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MOIST: Notts’ Newest Independent Publisher

23 November 20 words: Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith tells us about Notts’ newest independent publisher MOIST, and why regional publishing is on the rise...

A few years ago, a friend was offered a book-deal by a large and well-respected London publisher.  The book in question was a literary novel, exploring the effects of the Iraq War in relation to the UK crisis of national identity. It also happened to be set in Nottingham, where we’ve subsequently opened our publishing house, MOIST. Yet the London editors either removed, or re-wrote most of the more experimental passages, and in particular those that used colloquial English. They chose a cover better suited to bubble-bath than literary fiction, and all of the other accompanying bumf framed it as a holiday read that actively avoided any reference to the book’s political subject matter. Conversely, this was an attempt to appear ‘regionally inclusive’.  

Yes, Nottingham's cultural scene is different to London's. It's a smaller city with less to do for starters, so a really broad demographic attends even the most 'highbrow' events. The majority of people come from working or lower-middle-class backgrounds. This means that, unlike privately schooled Oxbridge graduates, their education is more likely to emphasise what is new than what is established. The main art gallery, aptly titled Nottingham Contemporary, has hosted literary events by the likes of Lisa Robertson, Tina Campt, and Owen Hatherley to name but three. The most widely read publication, with a circulation of 50,000 is LeftLion, which focuses on the arts. The local independent bookshop, Five Leaves, is one of the only places in the country that stocks Lacanian Review.  

It's clear why our friend felt insulted. Her work had been made to look silly (or to use the publisher's word, 'quirky'), and through this misrepresentation it became aligned with a view of inclusivity that she had always been opposed to. It's also clear why we, the target audience, felt insulted too, namely because being patronised is insulting. Yet this experience also led to an important discovery: unlike the publisher, we actually knew what the people they were trying to reach out to wanted – because we were those people.  

At first, we joked about how we should set up a press of our own, but gradually these jokes turned into serious conversations. We made enquiries with printers and distributors and found that, due to advances in digital printing and print-on-demand, they weren't as expensive as we thought. The Goldsmith's Prize had just announced their 2019 shortlist. Four of the six, shortlisted novels were published by regional presses, and two were based in industrial, northern cities (an important distinction, because clearly not everywhere outside of London, or even north of Watford, is alike). We were particularly pleased by the inclusion of Isabel Waidner's We Are Made of Diamond Stuff: partly because their publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, is the brainchild of two working-class Mancunians who have consistently refused to play by the establishment rulebook, and partly because Wainder's prose is dazzling, fresh, and just not posh. 

At first, we joked about how we should set up a press of our own, but gradually these jokes turned into serious conversations

Indeed, aristocratic Bloomsbury group legacies (or literary London's standard 'alternative') have often bored us. Yet art school swagger and New Narrative writing has always resonated – which means that we owe as much of a debt to US indies as we do to those mentioned above. We chose the aroused and arousing name MOIST as a nod to this sexy, DIY ethos, and because we too wanted to situate ourselves alongside the better dressed visual arts. Nottingham's community of artists' studios and project spaces is one of the things that makes the city's cultural scene so exciting, and so, of course, this was where we wanted to be too and not some ‘literary’ Farrow and Ball coloured enclave.

Over the next year we'll be bringing out a shocking, camp – and at times shockingly camp – novel on Bach, BDSM and Brexit, and an illustrated, lyric essay on the life of Anna Atkins.  Our first title however, is the late, great Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra's Equilibrium. Reissued to mark the centenary of his birth, it remains a relevant, powerful, and intensely cinematic account of (post-)modernism and its discontents (that also happens to be set in a regional location). Acclaimed cultural critic, and graduate of Nottingham University, Michael Bracewell, provided us with a new introduction, while local girl and Academy Award winning actress, Samantha Morton, provided us with a praise quote. Regional audiences it appears, have sophisticated tastes, albeit ones that draw on a more international and contemporary frame of reference than the likes of Bougie Lit London Woman.

MOIST website

MOIST on Instagram

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