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Spotlight on the Periphery: Comma Press Talk Publishing Short Fiction

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on January 31, 2017
This article was updated on September 17, 2017

Comma Press is a not-for-profit publishing initiative dedicated to developing new writing, with an emphasis on short narrative forms. It is committed to a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses. In April 2012, Comma became one of the Arts Council's new National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs). Comma believes that short fiction can give voice to marginalised characters. Publishing short stories can be an attempt to democratise literature, "to make sure voices and characters aren’t excluded from the narratives we tell ourselves."

In 2007, Comma launched a translation imprint. Its website notes that it also publishes poetry and "the occasional novel."

More recently, Comma has announced that, 

... in 2018 we will only translate authors from nations 'banned' by President Trump's recent executive order, otherwise known as the #MuslimBan.

We spoke with Comma Press's Becky Harrison about her experience with the independent publisher, who told us that the team had answered the following questions collectively.

What is your editorial line? What makes you stand out?

We’re are a not-for-profit publishing initiative dedicated to developing new writing, with an emphasis on short narrative forms, and I think that both those key strands make us stand out. Firstly, by publishing short stories almost exclusively now, we are electing to align ourselves with a form which is often neglected, but which we deem a risk worth taking; shifting the spotlight from the centre, to the periphery. Plus, by actively seeking new voices, both in the UK and in translation, we get to nurture talent from the get go, and offer our readers a perspective that they have perhaps never seen before.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being an independent publisher?

I can only speak personally, but for me, the most rewarding thing about working for an independent publisher is the variation of your workload, as it always keeps you on your toes. Most independent publishers have very small teams who aren’t afraid to get stuck in when needed, and this crossover makes every book you help publish personal.

What is the most challenging aspect?

The most challenging aspect would have to be the lack of mainstream review coverage, which partly stems from a lack of resources and thus a much tighter lead time from print to publication date. It’s also common knowledge that the publishing industry is highly London-centric and, as a publisher based in the North of England, that too can have its challenges. However, this is an imbalance that we’re actively trying to address through projects like our Northern Fiction Alliance, where we’ve teamed up with other Northern indies to enhance our visibility and rights sales.

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How do you connect with your readers?

We connect with our readers in a number of ways, the most traditional of which is through a year-round programme of events. We always try to have at least one of us at every event, and love to meet the people who are buying our books. Aside from that, we have a whole host of digital offers which connect us to our readers – from recordings of author masterclasses, to reading and listening apps which give you free access to our stories - something which we are excited to further build upon.

How important are book fairs for you?

Book fairs are becoming increasingly important for Comma, as we have a very successful track record in selling the international rights to our books: for example, we have now sold Hassan Blasim’s work into over 20 languages. As mentioned before, the Northern Fiction Alliance is actually dedicated to this purpose, and is allowing us and a host of other publishers to attend book fairs around the globe, make new contacts, and hopefully extend our authors’ readership. Look out for us in Frankfurt later this year!

How important are independent booksellers for your business? Do you see more sales online or through bookshops?

Independent booksellers are massively important! As a small press, the word of mouth marketing that takes place in independent bookshops is key for us, and is something that we place great value upon. Nurturing those relationships with booksellers is of value for publishers, both in terms of sales, but also when it comes to events. For example, over the last 6 months we’ve ran a science fiction, fantasy and new weird short story course with Andrew Hedgecock at the beautiful Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, and where better to write than in a bookshop?

What books have helped you to stay afloat?

We are an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation, which means that we are lucky enough to be supported to produce the books that we love. However, the long-standing relationships with two authors in particular – Hassan Blasim and David Constantine – have been instrumental in the progression and sustainability of Comma as a world-class publisher of short stories.

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If you were to name one book you've published that you expected to be wildly popular but never quite caught, which would it be?

Last year we published a collection of short stories called Swallow Summer by Larissa Boehning, an award-winning and critically acclaimed writer from Germany, with a knack for making the small disasters that occur in everyday life appear continually interesting and relevant. Expertly translated by Lyn Marven, we think that this book should be as popular here as it is Germany!

Can you give us an example of an extraordinary cover design that a larger publisher wouldn't have risked?

Nowadays we prefer to use illustrated covers, as opposed to photographic, and our wonderful designs are created by David Eckersall. Risk taking aside, I love our Reading The City anthology covers, which feature illustrations of key city landmarks over a map-like grid, and with over 10 books in the series now they make a striking statement when viewed together.

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