Redressing the balance
Since taking up Kamila Shamsie’s 2015 challenge in to publish only women writers in 2018, what have you discovered?
When And Other Stories took on this challenge the stress was very much on opening things up – opening up a conversation, opening ourselves up to the existence of bias and then being open to different and creative ways to challenge that bias. And, so, we didn’t take the challenge on with a fixed idea about what we might find, but, talking to my colleagues here, what we have discovered is very much in line with what Kamila was talking about in the first place: the situation is big, complex and embedded, and it requires commitment and dedication – we need to redouble our efforts.
Why is diversity and platforming women so important?
We want women’s literary voices to be taken as seriously as men’s, and to be as widely represented as men’s, both on our own list, and across the industry.
This applies particularly to literature in translation, where only around a third of books published in English are written by women. That isn’t the reality we live in right now, and things will only change if we take positive action, so that’s what the year of publishing women is all about – we felt it was a big and bold thing to do, and the problem is big and bold.
Diverse voices make for a richer and wider and more tolerant literary landscape. And I’m a big old romantic optimist so I’d go further and say diversity in the world of books and in the arts more generally can open us up to connect with one another better and perhaps try to build the kinds of society that might work better for us all. Translators are true heroes in all this – they make it possible – and they are very, very rarely given a platform, so that feels especially important.
What’s changed? We’re working harder to push back against the bias to look for the best women writers in translation, as well as for writers of colour and other groups that are under-represented in literature.
What has the response been so far this year to the works published?
The response so far has been brilliant! Our first book of the year was a selection of lost stories and fragments by a cult author from the 1960s called Ann Quin. She writes in this incredibly vivid and intense and caustic way – it’s so radical and still feels fresh today. She took her own life while she was still in her thirties and has been overlooked for decades, but we could only describe the response to this book in the UK as ‘Quin mania!’ There’s been a huge resurgence of interest in her work across the media and the book has been selling like hotcakes, which is fantastic.
Top tips for writers
What advice would you give budding female authors?
I would give the same advice to anybody who writes. Knowledge is power: it can be depressing and disheartening to learn about some of the systemic problems in the publishing industry, and every writer will have their own particular challenges to face, and some will face a harder road than others, but it’s also powerful to understand that a rejection is very often no reflection on the quality of the work you are making. So, keep on writing.
When you are hunting for new authors beyond the standard submissions process, where do you look?
And Other Stories is especially open when it comes to finding new voices. Unlike quite a number of publishers, especially larger ones, we have an open submissions policy, so anybody – whether or not she or he has an agent – can send us a manuscript and we will read it.
And Other Stories talk about finding ‘challenging’ work - what does ‘challenging’ mean to you?
A ‘challenging’ book to me is one that will interrupt me, unsettle me, make me read and look and think again. ‘Challenging’ books can be difficult to read, sometimes, but they are the ones that stay with me in the end.
What’s it like to work in publishing?
What is it like to work for a small publishing house?
In a word: great! And Other Stories is a not-for-profit organisation and we don’t have a dauntingly large list, so we have the privilege to be able to find and work on books that we feel very passionate about. Working for such a small organisation has its challenges, too. We are very busy! Plus, we are 100% committed to publishing excellent literary fiction – and there are lots of other really exciting indie presses in the UK and the States right now – but it can be harder to find readers without a huge budget and the kind of dominance that larger publishing houses enjoy, and especially as it is so hard for independent bookshops to keep going, too. We have to be super creative and nimble!
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
As an editor, I spend a good amount of my time reading and editing manuscripts. I have to pinch myself sometimes – for someone who loves books it is a dream job!
What advice would you give someone considering going into publishing?
Read read read read read! Take your time and work out what kind of a reader you are and what kind of publishing might suit you, whether that is indie or commercial, for instance. Recruitment is a two-way street, and it’s important to find an employer that suits you. Finally, be aware that whatever your skill set, there will be a role for you. Often people get a little fixated on the editing side of things, but that really doesn’t suit everyone – so, so many people collaborate to produce books, and it’s so great to see the ways in which different minds coalesce and work together.
Are you a fan of South Asian literature?
Now here is something I would like to read more of! Send your submissions in our direction! I’d like to make a plug here, too… In the UK there’s a fantastic indie, which is also based in Sheffield, like And Other Stories, called Tilted Axis, and I would urge anybody to check out. Tilted is particularly great at seeking out and recommending striking voices from South Asia, so do check them out.
Did you enjoy this article? Why not try Author and lecturer Claire Chambers tells us why she finds Pakistan’s literary scene so exciting
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Image Copyright Writers Block CC Thanakrit Gu