In the summer of 2021, indie publisher Inkandescent published MAINSTREAM. An Anthology of Stories from the Edges. As Aliya Gulamani (Spread the Word / Unbound) wrote in her foreword: “They wanted to create an anthology unrestricted by theme and subject that celebrated talented writers and the stories they wanted to write. Just this: the stories that they wanted to write!” And that’s what they did! In our interview, publisher and author Justin David shares Inkandescent’s origin story, shines a light on the making of MAINSTREAM, and tells us about the challenges they had and have to navigate.
For your preface you chose the powerful anthem “Permission” by Memory Flowers (aka Andy Pisanu) [link to anthem on YouTube] that you also used in your call for submissions: “Tell me your stories / Let them exist […] I’m angry and I’m not sorry / […] / We don’t need permission any more”. I think it’s no secret that it is still harder for marginalised voiced to be published. Can you tell us a bit about why and how you started your own publishing house?
We didn’t start out feeling angry. As young people at art school, perhaps naively, perhaps through hopeful optimism, we’d bought into the myths peddled by Tony Blair and New Labour, that via a meritocracy, we could achieve anything we wanted if we got an education and worked hard. We’d been hoodwinked. Nathan is a director of film and theatre, and poet. I’m a writer of fiction and a photographer. As more mature adults we grew weary, as Nathan struggled to finance a feature film and publishing contracts simply eluded me. The anger followed.
We became disillusioned about the art and publishing worlds. The bookshops were full of classics, celebrity biographies, prize-winners and commercial paperbacks. Publishers just didn’t seem to be taking risks on anything that might not appeal to a very wide audience. We didn’t make the kind of work that publishers and producers could make mega-bucks from: we were too queer, too working-class, not working-class enough. It seemed that you had to be both an Oxbridge graduate and the daughter or son of somebody before you could get over the drawbridge.
Regardless of how hard we worked or how well-honed we made our writing, the excuses for not being given access to platforms kept coming. In 2015 we’d decided that we just wanted to make one piece of work which didn’t require the permission of a gatekeeper. Call it a vanity project if you like, but we won an Arts Council grant to produce and publish a book of our own – Threads (link to the book).
In the beginning, we didn’t plan to become publishers. It just grew out of our creative journey.
We didn’t want all that new knowledge to go to waste. We decided to publish more books and build a platform to champion the underrepresented ideas, subjects and voices of others. Inkandescent was born.
So our initial motives for setting up Inkandescent were personal. We wanted to find an audience. Your 2020 independent report Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing from Goldsmiths, University of London, Spread the Word and The Bookseller, focused on how cultural production has been disadvantaging people of colour; it also confirmed many of our wider suspicions: not only were mainstream publishers risk averse, they have also been lazy. Basically, it was easy for them to publish (for) the mates they went to school with and not bother looking further afield.
Around the time the report came out we were feeling hopeful. We were thrilled to see things changing, again, perhaps naively, perhaps hopefully optimistic. Of the big corporates, Penguin were making all the right noises with their initiative to find underrepresented voices. And Picador were making some bold choices in publishing queer writers like Garth Greenwell.
However, it remains to be seen whether there will be any lasting or meaningful change. More than a year after the report came out, there are still very few black or brown people in the upper echelons of mainstream publishing, so I’m not holding my breath. Inkandescent certainly have a LOT more work to do.
Have you seen any change since you started your press?
Six years after forming Inkandescent, the atmosphere is very different. People are angrier than ever. Underrepresented writers are no longer accepting the few crumbs that are thrown at them. Sick of asking for a seat at the mainstream table, they are calling out the inequality and unfairness in publishing and it’s not pretty. Almost every week there is another Twitter fall out between authors, publishers and editors; privileged groups – namely cis, straight, white, middle-class men and women – seem totally aghast to have their positions challenged for, seemingly, the first time. There is a shocking arrogance that they feel entitled to be published, and that what they publish is above criticism. Whilst the battle for representation and space in publishing continues, we are also seeing transphobia and racism being called out, resulting in faux outrage and fragile reactions from the perpetrators. We won’t name names because some of them are so rich they’ll slap a lawsuit on you faster than they can say, say White Lives Matter or Why isn’t there a straight PRIDE? But you know who I’m talking about. Meanwhile, mainstream publishing continues to make bewildering publishing decisions.
The present and the future are diverse and what we’re experiencing is a toxic game of tug of war while the powers-that-be desperately grapple to hold onto that version of the world formed of patriarchal values and empire. They are happy to see us represented as long as it’s through their lens. While they hold the quill, we will always be written about and not for.
How did you come up with the idea for MAINSTREAM and how did you find the contributors? How do you usually find your authors for your books, through agents or alternative ways?
Our anthology of authors draws from communities previously underrepresented in publishing and places them beside well-known writers, such as Kit de Waal, Kerry Hudson and Paul McVeigh who have all been instrumental in raising the alarm regarding representation. There has been a lot of discussion about inclusivity in publishing, and we wanted to help continue that conversation with not just writers of colour, but also around issues of class, gender and sexuality. This is our ethos; we founded Inkandescent looking at how writers are presented [by publishers] and who gets the opportunities to be published. There was also a pragmatic business motive too. We’ve been around for a few years and we wanted to make a bit of a splash and get our name out there. It is quite hard as a young indie to get that breakthrough.
We’re rarely short of submissions from white men but finding the diverse writers we were looking for proved slightly more difficult. We know there are lots of reasons for this, outlined in your report. We also know that we have to earn people’s trust. It was really important to us to build a book of quality writing from authors who had spent time nurturing their passion and honing their craft but who had not necessarily had the breaks. We knew those people were not going to come via agents. We approached writer development agencies around the country, such as Spread the Word, we found writers via writing groups and through a call out on social media. We asked specific BAME and LGBTQ+ organisations like Out on the Page, for example, to share the call. We also sent the call out to creative writing courses across the UK, Goldsmiths, UEA, London Met, Birkbeck and so on. And of course, we wanted this to be as striking as possible; Andy Pisanu composed and produced our anthem, PERMISSION, which was less a writer call out than a call to arms.
You most certainly don’t need permission, but I assume you need money – how do you do it? How easy or hard is it to get bookshops to stock and reviewers respond to your books – and MAINSTREAM in particular?
Without financial backing, without start-up capital it has been incredibly hard work and a labour of love. We’ve achieved what we have through sheer tenacity and a lot of goodwill and support from our friends. None of it would have happened without the community that we have developed. Our work has come about by a variety of small Arts Council grants, some collaborative financing by the writers we’ve worked with, lots of reciprocal support from other like-minded artists and a bit of philanthropy. Working with crowdfunding publisher Unbound was strategic, too. Unbound has started experimenting, working directly with small indies. Our partnership with them allowed us to use their platform to crowdfund MAINSTREAM. It’s a great model which enabled us to gain pledges from supporters who pre-ordered copies of the book. This money upfront meant we could pay all the authors and the printers without financial risk.
Getting into bookshops has become easier since we signed with a distributor, though the pandemic hasn’t helped. Getting reviews is another kettle of fish. Despite the relatively well-known names attached to MAINSTREAM, there has not been one single review in a mainstream publication, which pretty much says it all.
Can you share something about the MAINSTREAM cover and the title?
Our book was originally called New Outsiders and had a different cover which I designed myself. However, in the interim another anthology called ‘Outsiders’ was released and we felt we had to change both the title and the cover concept. I threw some ideas at our cover designer, Joe Mateo, who was on a night bus heading home from Central London. He had a flash of inspiration and made a yellow scribble of the word Mainstream with the first part of the word crossed out in red, on his iPad. That was it! We knew immediately that he’d found the new title. I then encouraged him to work with the idea of lights – as per the name of our company, Inkandescent. He made alternate covers involving incandescent light bulbs, neon, fluorescent strip lights. My other note to Joe was that we’d like to see something futuristic and retro, like Blade Runner and the pinks and blues from Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.
I really enjoyed the very rich variety of stories and perspectives in your anthology. And I found it amazing that the characters and narrators started as kids and then ‘grew older’ along the book. Can you tell us a bit about how you decided how to arrange the stories?
There was so set theme for our book. It was really important to us that our writers should write what they wanted to write. We didn’t want to impose a theme and neither did we want to curate a book of stories about the adversities of racism, poverty and homophobia. Our selection process was focused on the quality of work and the range of authors from different backgrounds. Following that, we looked for themes that stood out from the stories we’d selected. Nathan, being a poet, is used to spotting patterns and rhymes in work and almost immediately noticed that we had stories from all times in life from youth to old age, so it was a natural choice to start with a story from Kathy Hoyle – an emerging working-class writer – about a childhood during the miner’s strikes and end with a story about dealing with dementia from (established writer) Philip Ridley.
Was there someone or something in particular who inspired you on your journey?
We have been inspired by the generosity of people wanting us to do well and many have got onboard with helping us to spread our message. Three key people who I must name are Christopher Hamilton Emery from Salt Publishing, Sam Missingham of the Empowered Author and Aliya Gulamani from Spread the Word/Unbound. All have been really wonderful – offering endless amounts of free advice. They really got what we were trying to achieve from the outset and have helped to steer us safely through the pitfalls we encountered along the way. Aliya, for example, acted as a sensitivity reader and advised us against publishing stories that might have been a bit too challenging or provocative for this particular anthology. Sam spent a lot of time helping us get our covers right, so that they stand up against other books from larger publishers. Chris, my wingman, understands just how difficult it is to actually sell books. He’s always presented a very realistic picture to us and encouraged us to be where we’re at and see success as a series of small achievements instead of being deflated when we couldn’t make the kind of record-breaking sales that our mainstream counterparts might see. Each of these people didn’t just offer practical advice; they gave us emotional support and encouragement when it felt like the odds were stacked against us.
What was the most surprising / important thing you learned while creating and publishing MAINSTREAM?
People have been hugely enthusiastic about the project and that kept us going when things were difficult. We asked a lot of favours of people and every time we made a request we were overwhelmed by the positive responses. Endorsements, just for example, are not easy to come by. It’s a big ask of already busy and successful people to read a book and then comment on it but we asked Kathy Burke, Ashley Hickson-Lovence and Cash Carraway if they would give it consideration. Each returned wonderfully positive responses which adorn the cover and inside pages of MAINSTREAM. The emerging writers in the book have been particularly amazing. We’re all in touch and supporting each other on social media. Together we have created a growing community who are helping to amplify each other’s voices.
What can the publishing industry and others learn from you?
Channel the anger. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
INKANDESCENT WEBSITE: www.inkandescent.co.uk/mainstream
MAINSTREAM LAUNCH: www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1fgW-9Df-4&t=1829s