Bookseller Henry Layte on discovering McBride

Bookseller Henry Layte on discovering McBride

Galley Beggar Press co-founder Henry Layte has said his Norwich bookshop The Book Hive was “crucial” in the story of how he came to publish the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction-winning novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. However, he also warned that setting up an indie press took investment, dedication, risk and “a hell of a lot of hard work”.

Layte has just celebrated one of the biggest achievements in his professional life – publishing an experimental debut novel, about a young woman’s relationship with her brother and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour, which last night took the prize despite competition from Pulitzer-winner Donna Tartt and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

A long way from a commercial safe bet, the book is described as “not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconsciousness railing against a life that makes little sense, forming a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a young and isolated protagonist” by the prize organisers.

The story of how the book came into publication is also a tale in itself, after McBride’s book was turned down by multiple publishers over nearly a decade before newly-founded Galley Beggar Press took a punt on it.

As Layte recalls: “In the summer of 2010, Eimear McBride [who lives in Norwich] came into the bookshop with her manuscript and I took it away on holiday and read it in a couple of sittings. My feeling was this was either one of the greatest books of the late 20th century or it was complete crap.”

Layte continued: “I was positive I was right and it was in fact a seriously important book, but at the same time I thought ‘how come the publishing industry has turned it down for 10 years? I might be wrong’.”

He compared the first reading of it to how he felt encountering Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot". “I didn’t know anyone could write like that,” he said.

Galley Beggar Press, formed by Layte and two of his bookshop customers, Guardian books journalist Sam Jordison and his wife, writer Eloise Millar, was established to “publish titles with potential that bigger publishers have shied away from taking a risk on.” From this perspective, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was bang-on brief.

“Not only was this a great manuscript, but it was also matching what we wanted to do with Galley Beggar Press,” Layte said. “I thought, ‘if the first book is a success I am sure we could do this book, but I am seriously worried about the fact that I think this book deserves more attention then we are able to give it as we don’t have the marketing and publicity power of larger publishers’, which is what I told her. Eimear probably left that meeting thinking, ‘They are just the same as everybody else.”

After a series of discussions, the publisher's founders eventually decided to take the risk and go ahead with publication. “We thought if we do not do this book, there is not point in Galley Beggar Press being around because we set up to do things other publishers did not want to do. That is what we are going to stand by. So we decided to go ahead with it,” Layte said.

While he conceded that “it is very easy to read the first few pages of the book and not like it,” he was angry other publishing houses had not taken it on before Galley Beggar. “I hope this has told the publishing industry something and conveyed that actually people do want to read challenging books,” Layte said. “They do not just want easy books. The fact that this book wasn’t published before is disgraceful.”

He continued: “After it we published it, a lot of these agents were scrambling over themselves saying, ‘We want to represent her’ but she turned them all down – and good on her. Many of the people Eimear sent the manuscript to at first were quite offensive about it.” He added: “If the publishing industry doesn’t take a risk then who will?"

Layte added that the Book Hive bookshop was “crucial” in the story of how A Girl... was published, not least because “it was where the founders of Galley Beggar met and it was where we had all our meetings”. However, it was also a place the publisher could push the book in front of store window displays and a venue where customers could be excited about meeting Eimear.

Would Layte advise other independent booksellers to take the leap into publishing? “I am all for the power of small indie presses,” he said. “But having said that it takes investment, dedication and a hell of a lot of hard work. And let’s face it, authors aren’t always easy to work with. You have to help work on their drafts and all the while you’re wondering if you’re going to make ends meet. But when something like this happens, it is incredible, it makes it all worth it.”

Book Hive manager Rory Hill said customers had been coming into the shop all day “excited” and requesting copies of the book -the paperback of which is co-published with Faber.