Last year 125,390 books were published in the UK, resulting in total sales of almost £2 billion, yet library budgets have been slashed and in some major publishing houses marketing departments have become more powerful than editors. Money is flung at authors with a commercial track record or at would-be writers already familiar to the public by virtue of their mainstream fame. Thus C-list celebrity Jordan – who famously quipped she hadn’t read her own ‘auto-biography’, which sold half a million copies this year – gets a two-novel deal from Random House while books by the late, great British Modernist Ivy Compton-Burnett, (described by one critic as ‘Aeschylus transposed into the key of Jane Austen’) are now out of print in the UK. In such a climate ‘Publish and Be Damned’, billed as a ‘one-day self-publishing fair’ is a timely reminder of creativity over commerce.
The brainchild of Kit Hammonds and Emily Pethick, the fair started a year ago with around 30 stalls; Paula Roush and friends baked biscuits in a project that ‘brought together the shared origins in the technologies of the printing press and the bakery’ and a music lecture was performed by Tourette’s magazine on ‘Zen Versus Dada’. This year the fair was even busier, showcasing over 50 independent publishing operations from the UK and Europe – including the wonderfully named Fantastic Male, Radical Vans and Carriages, Vomit in the Mainstream and WeAreTheArtists.
Given the cryptic nature of much of the material on offer, the fair was appropriately held in The Crypt of St James Church, Clerkenwell, an area of London famous for its left-wing associations – the Karl Marx Memorial Library is around the corner, Lenin worked on his revolutionary pamphlet Iskra (Spark) a stone’s throw away, and the May Day march convenes every year in the local square. Descending the steps, a scene unfolded that – if it wasn’t for the alcohol and the presence of more risqué displays by outfits such as Amsterdam’s BUTT magazine – recalled a high-school fete. Fold-up tables, photocopied flyers and small tins of loose change abounded, while a convivial buzz of people clutching warm beer wandered about with plastic bags overflowing with ephemera to gaze earnestly at displays of DIY fanzines, magazines, critical journals, periodicals, books, videos, cds and records.
There were real gems to be found. To name but a few: artist Pablo Bronstein’s Rare Books’ reprint of Hugh Walpole’s Historical Doubts on the Life of Richard III, last published in 1768; Control Magazine, which has been published since 1965 by Stephen Willats as a vehicle for artists ‘to externalize into the art environment’; the bi-monthly ‘art fanzine’ Arty, which has a drawings-only policy and explores themes such as ‘girls’ and ‘anarchy’; Olivia Plender’s comic book set in 1960s London, The Masterpiece, ‘a macabre tale, loosely based on Emile Zola’s novel of the same name’; Sick Happy Idle’s declaration of ‘defeat for a generation lost in a world with no taste’; and Guestroom’s elegant publication Archipelago that was formed by artists to explore the ‘fiction of an island’, and is accompanied by a CD of songs including The Errorist’s catchy ditty Delightfully unfascistic on the inside. By the end of the day, many stallholders had sold out; some even professed, with astonished eyes, to making a small profit. Harry Pye (who has an eponymous fanzine), summed up the mood of the day: ‘When I want to read a book, I write one!’ Rupert Murdoch, beware.