BookBrunch | Independent Publisher Focus: Salt on the Silver Age of the small press

This week on the BookBrunch Interview, a discussion with the lovely Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery from Norfolk-based Salt Publishing about what is being heralded as the ‘Silver Age of the small press’:salt founders.jpg

Salt’s owners Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery discuss the publisher’s near-death experience in the recession, escaping the Arts Council comfort blanket and how small presses can thrive if they publish with their heads as well as their hearts

Despite, or perhaps because of, the dramas of the past, there’s no doubt that 2016 is off to a good start for Salt. It’s already been nominated twice for the 2016 Dublin Literary Award, The Good Son by Paul McVeigh is the City Reads 2016 title in Brighton and Hove and The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies has been dubbed a 2016 Regional Read. And while this success comes on the back of a hugely positive past year, the small press hasn’t always had an easy ride, as I discovered when I sat down with Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery for a cup of tea under the big Norfolk sky to discuss the many reinventions of Salt.

Lucky break in the silver age

First and foremost, we have to discuss the enormous successes of 2015. Not only did Salt win the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and the Polari First Book Prize, their books were also shortlisted for the Guardian Not the Booker Prize, the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and the Wales Book of the Year. This amongst numerous other media mentions and highlights.

“We did have a lot of luck last year with prizes,” says Chris, nodding. “But it’s not just us, you see that across the independents at the moment.” He talks about how small presses in general have had some fantastic wins in the last few years: Galley Beggar Press winning the 2014 Bailey’s Prize with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Oneworld taking last year’s Man Booker, for example. In fact, according to many, we’re entering the Silver Age of the small press, a precursor perhaps to a more golden one.

“I think it probably is true that we’re seeing a big cultural shift, in that small presses have occupied a space that large presses have vacated. They’re doing challenging publishing, finding writers, breaking talent and bringing really interesting works to light. It pays off, because the people in the festival and review world and, in the broader sense, prize culture – they’re interested in literary works that are contributing to the culture, so they’re picking up on what’s going on in our sector. I think we’re symptomatic of that, rather than having some sort of exceptional skill in winning prizes.”

“It’s a sorry state of affairs really, but it’s great for small presses,” adds Jennifer. “For the bigger publishers – with their London offices and their staff and all the rest of it – they have to focus what they’re doing in terms of getting more revenue. It often means turning away from certain literary fiction, into other areas that they’re more likely to sell lots of, into those more popular genres, to the detriment of the higher-end publishing that they started doing. They still do it, but they probably rely on hitting the big prizes and getting shortlisted and having big wins, which with presses like us up coming up behind them is becoming more difficult. We’ve got the luxury of publishing those books because we don’t need tens and twenties of thousands of sales just for it to break even. We can publish what we want, we don’t have to go to the sales and marketing team and try and convince them!”

“Though we do have to convince each other,” grins Chris.

Staying afloat

It’s this size and ability to pivot that has enabled Salt to flourish over the years. Indeed, it is a very different beast now than when it started as an avant-garde poetry press in 1999. Changes have included first moving towards mainstream poetry, then away from it almost entirely and towards novels and short fiction; switching from an international print on demand model to UK-based trade sales; and upsizing or downsizing staff and offices. Perhaps the biggest changes, however, have been in response to Arts Council funding and then, in its wake, to the recession of 2008…

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