In the second of a series of interviews with leading literary figures, Prabhu Guptara discusses the value of independents and the post-lockdown future of publishing with Claire Malcolm of New Writing North, the pioneering reading and writing development agency for the north of England.

Prabhu Guptara: What role have independent publishers played in the success of New Writing North?

Claire Malcolm: As a development agency for writers, our mission is to find new talent, and it’s frustrating when we find great writers ignored by the big publishers. We really appreciate the role that independent presses play in bringing more risky books to audiences and sustaining work with writers over a longer timeframe than corporate houses. Indies are less fixed to timelines and budgets, and more open to opportunities than bigger houses. We have great dialogue and partnerships with independent publishers in the north of England like Saraband, with whom we run the NorthBound Book Award for a new work of fiction, and we’re planning a new anthology with Bluemoose Books.

PG: How might independent publishers play a larger role?

CM: It would be great to see more independents in the north, especially outside the north west. The opportunity is always to engage deeply with a place or region, and for that to inspire new approaches to publishing—not just in a limited local niche but in unlocking new stories and perspectives. England suffers from London’s dominance of our culture. I think all lives and experiences should be visible in books, and at the moment they aren’t in a number of critical areas. If there isn’t a culture of publishing as an industry in a particular place, then the reliance will be either on people developing presses independently or on people with experience moving to that location from London. But a healthy regional culture should be able to support publishing as part of a broader picture.

At NWN, we’re thinking a great deal about how we do that, especially via cross-sector work. Opportunities are changing as companies like Hachette UK open regional offices, and with some companies moving to Manchester publishing will become more visible here, which will open out the industry in exciting ways. More broadly, the continuation of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, which seeks to place investment outside London, could be very positive for the regions. It’s also clear after Covid that you don’t have to work in an office in London to be part of national organisations and businesses. This presents an opportunity for us all to reimagine how publishing might grow in new ways.

PG: What is your view of the impact of the lockdown on independent publishers?

CM: The lockdown has been hard for most of us in the creative industries, both practically and financially. But it’s also been heartening to see many independent publishers thriving by deepening direct relationships with readers. In the future, the key will be how we sustain the interest of the people who have turned to reading during lockdown and make them into lifelong readers.

What’s impressed me is the way the sector has pulled together. We’ve been talking and planning with organisations and festivals in the north during the pandemic, looking at co-working and sharing knowledge and resources more than we ever have before. There is an ecology for literature, books and reading that cuts across commercial and subsidised organisations, bookshops and libraries. Independents in the north have always been proactive about working together and sharing opportunities, and we’ll need more recognition of our interdependence in the future.

PG: What challenges and opportunities do you see for independent publishers after lockdown?

CM: Research shows that people are reading more, and making resolutions to read more. There’s a chance to come out of the pandemic with increased audiences and new people to sell books to. We’ve found digital events a fantastic way to engage with a much broader horizon of readers, and it’s exciting to work from the north of England and be able to engage with audiences across the world. Writers and publishers think internationally very naturally, but for some readers that is quite new. It’s exciting to think where it might go.

Meanwhile, NWN is pursuing its goal of creating a new physical centre for writing and publishing, building on our work in developing literature over 25 years, and drawing together a range of partners and civic activities. The new infrastructure will nurture writers, books and other kinds of production to create social change and help rebuild our communities after the pandemic. Reading and writing brings people together, and as communities we need to address some big and critical issues like equity, equality and the climate crisis. We need new ideas and narratives about how to live and how to build deeper connections to help us get there.

Claire Malcolm is the founding chief executive of New Writing North. She oversees projects including The David Cohen Prize for Literature, The Gordon Burn Prize, the Durham Book Festival and the Northern Writers' Awards. She has worked as a specialist adviser and consultant to Arts Council England, the British Council, and Creative Scotland, and is a trustee of BookTrust.

Prabhu Guptara is a publisher, poet and board consultant. His interests include Salt Desert Media Group, publisher of the Pippa Rann Books & Media imprint and the forthcoming Global Resilience Publishing list.