan Connolly found it easier to set up his own publishing house than to move to London and break into trade publishing there. Now there is the Northern Fiction Alliance (founded in 2016) and in 2020 HarperNorth—a branch of HarperCollins—was established in Manchester.

Do regional publishing houses hold more power than people realise? Not necessarily, Connolly says: “I think the likes of Comma Press and Dead Ink are too small to make any real impact on the wider accessibility of the industry. Our strength is in leading by example and demonstrating both feasibility and success. If we can demonstrate to larger publishers that they are missing a trick, then they will follow.”

Crowdfunding is a key method of demonstrating a public appetite for something. “Crowdfunding is a demonstration of collective power and shows readers how they can make a difference within an industry that can at times seem like a bit of a monster,” he says. Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class was one of these crowdfunded projects. Next, Dead Inkwill be publishing Test Signal—an anthology of northern writing—in collaboration with Bloomsbury.

Like Dead Ink, Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press accepts submissions from unagented writers. Its focus is on Caribbean narratives, and the decision to remain in Leeds since their founding in 1985 was a conscious one. “Leeds has a significant community from the Caribbean diaspora in Chapeltown, which enabled us then, and now, to work locally with new and established black British writers,” says Adam Lowe, Peepal’s publicity and social media manager. Located elsewhere, they would lose the valuable talent the community has to offer.

Lowe says that institutional racism faced by black and Asian writers “makes people poorer and makes climbing the ladder harder.” As a result, Peepal works “holistically,” and considers how it can make their entire process more accessible. This means a hands-on editing process, so that writers do not have to produce a perfect manuscript initially—just a good story.

Once established, though, you need somewhere to publicise your work. Natasha Carthew, writer and creator of the Working Class Writers’ Festival, began to notice the same faces appearing onstage when she travelled the literary circuit in 2018. “You had the same people sitting on the stage, saying the same stories, and selling the same book.” Working-class writers struggled to attend—especially since at the time some festivals did not pay their contributors.

Carthew’s Bristol-based festival, by contrast, will have a flat fee payment for all writers, as well as paying for their accommodation and travel. Events will expand across the city and visit community centres. “We’re thinking about how many people do not access festivals, and, how do we get them in? We’re going to them.”

Regional identity and working-class identity are not interchangeable, but the work of regional publishers is pushing working-class writers. These publishers’ existence, however, lies on a “knife-edge,” says Naomi Booth, a novelist born and brought up in Yorkshire who now teaches creative writing at Durham—and it is imperative they are supported. “There are these absolute working-class heroes in the industry, who have really put everything they’ve got into it. I’m excited about what these presses have to bring in the future, but also concerned that we support them.”