I have written about broadsides before and this article is another inspiration from the north on the same subject. Yesterday the Guardian Book section displayed A publishing broadside from the streets of Hebden Bridge – a statement, a printed voice from the north proclaiming literary independence.
Written by Kevin Duffy, the opening line declares like a trumpet “Arthritic London publishers. Agents stuck in rusting tramlines. Come north, talented young writers”. His article is both a rejection of large London-centric publishing houses and a recognition of the north, multiplicity and difference. Home to the Brontë sisters, Hughes and Plath, Duffy writes that Hebden Bridge is now a meeting place in the Pennines for a convergence of authors, poets, slam organisers, writers of television soap operas and Radio Four plays.
Duffy describes establishing Bluemoose Books as a counter to an industry increasingly focused on the revenue of celebrity autobiographies and dominated by a small number of large publishing houses. According to Duffy, the mainstream literary industry is too absorbed with sales figures and marketing, talented writers are being overlooked and the publishing sector is becoming “generic and formulaic”.
I wonder that what the writer of this broadside is pushing for? I find it hard to believe in a proclamation of independence which at the same time announces discussions with Penguin and Random House and Hollywood’s interest in one of their titles. Admirable achievements certainly but then I can’t help but feel a little confused – is the writer’s underlying belief that small and independent publishers are merely useful thoroughfares to reach the big industry giants?
Some comments beneath the article accuse Duffy of using the article as a publicity stunt or a marketing device – but then they have missed the very purpose of a broadside. Duffy’s aim is to sell the “Land of Literary Joy” (a place of “lovely houses, flying freeholds, great landscape, healthy walks and much else besides”) as an allegory for rural towns, northern places and small publishing groups that are as rich and as full as any London industry magnate. His approach is to market a belief that literature is about quality words and tangible connection; glance at the ‘About Us’ section on the Bluemoose website and you can read the line “we are a team of readers and writers who love stories”. I feel like retorting something to my computer screen. Is this how Duffy and Bluemoose view the state of the literary industry that they position an enjoyment of reading as a selling points that distinguishes them from their competitors?
Despite this – no matter if the edges of the argument are a little tattered and torn – something special does emerge from this broadside: a feeling of connection and difference, closeness between publisher, writer, bookseller, story, reader. I love when Duffy mentions Ian, James and Joe of the Waterstone’s branches in Leeds and Manchester, Anna, Libby and the two Janes: librarians in Calderdale, Rochdale and Blackpool. These people championed the small publisher, the new writer.
Although the market is still dominated by high street booksellers and internet vendors, recent years have seen a real and pronounced shift towards local bookshops and independent publishers that embrace the small and the non-London located. Indeed, there are festivals and gatherings more popular than anything that the capital has to offer: Wigtown Literary Festival in Dumfries and Galloway, the globally renowned University of East Anglia creative writing course and the Hay Festival whose sister organisations stretch around the world to Nairobi, Beirut, Kerala.
For me, the hugs from Dink and Gordon, the quiet lines and arches of the old station, the moment of discovering a book for £2.80 with a pencilled inscription on the inside page to some unknown birthday girl is infinitely more special than anything W H Smith or Waterstone’s could offer me. Last night after work, I went to my mother’s favourite bookshop, Persephone – an independent publisher of little-known female writers – for late night Christmas shopping.
Duffy’s argument might be shaky in places but I like his words when he writes “Start locally with great stories and they travel, from Hebden over the border to Todmorden and even down to London, Moscow, New York and Sofia”. Words can take you afield and abroad. They can travel and take you somewhere new. “You don’t have to go to the metropolis to get your book published” but your thoughts and dreams can take you to capitals around the world. Despite government cuts which mean resources – rightly – are being siphoned towards infrastructure, health and education with less left for cultivation of the arts, it is still possible to believe in decentralisation, a dispersal of thought and creativity.
Interesting things happen on the edge. There is beauty in the margin.