Collaboration and inclusion are the current publishing buzz words but what are the ingredients of a successful partnership and how can collaboration outside the industry bring new talent and insight to the books we publish? As publisher at the National Trust, I publish guidebooks in house and a range of trade books through partnerships with Pavilion, Nosy Crow and Faber. My brief is publishing that celebrates and engages readers with the best of British - history and nature - and beautiful books to sell in the 200 National Trust shops. What I wanted to bring to the National Trust when I joined in 2014 was the great writing that I had cherished previously at Bloomsbury.
At the National Trust, I was delighted to publish Melissa Harrison’s acclaimed celebration of Rain, collaborate with Granta on Patrick Barkham’s Coastlines and promote the Wainwright Book Prize shortlisted titles in our shops and across our channels, but I missed fiction.
Step forward John Bond at Whitefox who introduced me to Dr Niamh Downing, Head of English and Writing at Falmouth University. Falmouth has a dynamic School of Writing and Journalism with lively partnerships in film, art and performing arts. Their mission is to root the academic study of the ivory tower firmly in commercial reality of the world of work. Niamh, John and I met at the Southbank last autumn. Mildly intimated by academics, I liked Niamh at once. She wanted to engage Falmouth’s English students in publishing, rather than the usual creative-writing undergraduate yearbook approach. What might that look like?
Over coffee and a series of phonecalls, we mapped it out. The National Trust launched the South West Outdoors Festival in 2016 and I had been working with the director Patrick Kinsella on author events at the festival. Niamh had started a writer in residence programme and the Cornish novelist Wyl Menmuir (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his first novel The Many) was confirmed for a six-week writing residency in spring 2017. The timing was tight but under the expert tutelage of Luke Thompson and Anna Kiernan at Falmouth (authors and publishers at Falmouth University) the students would publish a National Trust short book of the 5,000 word new piece of writing by Wyl and launch it at the 2017 South West Outdoors Festival on 8th to 9th September 2017. The students would experience the full gamut of publishing from editorial and design to production and budgeting, sales, marketing and publicity. And to a fixed deadline.
Ten students signed up for the new publishing module and we all met up in Falmouth in March. For me, that meeting sealed the project and demonstrated once again the value of face to face communication. Wyl talked passionately about creative writing workshops outdoors in nature and the topophilia in his fiction. Pat and Wyl arranged to go caving at Cheddar Gorge, the site of the 2017 South West outdoors Festival. I was wowed by the beautiful short books that Luke Thomson has published with Guillemot Press and the fresh perspective and passion of the students who had embraced their various roles in the publishing process. The book was financed by Falmouth University as part of the writer in residence project so the 1250 limited edition print run of the book must make a 50% margin on a RRP of £5 to cover costs. A modest commercial ambition which kept the project focused but left plenty of creative leeway.
Cut forward to April and the delivery of Wyl’s story. In Dark Places is an atmospheric story in which a young couple set out to explore Cheddar Gorge, only to find themselves increasingly distanced from one another as the presence of the claustrophobic caves closes in around them. It’s a thrilling evocation of people interacting with an extraordinary landscape. The students now plunged into the publishing process, commissioning illustrations from fellow Falmouth student Emma Butcher. Student Ben Wilson is leading on publicity and is a regular and persuasive fixture in my inbox. Fast forward to July and the book is on track and at press. We are all hugely excited about the September publication and Wyl Menmuir’s launch reading at the South West Outdoors Festival. Please do come and join us.
I believe this collaboration is the first of its kind in the industry but I hope it will inspire many more. It opens up publishing to a wider student demographic than the restrictions of work experience in London publishing houses. It encourages fresh perspectives and makes connections between the industry and students. What has made this partnership such a joy is the clear complementary goals at the outset, the willingness on all sides to take a risk and trust it would work without having a fixed idea of the outcome and the mutual pleasure and pride in creating a wonderful book - the lifeblood of publishing. Looking forward I hope that In Dark Places will be the launch title for a series of pocket-size fiction, inspired by the heritage and environment of National Trust places and generated by an annual publishing module at Falmouth University. Niamh and I are already talking about an exciting new research collaboration. Watch this space…
And a big thank you to Whitefox for the introduction.
Katie Bond is publisher at the National Trust. In Dark Places by Wyl Menmuir is published by the National Trust and Falmouth University in September 2017.