Ellah Wakatama Allfrey OBE has held a host of interesting roles in the industry: from senior editor at Jonathan Cape to deputy editor of Granta magazine to Man Booker Prize judge. But she says her latest, publishing director at Indigo Press, is the most exciting yet.
As part of Susie Nicklin’s MILD group—which comprises Indigo, literary agency The Marsh Agency, book event series LiveLit and retailer Dulwich Books—Wakatama Allfrey says the proximity to other book businesses has already proved invaluable. While the businesses don’t work together “day to day”, the sister companies help inform the press’ decision making, with booksellers on hand to offer advice on covers and foreign rights colleagues available to help the press exploit world rights on behalf of its writers.
The 52-year-old hopes the role will be her last in publishing—“my kids joke that I’m going to die with a pencil in my hand”—Wakatama Allfrey says she has been given the “completely irresistible opportunity” to build a list that focuses on “beautiful writing” and “necessary ideas”.
Publishing into such a crowded market, with big conglomerates and spritely indies all tussling for space, Wakatama Allfrey knew the press had to have a definitive vision to set it apart. As such, with the idea of publishing five to six titles a year, the press’ list intends to curate the “perfect bookshelf”, made up of both fiction and non-fiction titles that span form and genre. “All our books, while they seem so different, have a common thread in terms of what they are trying to interrogate, but also in the authors’ ambition as storytellers,” she says. “Our list is made up of writers from all over the world who are thinking really carefully about issues that concern all of us, and the best ways to tell these stories.”
The press has published three titles since its launch in October 2017, and Wakatama Allfrey says its small list, which enables it to dedicate time and energy to each publication, has meant each title has been a success. However, she says there’s a special sense of accomplishment with These Bones Will Rise Again by Panashe Chigumadzi, which Wakatama Allfrey commissioned and helped develop. As part of the press’ Mood Indigo series of long-form essays providing literary responses to pressing social and political issues, These Bones Will Rise Again brought together reportage, memoir and critical analysis of the ousting of Robert Mugabe as the leader of Zimbabwe ahead of the country’s elections earlier this year.
“We invited a young feminist academic to reflect for us. We didn’t want an old man who has been in government for ages or a Western journalist who was an ‘Africa expert’. We wanted somebody who would take us right to the heart of the matter, and so the result is part memoir, part polemic and really beautiful, reflective poetic writing.”
The second Mood Indigo title, will be I Choose Elena by lawyer and investigative journalist Lucia Osborne-Crowley (September 2019), an essay on trauma, recovery and the cost of sexual violence.
Coming from larger publishers to a three-person indie (consisting of Wakatama Allfrey, Nicklin, and sales and marketing manager Alex Spears), Wakatama Allfrey says the main difference in day-to-day life is “liability insurance”. “It’s glorious in that you can make decisions really fast—you don’t have a big machine you have to deal with. But it’s also frustrating that I have to be the contracts person as well as the publishing director as well as the editor,” she says.
However, she adds: “It won’t be fear or caution that causes us to fail or not to do something. That’s the wonderful thing about being an independent. We are able to work hard and imagine boldly. And that will help us find readers, because I think readers are a lot more adventurous than we in the industry give them credit for.”
Working on a smaller scale, Wakatama Allfrey says that each sale seems more meaningful: “Every single reader you reach is incredibly precious.”
Wakatama Allfrey (left) and Susie Nicklin (right) with Indigo authors
These Bones Will Rise Again by Zimbabwean novelist and journalist Panashe Chigumadzi was issued by Indigo Press on 14th June as a £7.99 paperback.