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TRCH Robin Hood

Five Leaves Bookshop Don't Know When Their Birthday Is

5 July 17 words: Ross Bradshaw

One of the highlights of Five Leaves Publications’ tenth anniversary was the argument between those present as to whether the anniversary was actually the eleventh or twelfth. We know for sure our twentieth anniversary was either 2015 or 2016. It certainly is not 2017. Either way, we forgot about it until LeftLion asked us what we’ve learned in two decades of publishing. What we’ve learned, is that we’re crap at anniversaries...

illustration: Kirsty Black

What else would we say to anyone contemplating setting up a small, independent publishing company? Be prepared for the long haul. There’s nothing wrong with one-off events and short-term projects, but publishing is something that takes time. A normal book can take eighteen months to work through, allowing time for editing and publicity. A series of books on a subject, carving out a niche, can take a decade.

It can also take a long time to sell some titles. It took us ten years to sell all 1,000 copies of From Joseph Met Molly: A Reader on Yiddish Film. That was one of a handful of books in English on Yiddish film, and the only one ever published in the UK. Specialist, slow-selling books like that provide slow but steady income, and underpin our firm’s economy.

We’ve also learned that digital printing allows small print runs to be economic, and you can even print books one at a time as you need them. You need to know the industry. It concerns us that some writers are impatient and self-publish without knowing anything of the crafts involved in publishing: design, editing, proofreading, cover art, marketing, distribution, accounts and typography. Big and small publishers who know these things still get it wrong, but if you know none of them, you’re stuffed.

We like long-term projects, anyway. Five Leaves was a joint partner in Lowdham Book Festival for fourteen or fifteen years, and retains a toehold in the set-up; our States of Independence in Leicester (a book-festival-in-a-day) has just had its eighth year; Southwell Poetry Festival began in 2000 and this year’s iteration will cover several of the libraries in the county (we retain a toehold there, too). This writer has been involved in various other parts of the booktrade since Gutenberg was in short pants.

Nobody ever made a small fortune in small-scale publishing; save for those who started with a large fortune. And the hours are long. Last week, I counted them: 62. But running a small press and a bookshop is hardly working down a coal mine, or driving a lorry, or standing up in front of a classroom. If Five Leaves make a mistake, nobody dies. Although some of our authors do; editing someone’s work can be strangely intimate and can lead to lifelong friendships, and I’ve attended several funerals of Five Leaves’ authors. But mostly they don’t die while they’re still being published. Even if it can be good for sales.

I’m a bit worried about the long-term for the bookshop because I’m 64, and it’s going to be around for a while yet. I have this vision of being an éminence grise who comes in for reduced hours, welcomed by a deferential staff keen to hear my sage advice before I go out for a long lunch bought for me by well-heeled customers keen to have my opinion on literary matters while my workers do the graft. Yes, that will happen, and Notts County will be back in the Championship and LeftLion will print daily.

Getting back to money; unfortunately, I don’t have that large a fortune, so we have to make money to pay the rent and to pay my staff. Unlike most bookshops, we pay the proper Living Wage, not the Government’s pale imitation. Our base rent is modest for a decent space in an alley next to a bookies. A hairdresser on the main part of Long Row is paying an enormous rent with added high rates for a building not much bigger than ours. These crazed levels of rents exclude shops like ours from the High Street, but one of Nottingham’s advantages is the multitude of city centre alleyways for those prepared to poke around.

Five Leaves – as a publisher and as a bookshop – has never had a mission statement. But there is some kind of ethos underpinning what we do: we believe in our books and our authors. When the bookshop opened, the publishing side had to shrink a bit, so we pulled out of publishing fiction, but all of our regular novelists moved on to bigger publishers, which was encouraging.

We also reprinted a number of books that had vanished from view. From Nottingham, we published Ray Gosling’s Personal Copy, Hilda Lewis’ Penny Lace and the Nottingham edition of Anarchy magazine from the sixties. Most of our reprints, however, were of London and/or Jewish interest. Our market has always been national rather than local, and most of our readers live in London. But not “Jones the Planner” – real names Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews – who jointly wrote our Towns in Britain and Cities of the North. Many people will remember Adrian from when he planned this city, and Chris is steadily becoming better known. The bookshop bestseller, the year it came out, was Chris’s Homes and Places: A History of Council Housing in Nottingham. [This issue’s cover is a rework of a photo taken from the book - Ed]

Five Leaves was perhaps the first publisher to regularly publish the work of this generation of refugee writers, publishing four collections. One of these was by professional writers in their countries of origin, one was by women refugee writers. We were pleased to return to this just over a year ago when we brought out Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those Seeking Refuge. This raised £3,000 for refugee charities and has spawned a translation project in Leicester.

We started a new imprint when the shop opened – Five Leaves Occasional Papers – which sounds awfully grand, but enables us to bring out some pamphlets. There are two or three of them of local interest, one featuring an essay by Nottingham writer Stanley Middleton. We’ve got one poetry book by Adrian Buckner, his third with us, and a book of short fiction by John Harvey who we’ve published several times. Other local books include a history of Nottingham writers and a book on local Victorian rogue Charlie Peace, both due later this year.

If that seems like we’re becoming more of a “Nottingham” publisher, we’re returning to our other strengths with a book called Curious Golders Green, part of a family of “Curious” books, all London-based, and the autobiography of Chris Searle. Chris might be forgotten now, but when he was sacked from his school in London’s East End for publishing his students’ poetry, the school pupils struck in his support. A number of them went on to become professional writers. Chris was finally reinstated by the then Minister of Education, one Margaret Thatcher. Whatever happened to her?

Chris’s book has an introduction by Michael Rosen, who he worked with in the eighties. Five Leaves was the first to publish Michael Rosen’s poetry for adults – our second book – and we published short stories and a memoir by Michael’s dad, Harold Rosen. A couple of weeks ago Michael Rosen did a talk for the bookshop on Emile Zola. That long-term relationship thing.

I’ve recently been discussing whether fiercely independent, small bookshops and small publishers are actually just not good enough to become big. Because you can become big. Publisher Jessica Kingsley started out on Jessica’s kitchen table, and thirty years later she’s publishing thirty books a year, has a staff of forty in London and six in the USA. I like being a small fish in a small pond, because I know my limitations. I’ve seen too many people reach beyond their ability and finance, crashing and burning. My other lesson is not to be too greedy or big-headed. Be capitalist enough to survive, but not capitalist enough to go to the other side.

The final lesson is that there are many more people who will support you than not. Our publishing house and bookshop have been lucky enough to get the support of fellow publishers, booksellers, writers, academics and political activists locally. Sure, there are a few people who find that we don’t fully live up to their expectations. But, you know, stuff ‘em.

Five Leaves Bookshop website

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