Award-winning novelist, Neil Griffiths (Betrayal in Naples, Saving Caravaggio), on his new prize for small presses.
It was over a year ago this month when I realised I would have trouble placing my new novel Family of Love; the theological theme is complex, it is very long, and my last novel, Saving Caravaggio, while being short-listed for the Costa Novel of the Year, was an existential thriller and almost ten years old. Even my agent said ‘no’. As usual, I met my former Penguin editor Leo Hollis, now at Verso, for advice. I showed him the rather contradictory emails I’d been sent – contradictory in the sense that they were rejections but no one thus far in my writing life has ever said such flattering things about my work. (I won’t quote them.) Leo’s advice was transformative. Not so much for my novel, although that has worked out, too. He said have you tried Galley Beggar, they’ve just had a big success with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing? What about Fitzcarraldo Editions; there’s a lot of noise around them after Zone?
Now let me make this clear, as a published author, voracious reader, and cultural flâneur, I thought I knew all about literary stuff, but I hadn’t heard of either publisher. And yet, when I looked on their websites I saw a vision of publishing that was not only interested in beautiful design (FE even have their own typeface) but was dedicated to publishing difficult books that would never find a home in mainstream publishing. Galley Beggar stated that they were committed to ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’ – a line I’ve lifted (stolen) for the strap line of my prize. Given this highly uncommercial attitude to the market, I wondered how these small presses survived. A little research told me they barely do; they are even more vulnerable than independent bookshops with no large sales of Jamie Oliver or John Grisham or Christmas to keep them afloat. For many, all they have is the hard stuff. Each book a risk that barely – rarely – breaks even.
How might I help, I wondered. I have a little disposable income, a little disposable time. I knew from experience that being short-listed for a prize has an impact on both exposure and sales. Maybe I should start a prize for small presses. So I did: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. It was launched two months ago. Seven independent bookshop owners have agreed to be judges. The prize money has now risen from my own contribution of £2,000 to £3,000, and I expect it to reach £5,000, maybe even more, by the time the short-list is announced in January. My hope is that, whoever wins, the prize money will take a little of the risk out of publishing one or two books next year, and that the announcement of the short-list will boost sales for books that might never have been published if it wasn’t for the range and vision of small presses.
Twitter – @neilgriffiths