Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
My Mum is a big reader of Crime Fiction. It helped her solve a real life crime while she was working in a Kenyan orphanage a few years ago. They were both “people of The Book,” hosting Parish Bible studies. This made them more learned than the average parents. The Church was my first exposure to people with higher education. I read a lot from a very young age, I had a box of those cassettes with ding turn the page books. I would put the headphones in myself and read for hours. I remember making a zoo out of envelopes. Each one contained a different animal.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start? If not, why now?
No, but something I wanted to do as a Writer was understand every dimension of books. I studied Sculpture because I thought this would teach me about composition in a more general sense than doing English or Creative Writing. I went on to become a master bookbinder and printer too. I became a publisher partly because I wanted to understand, and maybe undermine, distribution and bookselling. It’s another extension to my writing. I guess that’s what it means to be a Modernist in an industrial, networked world.
Why now? We were invited in by big publishers a few times to consult, using our publishing methods. We also worked on several print commissions in our studio for Independents. One title we illustrated is almost at the Million Copies mark. We realised we had an extraordinary range of expertise and there were so many good manuscripts I knew of being turned down for bad reasons. The Poets made me do it!
Has your vision from when you started Henningham Family Press twelve years ago changed?
It has broadened. When I did my MA show at The Slade I sold every copy of my Artists’ Books to places like UCL, The Tate. Then with Ping, my wife, we continued to make books acquired by special collections like V&A, National Galleries Scotland, as an alternative exhibition space.
We developed Performance Publishing, where we would use theatre and live printing to generate the content of a book with the audience, print it live and distribute it to them all in the same few hours. We toured those shows for about seven years, to BBC Radio Theatre, Christie’s, British Library, Dundee Contemporary Arts. Virginia USA, Belgium, Norway.
Something we hadn’t yet mastered was trade publishing for bookshops, so I brought our methods together to create split editions of high quality paperbacks and handmade special collection books. I pitched Inpress Books and they took us on.
Henningham Family Press is an unusual combination of writing and art, how did that come about?
I met Ping at St. Martins School of Art, during our Foundation year. We went on to study different courses. Ping discovered the workplace is not that stimulating for someone who’s just graduated from UCL History of Art with a First, so we decided that the world was at fault and that we would come up with a way of working together on what we wanted to do. It was a bad time to have a job or even think about looking for one. We had a Gallery representing us in Berlin, but it wasn’t a way of making that we enjoyed. There was a row with the Gallerist in Paris at an opening. Anyway, we decided to do something a bit more democratic and domestic than we found Fine Art market(ing) to be. Books were our new and improved gallery. Basically, it all just comes out of our studio.
How do some of the new small presses coming on the scene differ from more established presses?
The similarities and differences run from top to bottom, not by generation. We have attributes in common with CB editions, Penned in the Margins, Sidekick. Less so with Salt or The Emma Press. Younger publishers want to learn from established ones and define their uniqueness, which is natural.
What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
There’s a bit in one of the Moomin books when Tove Jansson expresses one character’s dislike for Snufkin and I remember sitting there thinking how much other people seem to like Snufkin and then thinking “maybe this guy is wrong about Snufkin? Maybe he’s just envious?” and realising for the first time that different characters in a book could have different opinions of each other because they all have their own minds, but they might also not be very self-aware. She expressed it ironically like Kafka or Woolf would, a literature of interpretation. But Tove got there first with me.
What makes you decide to publish one writer and not another, and how many of you engage in the acquisitions process? How do you balance originality and profitability?
Something that Pascal O’Loughlin and Chris McCabe have in common is that they are both doing something new and unique with narrative position. But I don’t even quite understand what it is, even having read, edited, and published their books! In Now Legwarmers there’s so much that’s not said, but it isn’t hidden between the lines.
I don’t know where Pascal hid it. In Dedalus, the passage of time is rendered in quite a filmic manner using concrete poetry, and there are different levels of consciousness and space.
A manuscript must either pick up the Modernist tradition and take me further, or create a new method for itself as it goes along, like the road building machine in Thunderbirds. The previous big thing was Psychogeography, which I define as “going to see something that isn’t there”. When commissioning, the question becomes “but why is it not there?” In many cases it’s simply because of class, racism, misogyny, ageism, so I publish people who will find it harder to get into print.
HFP is surprisingly broad. So I manage all the Fiction. There’s a large, informal Venn blur in the middle where Ping and myself work together, but there are bits that we’ve ended up sort of managing solo with android phones as our bionic limbs.
Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to industry changes?
I would suggest that eBooks and Kindle have not revolutionised the book industry. The purpose of the epub format was not to harness digital technology, but constrain it; prevent it making the book a significantly different machine to a paperback.
If you want to see the true impact of digital on books, look at print technology and production. Printing is simpler, cleaner, quicker, with shorter runs and fewer steps in the process. Distribution is faster, more strategic and more direct. Indie publishing as it is now would have been impossible without digital.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
Printed books have about as much chance of disappearing as food does.
Your views on social media? Does it have tangible results in terms of generating actual sales?
Twitter is genuinely social, I find, embedding a book in the immediate political, social discussion you published it for. It makes it much more possible to contact readers and gatekeepers. Facebook I don’t touch. I saw Television Delivers People by Richard Serra around the same time it appeared, so I never joined.
How important is funding for independent publishers?
All publishers have their own mixed economy of funding and doing stuff gratis and self-subsidising. It’s been vital for our Performance Publishing. The Maximum Wage show, and the extraordinary glossy magazine that came after it, needed months of community outreach and commissioning the other Artists, which only Arts Council England could have provided.
On the other hand, we used to own a Print Finishing company. We still have dozens of different suppliers and can broker and cost a whole process professionally, as well as make things in our studio. There’s hand-finishing on all our books, including our paperbacks. On our next book, a non-fiction Art title for children, I cut the cost of production within UK by 50% through clever use of technology. Look on my works, ye publishers, and despair.
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing and translation in your view?
For me, the cost of publishing is going to rise by between 20% to 50%. I handle the materials and budgets as much as I do the creative and editorial side. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years talking to my suppliers. How much we can chip away at those costs before a book hits the Market is yet to be seen.
The main problem, though, is a cultural one. Brexit was always about Disaster Capitalism; breaking up the Commons and taxation that has EU scrutiny and shifting the fresh Capital to the rich through interest payments, speculation and privatisation. This entails imposing a Cabinet War Rooms Gift Shop Mentality on the rest of us; a fake version of “Britishness” characterised by xenophobia. As Artists, Writers, Publishers, we find ourselves in the front line of the kind of struggle we have hitherto only read about. We must take control of this project of redefining Britishness, but in all of its cosmopolitan glory, and publishing the skeletons out of the closet. Publish the people opposing Empire 2.0 revisionism and the Hostile Environment.
When politicians undermine their office through incompetence, greed, corruption . . . we can either continue to take seriously their authority along with their prohibitions on what we can and can’t do in terms of our mobility; or we can hold their office in lower esteem and create our own alternatives, through universities for example, in order to create a practical alternative superstructure of European British identity.
In your experience, how and why does winning a Literary or a Translation Prize make a difference? Have you been shortlisted yet?
The biggest prizes are a way of opaquely marketing big publishing houses. Fixing prize culture is a life’s work for somebody. Thankfully a few people are doing that, the Republic of Consciousness prize that tries to support Presses financially. The Goldsmiths Prize is bringing artistic excellence to the fore. Waverton Good Reads . . . if a hundred more villages did what Waverton is doing, that would really fix not only the quantity of books sold but also the quality. I’m entering prizes like that for the first time this year because of the new Fiction list. I much prefer reviews to prizes.
Your favourite literary journals?
Who are these people? Who sufficiently get through their pile of books to read a journal! Gorse, though, is a truly beautiful landmark in publishing isn’t it. Have you seen Egress? That’s wonderfully rigorous and attractive. Granta. Tears In The Fence. Never sure if that’s salt water from the eyes or some kind of rip. Latter, probably.
Your heroes/heroine in fiction, and in real life?
How am I’m going to narrow this one down…? I immortalised my Grandad Jack in An Unknown Soldier, which was exhibited in the National Poetry Library for the centenary year, and is now in development as a stage show with a score for four voices. He served in the Trenches as boy. Fought the Battle for Cable Street, was an Internationalist, Trades Unionist and anti-Stalinist. Was a master tool-maker and engineer. At times, all that gives me courage.
From Fiction, I’m going to pluck Michael from Last Call for the Hated, from David Hayden’s Darker With The Lights On (Little Island Press). He has to push on through daily casual abuse, find some kind of stability and dignity as so many have to. He’s a mythic character, but the demons and gods are the bastards next door and in the office.
Your favourite qualities in a person?
Generosity towards people different from themselves.
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Hypocrisy. Sometimes it’s a necessary step towards change. You have to be able to say what’s true, even if it’s your problem.
Your bedside reading?
Most recently, Simon Okotie’s Absalon books, An Overcoat and Robinson by Jack Robinson. Fountain In The Forest by Tony White. Lucia by Alex Pheby. We That Are Young by Preti Taneja. The Unmapped Country by Ann Quin. Also Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones. An underrated Childrens’ author.
You are organizing a literary dinner party. Which five writers, dead or alive, would you invite?
David Hayden, Jean Rhys, Jim Crace is SO great over food, Tove Jansson, Kazuo Ishiguro.
Your five favourite feature films?
Oh no! Film is my Achilles heel. I guess Ikiru, Stalker, Koyaanisqatsi, Moonrise Kingdom, Ponyo.
Who would be in your dream book club?
Clubs need twelve members. St. John, St. Paul, Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Thomas Hobbes, Vahni Capildeo, Ann Quin, C.S. Lewis, Hayden again, Chris McCabe, James Wilkes. Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten come alternate weeks because of their work commitments. David Bowie and Mayakovsky pop in occasionally. Oh! and David Bomberg and Edward Wadsworth.
We genuinely have a family motto. It was inspired by Sophie Herxheimer’s hard-won face: “Let your face shine with kindness”.
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