Lessons Learned from Small Publishers and New Writers


A year into the pandemic I have noticed that there are two different types of people. There are the creative go-getters, those impressive friends we all know and love who have not only used the last year to write their first novel – or perhaps launch their own macramé hanging business on Etsy – but have done so with apparent ease. Then we have the second category – those of us who have been stuck in a metaphorical creative Sahara, unable to think much beyond what we want to watch on Netflix (and the aforementioned global pandemic of course).

And I am not the only one who is feeling this way. Just this week, the French publisher Gallimard has politely requested that they are sent no more unsolicited manuscripts after being inundated by the public’s lockdown literary endeavours. At the same time, in February, The Guardian reported on what they called ‘Writer’s blockdown’, with authors describing the difficulties they were experiencing with engaging their imagination and finding the space – physical and mental – to write in lockdown.

Although I believe most people have experienced both states within the last year, over Christmas – as Scotland’s second lockdown loomed and friends and family were reporting similar symptoms of creative fatigue – I started to become genuinely worried. Not only for my own imaginative thinking but for the industry in which I want to build a career. Publishing, as most would agree, is a highly creative industry. Not only in terms of content output – illustration and design, fiction writing, and ground-breaking academic research for example – but also due to the need for innovative practices and fast-changing adaptive business models. Although publishers have adapted remarkably to the challenges of the last year (and in many ways, excelled), I couldn’t help but anxiously wonder, how long could this momentum last?

With this in mind, I set out to find a work placement with a publisher who I felt were continuing to push creative boundaries in lockdown and who, hopefully, could help me do the same. Luckily, I was able to find just that with Glasgow based publisher The Common Breath, who, in just over a year (and with a tiny team) have already produced 6 books, with many more on the way. As part of The Common Breath team, TCB’s founder Brian Hamill quickly put me to work as Subeditor, helping to read submissions for the upcoming pamphlet series Voices in the Dark. As hundreds of submissions rolled in this daunting task continued to get bigger. However, with each submission, my confidence in the future grew. The writing we received was of extremely high quality, and the submissions were unique in every way possible. I could read a collection of Gothic flash fiction, heart breaking depictions of trauma, and weird and wonderful comedy all within an hour. Every submission highlighted a diverse, and often underappreciated, creative voice. The 32 that were finally chosen for publication highlight this quality, and diversity, well.

[Image Description: Voices in the Dark title on red background.]

It was this experience commissioning new short-fiction that showed me that not only is the creative spirit alive and well in lockdown, but for some, this period has even provided an opportunity to write in a way that was unavailable to them before. However, it also highlighted to me the importance of open and inclusive publishing in providing a space for, and nurturing, this creativity. Something I believe will only become more vital for publishers post-coronavirus.

In fact, The Common Breath (and similar projects to it) is in of itself an example of a creative business structure that has been able to succeed in a time where traditional models and practices have been forced to quickly adapt or fail. Due to marketing only via Twitter, providing free and regular online content – including interviews, short-stories, and poetry – on the Works in Progress blog, and its open submissions policy, TCB have created a loyal literary community, one where inventive writing (and publishing) is encouraged. The outpouring of support on Twitter after the recent announcement of the authors chosen for Voices in the Dark can attest to the strength and importance of such communities.

Ultimately, working for TCB has not only provided me with great practical experience in commissioning and editing for upcoming digital and print publications, it has also reignited my belief that publishing – from the authors to the distributors – will continue to creatively adapt. However, in order for this to happen, there is something that can be learned from small independent publishers such as The Common Breath. Namely, that the amplification of new and unique voices, and a strong digital and physical community, are vital at a time when many of us are, understandably, in danger of running out of creative energy.