Kind of love the happenstance of blowing through this life as I do, living like a character from a Wilco album or something, and those moments... Like running into incredibly creative people in seemingly unlikely places at the unlikeliest of times. And so, took my tent to a town in Wiltshire, near where they stage WOMAD and camped in the middle of a housing estate and thought... This is not promising... And the sun came out and it was beautiful and it blistered, everything. There was a Sunday morning street fair on the main thoroughfare of the town, and what I remember from that day is how cool the ice cream tasted on my tongue... And as I watched a bar band play in the street and get it just right. I wondered what might've become of Barry Masters from Eddie and the Hot Rods, and then he died shortly after and I wondered about my own portentiousness. All of that and then the stand that Holland Park Press had put up for their array of books. All of that, but Holland Park Press mostly. I mean, I loved it, on a table where I might expect to find bric-a-brac and hubris, instead, Bernadetter the publisher of Holland Park Press and their award winning books...
What follows is the result of an email interview with Bernadette, talking about her work with her Holland Park, her passion, commitment and belief in literary fiction and poetry.
Can I just say first though, buy Holland Park Press' books, they have the good ones!
OUTSIDELEFT: How did Holland Park Press begin? What motivated you to start a publishing company in the first place? What's you're background... Where does that level of love for books come from?
BERNADETTE, HOLLAND PARK PRESS: I’ve loved reading books, especially fiction, ever since I learned to read. My parents were avid readers too. However, in secondary school I very much enjoyed the chemistry lessons so I decided to study chemistry at university. I graduated from Leiden University in the Netherlands and moved to the UK to continue my studies and I received a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry from Bristol University.
After a few years of doing research and working in science related functions, I decided to move into publishing and ended up as the Projects Director at what was then called Justis Publishing, and they publish legal electronic material.
In 2009 I decided to use my expertise to publish the stuff I really like, fiction and poetry, and founded Holland Park Press. Another source of motivation was my brother whose fiction and poetry has been published by renowned Dutch literary presses as well as by Holland Park Press in Dutch and English. He now runs the company with me.
OL: Publishing, well some of my friends that operate at an admittedly low level I suppose, just despair at another season of celebrity tell all... While even a good review in the Mail on Sunday can't rescue their fiction sales... Perhaps soon, the only indie publishers will be the ones with gold plated pensions with books for gold plated pensioners... I don't know. On the other hand, by combining ebooks, facebook ads and series I know an author who is pretty happy commercially with his outsider status... What works?
BERNADETTE: Well, if like us, you publish literary fiction and poetry, it is always going to be a tricky business. Potential readers are scattered around the globe and tastes vary greatly. If I could predict what would work, I would be very rich. So, I approach my work from the opposite direction: I publish what I like, what I think deserves to be published, and what has a chance to still be read in a hundred years’ time.
I don’t begrudge people who publish books by celebrities, they probably have to play safe to satisfy investors or a parent company. But I do think that publishing badly edited or written books is very damaging to the publishing industry. Nowadays so many books are published and this makes it difficult for quality titles to make their mark.
Unless you’re very successful in getting subsidies or crowdfunding, part of being an independent publisher is having to accept that you may have to invest your own money into it, your business may well eat your savings, your central London apartment or make a dent in your pension.
The people who actually buy our books are a varied bunch. I’ve met people who spent their last money on buying one of our books, young and old.
OL: What about book awards... Is that sort of playing the establishment game of bowing to self-appointed gatekeepers or tastemakers if you like. Some of your books have been nominated for major prizes, great maybe, but then what about the poor souls you publish that don't make it... They could be your favorites, left out, neglected. Publishing is an emotional/emotions business.
BERNADETTE: I submit our books to as many prizes as possible. Not that I expect to win many but I think it gives a book exposure. You never know who will pick it up as part of the judging process and give it some of that essential word of mouth promotion. Winning a prize can certainly help but it depends on the prize. For example, I think it is no coincidence that 100 Dutch Language Poems, our bestselling poetry title, is also the one which won the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize. An academic prize for a title aimed at quite an academic audience is an excellent fit.
Of course, not every book has great sales figures or wins prizes but even with modest sales and without winning a prize, our authors always can be proud to be published by a literary press. We make sure their book looks good and fortunes can change at any time.
I don’t abandon older titles I keep promoting all our titles. That’s the beauty of running our bookstall on local markets, for a book to be picked up it doesn’t really matter if a book was just published or was one of our founding titles ten years ago.
The one thing which isn’t an asset for a publisher is being emotional, quite the contrary, having a thick skin is essential.
OL: If there was one Holland Park title I should read right now, what would it be?
Ah, that’s similar to a question which I get often asked when running my market stall. Which book do you like best? I can’t answer that, I like them all otherwise I wouldn’t have published them. Besides they are all quite different and unique in their own way.
BERNADETTE: So, in answer to your question I will ask you: ‘What type of books do you like and read?’ This will help me recommend one of our books and hopefully this will persuade you to buy it.
OL: Do you work with distributors, like say Ingrams in the USA. There's probably a UK equivalent...
BERNADETTE: Yes, we work with distributors. Currently we use four distributors: Central Books in the UK, Small Press Distribution in the USA, CB in the Netherlands and Xavier Nagel Agencies in South Africa, and we are always looking for new opportunities.
OL: You have moved the company base from London to Wiltshire... Books somehow seem like a bastion of England's market towns... I can imagine the one antiquarian bookshop in town that will stop at nothing find anything for you...
BERNADETTE: Actually, we moved to the country because my brother found it difficult to find the peace and quiet to write when we lived in central London. By accident, because we found a suitable house, we ended up in Malmesbury and we absolutely love it.
But you’re right there are more readers in the countryside compared to London. For several years I ran a bookstall on Portobello market which was significant less successful compared to running a stall on the much smaller markets in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire.
OL: What sort of new things do you discover in literature that thrill you? In Arts? What makes you feel simultaneously that you want to keep something secret... but want to share it with everyone in the world all at once?
BERNADETTE: The greatest thrill is discovering a great manuscript by a debut author. Nothing is more exciting and I don’t want to keep it a secret but, I rather share it with the entire world by publishing it.
OL: Do you have favourite writers, musicians, start of the day kitchen appliance that makes you happy. What. A place where you stand. Something you look at? Anything
BERNADETTE: Fifty years ago, I asked my parents for a dog. They certainly weren’t dog lovers and all I got was a book about dogs. Two years ago, my wish came true and we acquired an adorable black Labrador called Harry. Named not after the prince but after my mother’s favourite brother who died young.
The best thing is seeing Harry first thing in the morning, as ever full of excitement, it sets you up for the day.
OL: What's coming now and next from Holland Park Press?
BERNADETTE: We have a number of great titles that have just come out:
London Undercurrents by Joolz Sparkes & Hilaire – poems about the hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines, north and south of the river.
Life in Translation by Anthony Ferner – about a jobbing translator who dreams of literary fame.
True Freedom by Michael Dean – how America came to fight Britain for its independence.
Transeuropa by Jules Deelder – a series of wickedly funny poems by bestselling Dutch performance poet Jules Deelder about foibles, trouble and strife in Europe throughout the ages.
Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings – an intensely human story that sheds light on exploitation, conditions and corruption in South African mining history
One of our titles we published in 2018, Live Show, Drink Included by Vicky Grut, has been shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2019, and the winner will be announced at the award ceremony in Waterstones Piccadilly on 25 October.
There is a very exciting poetry project on the horizon and I’m looking at a few excellent manuscripts but I’m waiting for contracts to be signed before being able to divulge more information.