Continuing BookBlast’s series of interviews with the founders of independent presses, we catch up with Justin David, the publisher at www.inkandescent.co.uk and author of The Pharmacist and Kissing the Lizard ; and Nathan Evans, the editor at www.inkandescent.co.uk and author of Threads and CNUT. His forthcoming novella, One Last Song, is due for imminent release.
Are (were) your parents great readers? What were the books that made you fall in love with reading?
JUSTIN: Both of my parents are avid readers. As a child, I always saw my whole family with books in their hands. I wouldn’t say they exactly read widely but the act of reading was popular. Dad was always a fan the Douglas Reeman novels about Richard Bolitho and mum was much more of a Catherine Cookson and Mills and Boon type so I wasn’t exactly inspired to go and read the Canon as it were. Though both of them now read my own work.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy reading, so it’s difficult to say when and which book made me fall in love with the act of reading. What I can say is that I became more excited about reading was when I was allowed to choose my own books at the library and then when I got to secondary school we were made to read an awful lot of apocalyptic dystopian novels like John Wyndham — The Triffids, The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos. And then later on I got into horror and science-fiction which meant Stephen King and J.G. Ballard, back then. I don’t think I realised there was such a thing as queer literature though it would’ve been helpful in those days to have been introduced writers like Jeanette Winterson and Patrick White. Truth be told, it was when I was at art school that I started reading the children’s fiction of Philip Ridley and his adult plays like The Fastest Clock in the Universe and the Pitchfork Disney. The college library was full of this stuff and I just swallowed it all up. That’s when I realised that there was so much more to be explored.
NATHAN: Similarly, my parents weren’t great readers themselves. But they were great at taking me to the library. We always went to the library on the way to my nan’s house, so the books that made me fall in love with reading, to be honest, were probably Enid Blyton. I had no idea. I read fantasy novels voraciously. Probably the most ‘highbrow’ thing I read as a child would have been Tolkien. My family knew nothing about books and I learnt nothing about what good literature was until I got a really good English teacher at my grammar school. I loved Lord of the Flies. Mr. Lee introduced me to more classic literature, like Joyce and Jane Austin. That was in year eight and a gateway to studying lots of poetry and Shakespeare when I started my GCSEs.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
JUSTIN: Not at all. It’s something that has happened out of necessity really. 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. However, as grown up I became very angry that so many creative pursuits we only accessible to a privileged few. I became very disillusioned about the art and publishing worlds.
NATHAN: This was something I fell into by accident when we made our first book, Threads. And we decided that we want to make a book together and we got funding to produce it and then after that, publishing was just something that happened while I was making other plans.
How did Inkandescent come about?
JUSTIN: It just grew out of our creative journey. As artists we wanted to make work and have a platform from which to show it to an audience. The necessary doors were not being opened, not even with a crowbar. So Inkandescent became quite a political act. I think it was Rikki Beadle Blair who I first heard say this but my brain is so addled, I might be mixing him up with Madonna — “When you’ve asked nicely for a seat at their table and you’re not getting anywhere, it’s time to just get rid of the tables and chairs and build your own.” That’s what we did. We built our own table — an expandable one because we want more people to feel welcome.
After that, 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.
Our initial motives for setting up Inkandescent were personal. The 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.
NATHAN: I had a folder full of old poems that I that I’d never done anything with and Justin said, “You really should do something with them — maybe we could do something together and I could make photographic illustrations for the poems. We were both getting quite a lot of rejections for various projects, not necessarily book projects — in my case it was the film and theatre stuff at the time and for Justin it was the writing. He’d been writing for years. He gained an MA in creative writing. He’d tried to become as connected as any person could be but representation and publication eluded him. So we decided to do something for which we wouldn’t need anyone else’s permission. We managed to get a small Arts Council grant and Inkandescent was born during the process of making our first book. I can’t speak for Justin but possibly because I didn’t have the right connections because in my experience comes down to class and money and who you have in your address book.
What makes you decide to publish one writer and not another?
JUSTIN: Having only worked on eleven books so far I think it’s a bit soon to spot a pattern in our choices. And publishing only three titles a year means that we have to choose very very carefully, while at the same time finding books that we absolutely love. We’re steered by our mission statement which is to publish the work of fantastic writers who are underrepresented and maybe can’t find a home for their work elsewhere. We are very much a publisher of work that goes against the status quo, that challenges people’s opinions and also we want to work with writers who can collaborate with us. We’re so small, there is no marketing team; there is no massive marketing budget either. It really is a joint effort between the publisher and the author to give these books as much exposure as possible so that sort of willingness is really important to us.
NATHAN: At the end of the day we publish very few books that there has to be something that we really love about the writing particularly if it’s not in an anthology. Publishing one book by one writer, you’re going to be working on it — editing it, you’re going to be putting a lot of work and thought into the packaging of that book and into the promotion of it, so at the end of the day in small indie publishing it has to come down to you and your love of the work. But also I think you have to think about the audience and the shelf-life of a project like MainStream. You have to think about representation and the voices you know are under represented by the larger industry at wide. It’s also important to work with people who understand where we’re coming from, the ethos of Inkandescent. We’re not a massive machine like one of the big five. So collaboration, creative exchange and goodwill are all really important to us.
Tell us about some of your greatest achievements during lockdown?
JUSTIN: 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. 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.
NATHAN: Ironically, we made such a lot of progress during the various lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. We published our first anthology of fiction, we got a full-page company profile in The Bookseller which really set us alight. We signed up with a paperback print book distributor, we partnered with Faber Factory who are now distributing our e-books, we have made strong inroads with a company who will be publishing our audiobooks. And during the pandemic but in between lockdowns we also started our first poetry salon once a month called BOLD which is held at Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall — an amazing space, very well ventilated, very safe, cabaret seating that is socially distanced, wonderful staff and in a function room that is really high-tech with fantastic video screen that we’ve made use of for slide shows and videos. We edited, typeset and packaged Neil Bartlett‘s new mosaic novella Address Book which is probably one of the most beautiful things that we’ve worked on so far and a really wonderful collaboration with a an amazing person.
Tell us about a couple of titles which represent watershed moments for Inkandescent and publishing in general.
JUSTIN: There has to be a pragmatic business side 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. MainStream and Address Book certainly helped put us on the map. We partnered with Unbound for both of these books and both garnered a variety of celebrity endorsements.
NATHAN: Yes, people do seem to have suddenly started to notice us and it has been overwhelming to see the support given.
What is the future of in-person bookselling and trade book fairs in your view?
JUSTIN: We’re so small and it’s still really early for us. Personally, I haven’t ever been to one of the trade fairs and I haven’t experienced the excitement of something like Frankfurt. However, at this time in particular I do think it’s rather dangerous to be bringing thousands of people from different places in to one large space so that they can network. It seems to me to be irresponsible. During the lockdowns we have developed new ways of communicating with each other using technology we’ve not used in this way before.
We’ve done an awful lot of networking ourselves — meetings, book launches, online events and so on, and while it’s not quite the same as meeting face-to-face and pressing the flesh, it could surely be far better for the environment if we made more use of this technology and stopped flying empty planes around the world.
NATHAN: One of the things we are very good at is live events and we tend to shift quite a lot of stock at book launches and festivals. This summer we were invited to Small Wonder at Charelston, where I chaired a panel discussion between Neil Bartlett and Bidisha, two of the authors in MainStream.
In a post-pandemic world, is email marketing still more effective for selling books than social media?
JUSTIN: In lieu of a marketing team and a promotional budget, Twitter and Instagram are all we have.
NATHAN: And via those two platforms we have built a mailing list of loyal and committed readers.
Small presses are the cottage industry of book publishing, finding gaps in the market and new voices the big houses haven’t noticed. How important is funding?
JUSTIN: We’re so small and it’s still really early for us so personally I haven’t ever been to one of the trade fairs and I haven’t experienced the excitement of something like Frankfurt. However at this time in particular I do think it’s rather dangerous to be bringing hundreds of people from all different places in to one large space so that they can network it seems to me to be slightly are is irresponsible. During the lockdowns we have developed new ways of communicating with each other using technology we’ve done an awful lot of networking ourselves and while it’s not quite the same as meeting face-to-face and pressing the flesh it could surely be far better for the environment if we made more use of this technology and stopped flying empty planes around the world.
Until you can start finding books that will sell in great volumes which brings down the production costs, funding is absolutely necessary. I truly believe that the small presses independence are the future of publishing.
Mainstream publishing has really lost its way. It seems to be totally pointed towards commerciality and making money whereas historically it felt a great public responsibility and duty of care to society to produce books that were educational, inspiring and artistic. I realise you can’t only produce books like that because books cost a lot of money and there are smaller markets for more interesting books. However, my heart sinks every time I see another “celebrity author” ghost-written children’s book, or celebrity biography, or just low-quality commercial fiction that’s published because so-and-so knows so-and-so’s dad or they went to some private school or nepotism.
The short answer is, ‘yes’ there is a huge gap in the market for quality literature and a highly diverse and inclusive canon to offer all groups in society representation. It’s a huge problem and one that will only be solved if we dive deep. Massive credence to Penguin who have been leading the way on trying to not only nurture new writers from underrepresented backgrounds but also the efforts that they are making to recruit people who are not just white, female and middle-class into the decision-making positions of large publishing companies. However, some of the other diversity schemes and initiatives are so plainly obviously paying lip service.
NATHAN: Of course, funding is everything. We’ve managed to get this far on a combination of very generous goodwill from our friends and associates, some money from public funding such as the Arts Council, some private funding through crowd sourced partnerships, such as Unbound. Though we really do need quite a large injection of cash from one source or another, whether that be by increasing the sales of our books, exploiting our subsidiary rights or a combination of that and some sort of corporate philanthropy because Inkandescent has now become quite successful and there is now more work than just two people can handle.
Your favourite literary journals?
JUSTIN: We both probably should read more journals but I barely have time to read the novels I want to feel a part of without bringing journals into the equation. I read The Bookseller cover to cover, novels, short stories and I’m trying really hard to get into podcasts which are an evolution that I missed the first time around. I’m always last to the party.
NATHAN: I’m more into poetry. I love The Butcher’s Dog and Poetry London.
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 in your view?
NATHAN: We can’t sell into the EU. Too expensive. The new additions of customs taxes and VAT have massive implications for small publisher and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of joined up thinking around this. It’s imperative that a solution is found.
Your favourite qualities in a person?
JUSTIN: My favourite qualities in a person are honesty integrity, a willingness to get your hands mucky and an ability to see the good in other people without being judgmental.
NATHAN: Originality, intellect, political connected-ness
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
JUSTIN: Understanding the offside rule in a game of football. In fact, not enjoying football full stop. A reluctance to join the crowd.
NATHAN: Anger, sadness, venting emotions.
Your five favourite prose authors?
JUSTIN: My favourite prose authors? I think this is a cruel and unnecessary question! I’m going to name five authors who I love, but my favorites honestly change from week to week, and depend on which way the wind is blowing. Right now, I would have to say Garth Greenwell, Marian Keyes, Kit de Waal, Neil Bartlett, Michael Cunningham.
NATHAN: Neil Bartlett, Derek Jarman, Jean Genet.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
JUSTIN: I was only a young boy when the gender bending pop and new romantic scene was really taking off in the 80s. I wish I’d been able to go to Taboo and the Blitz.
NATHAN: The convening of the first Gay Liberation Front meeting.
Who would be in your dream book club?
JUSTIN: The people in my dream book club would be Garth Greenwell, Kathy Burke, Kenneth Williams Helen Mirren, Dame Maggie Smith, Bernardine Evaristo, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, James Baldwin.
NATHAN: Hmmmn. And Quentin Crisp!
Your bedside reading?
JUSTIN: The bedside book pile is not getting any shorter very quickly but I can tell you that Variations by Juliet Jacques is there, so too Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, Queer Life, Queer Loves* published by the Muswell Press, and Girl by Edna O’Brien.
NATHAN: Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez
JUSTIN: by outsiders
NATHAN: for outsiders
* Tony Peake, the biographer of Derek Jarman, emailed us recently about the anthology Queer Life, Queer Loves, in which he has a new story. He writes: that “it is dedicated to the memory of Lucy Reynolds: student, musician, strong advocate of LGBTQI rights and the trans daughter of Sarah Beal, publisher at Muswell Press, and niece of co-publisher Kate Beal. Lucy died in March 2020 aged twenty.” (Ed.)
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