As publisher And Other Stories celebrates its recent move from London to Sheffield with a literary prize, Yvette Huddleston speaks to its founder.
If proof were needed that books matter to people in Yorkshire, you only have to look at the growth in the number of literature festivals in the region over recent years – with new ones popping up to join the long-established.
The growing band of successful independent publishers rooted in the North – Bluemoose Books, Comma Press, Dead Ink and Bloodaxe to name just a handful – is also an encouraging sign that publishing is spreading its wings, no longer restricted to London and the south-east. It means there is more diversity on offer to the reader, away from the big, risk-averse publishing behemoths.
One London-based independent publisher, And Other Stories, made the bold step of moving north earlier this year and is now settled in Sheffield. Founded in 2010 by Stefan Tobler, the company has a national and international reputation for publishing world-class, challenging literary fiction, much of it in translation. Their books have been awarded and shortlisted for several prizes, including the Man Booker, the Costa Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Best Translated Book Award. “It is about time more publishing firms got out of London,” says Tobler. “Publishing is generally too white and middle class, it’s not representative of our country as a whole and as long as publishers stay in London, that won’t change. Fiction publishing, in particular is not very lucrative so to be based in London means it excludes a lot of people. We wanted to grow the company – we hired someone this summer and there was a real wealth of brilliant applicants. We got the sense that it was welcomed that a publishing company was coming north.”
It is great to have them here and the company is celebrating its move by launching a new literary award, The Northern Book Prize, in partnerships with New Writing North, at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival next week. “The independent, innovative spirit of Sheffield is part of what attracted us here” says Tobler. “The city has a rich cultural heritage and there is a huge amount happening in the arts. I think there is a thirst for more and we are looking forward to being part of that.” Contrary to gloomy predictions about digital media killing off books in print – it seems that demand is, if anything, growing and recent figures have shown that purchases of e-books have declined. “People do seem to want to hold on to print; they like buying real books,” says Tobler. “All the books on our list are available as e-books but most people want a print book.” And at a time when understanding ‘the other’ is more imporant than ever, books in translation also seem to be gaining in popularity amongst readers, a hopeful sign. “There does seem to be a real interest,” says Tobler. “When we decided to get going it was partly out of frustration at the great literary fiction not being published in English. Now there are a few publishers making an effort on that score. There is no question in my mind that readers want to read widely and don’t want to only be reading books from where they live. That is one of the joys of reading, after all, you can take yourself into a completely different life.”
The Northern Book Prize for unpublished fiction, initiated by And Other Stories, will form part of New Writing North’s Northern Writers’ Awards which, since 2000, have supported hundreds of writers to develop creatively and connect with the writing industry.
The Awards are open to writers based in the North of England and will open for submissions on November 16 and close on February 1 next year. The winning writer will be announced at the Northern Writers’ Awards ceremony, to be held in Newcastle in June 2018. “One of the reasons we wanted to set up the prize is, because people know our reputation for international writing, we wanted to send a message out that we are also very much looking for writers in Britain, and particularly in the North, to approach us,” says Tobler. “And we are very proud of the £5,000 prize which is more than the average advance for a work of literary fiction.”
So what are they looking for? “It has to be book length but apart from that it can be a novel or a collection of short stories or even lots of short pieces connected by a theme. We didn’t want to put an obstacle in the way of people’s creativity – they can go in any direction they see fit, as long as it is literary fiction. If they have a look at our list, that will give them a sense of the kinds of books we publish.”
The Northern Book Prize is launched on October 19 at Off the Shelf festival. www. offtheshelf.org.uk The event is free and open to the public. www.andotherstories.org