A Chat With Spitalfields Life’s Gentle Author About Independent Publishing
As part of our series on independent London publishers, we talk to Spitalfields Life's founder Gentle Author. Throughout this insightful interview, the anonymous publisher shares with us helpful details on how he got into publishing, and his views on the industry as a whole. If you would like to read our follow up interview with Paradise Road founder Andrew Humphreys, check it out here.
Over the past few years, the UK’s small indie publishers have contributed to a “boom” resulting in a 79% increase in book sales. There has also been the success of the Great Migration to the north, as seen with the creation of the Northern Fiction Alliance, mainly a reaction to rising and next-to-impossible prices in London. But what of small presses that have remained in London?
These small publishers are usually staffed by one or two people, bringing in outside help if necessary. They often put out niche books, focusing on a tight range of subjects, and are driven by their founders’ passion. Delving a little more deeply into the subject, we spoke to two tiny publishers, both of which specialize in London-centric books.
The first, Spitalfields Life, began as a blog about east London. Hachette published a collection of portraits about east Londoners that had appeared on the blog, and the book was a great success; this became the impetus for Spitalfields Life to become a publisher as well. Run by the anonymous Gentle Author, Spitalfields has published photographic monographs, historical biography, memoirs and art history and has plans to move into fiction.
You first began blogging about people in the neighborhood and your book, Spitalfields Life, is a collection of these essays?
The first years of Spitalfields Life consisted of writing stories about the people who live around me, and my first book was a collection of a hundred of these pen portraits.
Did the idea about becoming a publisher grow on you or was it an "aha" moment, and why did you decide to become one?
After the success of Spitalfields Life, published by Hachette, exceeded all expectations, I realised that I could become a publisher myself and be independent without the need of a corporation behind me. If there was an 'Aha!' moment it was when more than 3000 people arrived for the launch of the Spitalfields Life book at Christ Church, Spitalfields, and I recognised the passion that the readers felt for these stories which emboldened me to venture out on my own.
"If there was an 'Aha!' moment it was when more than 3000 people arrived for the launch of the Spitalfields Life book at Christ Church."
How did you go about becoming a publisher, finding funding, learning the ropes etc.?
When I was a student, I worked for Penguin Books and Kaye Webb, the legendary editor of Puffin Books, became a close friend and mentor. She created the revolution in children's publishing in this country in the sixties and seventies, championing Roald Dahl, Michael Bond, Richard Adams and a host of other significant writers. From this experience, I knew how to go about it and from Kaye I learnt that you should have a close relationship with your readers and also follow your instincts, respecting their taste rather pursuing overt notions of 'commercialism.'
I also take inspiration from the London tradition of author-publishers such as Jemmy Catnach and the Catnach Press, Willlam Morris and his Kelmscott Press, and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. My ambition has never been to create a publishing company or fill a publishing schedule but to produce some books of lasting value, especially by publishing work that I believe to be important and worthy of publication but which no-one else will publish. We put everything we can into creating beautiful, permanent editions that present this work to its very best advantage.
Richard Busch, bookseller at Hatchards, told me I was the last of the Art Publishers. It is certainly true that our primary motive is to cherish the stories, pictures and photography we publish. We will not publish a title unless we believe it is 'a necessary book' that deserves to exist.
"My ambition [is] to produce some books of lasting value, especially by publishing work that I believe to be important and worthy of publication but which no-one else will publish"
As part of our series on small London publishers, we also interviewed Paradise Road founder Andrew Humphreys. Check out our chat here.
Do you write all your books? Does anyone help you with the editing and the rights for the images etc.?
We have only published a dozen titles to date, over five years, most of which have been funded by the readers of Spitalfields Life. I edited them all, and am the author of three. It is my great delight and privilege to work with two brilliant book designers, David Pearson, recently voted Britain's most influential book designer and Friederike Huber, the top designer of photography books in this country. Their contribution elevates the work immensely.
Do the books you publish follow the same "promise" as your blog and will they always concern East London?
On Spitalfields Life, we publish 365 stories a year and we see the responses to these stories numerically. So if there is an enthusiasm for a subject that might lead to a book and we already know there is an appetite there. Our centre of gravity is the East End but we have published books about the culture of London itself. We have ranged between, photographic monographs, historical biography, memoirs and art history already, and we plan to move into fiction.
How do you go about distributing your books?
Our books are represented nationally by Signature Books and distributed by Central Books.
As part of our series on small London publishers, we also interviewed Paradise Road co-founder Andrew Humphreys. Read it here.