Dead Ink Books, Know Your Place and How to Build a [Fucking] Clubhouse – Harry Gallon

McMillan

It’s pissing it down in Liverpool. Dark. Cold. Only thin denim jacket with holes. Stupid shoulder bag and a loose slab of pavement just sloshed water down my sock. And I’m drunk. Long day of workshops and talks in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle. “Want to see our new studio?” says Nathan Connolly, editor of Dead Ink Books, drunk too, unlike Amelia Collingwood, who has responsibly left the keys to their home at their new work space. The answer, since they’ve offered me a bed for the night, is an enthusiastically slurred, “Yes.”

That was March, 2017. Dead Ink have relaunched Publishing the Underground – their fiction crowdfund initiative that saw the release of Lochlan Bloom’s The Wave and my debut, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, in its inaugural year of 2015. There are copies of those books on a shelf in Dead Ink’s new office. Up the metal stairs in a big open warehouse full of roofless office cubicles and chipboard desks. Zoom in with phone, maybe post to Instagram. Try not to sway. “Pretty cool,” I say, or said. “Does this mean that Dead Ink’s legit now?

April saw the successful crowdfunding of my new novel, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, SJ Bradley’s Guest and Another Justified Sinner by Sophie Hopesmith, with forthcoming campaigns for debuts from six other authors, including Influx Press’s Gary Budden and Naomi Booth, winner of Best Novella in the 2016 Saboteur Awards . With no room for complacency, Nathan and Amelia organised a series of workshops and talks in Liverpool with various industry professionals to bring this year’s authors up to speed and to tell them, basically, how to sell their work.

Nathan was on the dole when he founded Dead Ink. It was 2011. He was two years out of university, unemployed and unemployable – sound familiar? It’s more than clichéd, the way that kids of college age are sold that lie: that they need to go to university to get a ‘decent’ job. But what does decent even mean? It’s defined by a system (broken, yes) that puts too much emphasis on being better than your peers; a system which creates competition on the basis that it is unfair.

In 2009 nobody was hiring anybody,” says Nathan. “All of the jobs that I wanted were in London and I was told that I would need to do an internship. Unpaid. That was a joke.” He was working as relief staff for Big Issue North at the time, selling the magazine to vendors on a zero-hours contract before becoming full-time sales coordinator. Nathan organised the charity’s interactions with its vendors; was responsible for about 400 vulnerable adults across Greater Manchester, with whom he also did support work before being promoted to project coordinator. “I really enjoyed working there, but the homeless problem was getting worse and worse and that trend has continued. There are some terrifyingly dark things that go on all around us every day, and we just wilfully ignore them.”

Well, it’s easier, isn’t it? Changing the system is difficult. Even thinking about it is tiring. After leaving Big Issue, Nathan was writing a lot, but just didn’t know what to do with it. “The world felt pretty closed off,” he says. “I couldn’t even get a job to rent somewhere to live.” So he waited until his dole came in, purchased a domain name then posted a free add calling for submissions on Arts Jobs, while trips to London to meet with publishing directors from literary imprints resulted in still more suggestions for internships.

But what real people can afford to travel, let alone live, whilst working five days a week for nothing? When I started university in 2006 I’d been lead to believe, much like Nathan, that the industry relied on applicants with degree-level qualifications. Like Nathan, I was writing a lot, but wanted to work directly with people as fascinated by books and authorship as me. And, like Nathan, after I graduated I found out that big business prefers experience to education. It’s been called degree saturation: higher education being made more accessible to people from less well-off backgrounds, resulting in more applicants to fewer jobs that end up being taken by people who could afford to do the unpaid work in the first place.

I decided to quit my job,” says Nathan, who’d been working for a non-fiction publisher in Manchester, “and submitted a bid to the Arts Council to run Dead Ink full-time for six months. It didn’t make much sense, really. My dad had just died and I may not have been acting rationally. But somehow it all came through.” Since then Dead Ink have had a steady relationship with Arts Council England, whilst maintaining their emphasis on the publisher-author-reader relationship by running crowdfunding campaigns to fund print costs and interacting with their authors and readers directly.

For new and aspiring authors, independent publishers represent an unlocked back door into to a party with a massive queue and immovable bouncers. But they’re more than that: they’re about helping people express themselves without the weight of saleability that the big London publishers are governed by.

As part of their response to the London-centricism of publishing, Dead Ink’s latest endeavour was launched in May. Know Your Place – a book of essays and stories by working class authors including Kit de Waal, Abondance Matanda, Lee Rourke and Laura Waddell – aims to combat the underrepresentation of working class people in an industry based in one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, where social cleansing is white washed as regeneration. “The thing is,” says Nathan, “everyone I’ve met in publishing has been kind, well-meaning and generous. We tend to picture the problem as one of gate-keepers, when actually the problem is that the gate itself is not fit for purpose.

It can seem disingenuous to suggest that something like Brexit is related to work experience in publishing, but it is connected. The lack of working class voices in the media, arts and publishing means that there is a public discourse that completely fails to understand, appreciate and represent a large portion of this country.” Dead Ink is already part of the recently established Northern Fiction Alliance – a collection of publishers based outside of London, including And Other Stories and Comma Press, which seeks to promote their independent authors internationally.

Many of us were shocked at the result of the EU referendum,’ continues Nathan. ‘Many of us didn’t recognise our own country, regardless of which way we voted. In our anger and confusion we blamed dickheads like Farage for lying, but as far as I’m concerned politicians like him are a symptom. The cause of the problem – the alienation, dispossession and disaffection – was us.” Whilst Know Your Place may be a small reaction to that, it’s already having a profound impact within the independent publishing community.

Like 404 INK’s Nasty Women and The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, Know Your Place has been receiving a huge amount of support. In fact, it was Shukla himself who tweeted a call out for someone to publish working class essays. Dead Ink immediately responded, and the all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign reached 50% in less than four days whilst the excitement and mystery surrounding its contents continues to grow. Poet Andrew McMillan, author of Physical and whose piece ‘One of Us: Some Thoughts on Sexuality and the Working Class’ will feature, says, “What has happened in many post-industrial communities is a hollowing out of identity, places ignored by the left and the right for 30 years, people feeling they aren’t being heard, people without access to art or education or media which might allow them to tell their own stories. Allowing people to tell their stories is vital [for allowing them to] see that they are part of the narrative of society, and this book is a great contribution to that.

But how do we move forward? How do we change something as big and archaic as the publishing industry, let alone the much more immediate and broad issues plaguing our society? “I don’t know,” says Nathan. “I worry about doing these collections for the sake of them being popular. They serve a purpose in the short-term, but what comes after them? We have to empower people,” he says. “We have to show them what is possible and what they are capable of.

We can’t keep homogenising and concentrating. We need diverse and varied voices that are not only accessible, but are organic extensions of their communities. If a large multi-national corporation can’t respond, then we need to do it ourselves. With the growth of independent presses across the country, this is already happening. So, if the door to the clubhouse is locked, build your own fucking clubhouse.”

Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class is currently funding on Kickstarter. Show your support here

For more information about forthcoming titles, projects and submissions, visit www.deadinkbooks.com or @DeadInkBooks

Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes (Dead Ink Books), was first runner up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was longlisted for Not the Booker Prize 2016. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, is being published in summer 2017. He lives in London.
@hcagallon