Books

Dead Ink Books: Why we will never publish in the mainstream

Times may be dark for independent presses, but the success of Dead Ink and others shows that there is a hunger from readers for literature outside of the everyday

Illustration: Big Issue

Dead Ink began as what is probably best described as a bedroom business. Living in shared houses and struggling to find meaningful work in austerity Britain, stockpiling every print run of books in our bedroom. It was money saved from working bar jobs that funded those first books that we published and, while it might sound romantic now, it most certainly didn’t at the time. But it was the only outlet available to us so we put our all into it. 

We were driven by a sense that a lot of the books that were on offer at the time didn’t excite us at all. The mainstream book business felt uninspired and safe. Based in the north we didn’t have much access to a publishing industry that was famously centred in London, and which felt like it had nothing to say to us or about us. And, after several months of writing job applications and attending interviews, it most definitely felt like it didn’t want us within it. 

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We were a duo at the time, myself and Wes Brown, and we both felt we were nearing the end of our rope with an industry that felt designed to close doors in our faces. Wes decided that he was better off leaving to focus on his academic career, his own writing and, oddly enough, becoming a championship wrestler (a career that he has since been immensely successful in after publishing Breaking Kayfabe with Bluemoose Books earlier this year).  

Around the same time, in 2015, I decided to quit my job and put an application into Arts Council England to run Dead Ink Books full-time. Full-time, I should say, for six months so I was clearly making some very responsible decisions. 

I got that grant from ACE. Which was good, because I’d already quit my job. And it was from there that Dead Ink has continued to grow.  

This year we became one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations, which has enabled our team to grow to six. It has also allowed us to expand and start a number of new publishing lists, the first of which will be Outsider Classics. The Outsider list aims to showcase the work of authors who were unappreciated in their lifetime, starting with Jan Kerouac’s Baby Driver.

We also opened our very own bookshop out of a lovely wooden-floored shopfront on Liverpool’s Smithdown Road. Our books have had some success too – just this year Missouri Williams’s The Doloriad won the Republic of Consciousness Prize and Naomi Booth’s Animals at Night is currently shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. Our most recent publication, Lamb by Matt Hill, was included as one of The Times’ best science fiction novels of the year. 

We’ve kept the same spirit that we started with: a mission to do things differently, do them well, and do them because we believe in them – not because mainstream wisdom says that we should. I think we’re all motivated by the idea that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t being served by a publishing industry focused on ghostwritten celebrity books and formulaic commissioning. There are readers out there who want to be surprised and challenged. They want to know that when they buy a book they are investing in an author and their career, and a business that actually cares and means something. 

Working in independent publishing isn’t easy. It can be a hostile industry with extremely tight margins, but for the past few years the indies have been thriving. Spurred on by the DIY attitude that came with coming of age on the internet, independent publishing became a legitimate challenger to the status quo and began to dominate award listings. 

Unfortunately, because of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis all of that looks to be at risk. In the last year alone we’ve seen at least three notable independents close their doors. Despite all their best efforts, passion and savvy unorthodoxy, indie publishers, lacking the deep pockets of the conglomerates, are always going to be vulnerable. 

Times may be dark for independent presses, but the success of Dead Ink and others shows that there is a hunger from readers for literature outside of the conglomerate mainstream. At Dead Ink we see it as our duty to satiate that hunger and bring provocative and unexpected stories to readers that are tired of the same old books from the same old people.

The coming year is set to be our biggest ever. Our upcoming books include a collection of blue-collar short stories from Navajo author Bojan Louis, the provocative and darkly sensual novella Blood Red from Ecuadorian writer Gabriela Ponce, as well as debut novels from Adam S Leslie, Ania Card and Bruce Omar Yates. We’ve come a long way from publishing books from our bedroom. 

deadinkbooks.com

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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