In honor of International Women's Day this week, we talked to Lynn Michell, the founder and director of Linen Press, an indie publisher in the U.K. that publishes books by women, for women. Lynn shares her inspiration for Linen Press, why she's so passionate about publishing women's stories, and what we, as readers, can do to support women-focused indie publishers like Linen Press.
The first book you ever printed was Childhood’s Hill, a memoir by 93-year-old Marjorie Wilson. What first made you decide to print her book?
Marjorie Wilson came to my writing group in Edinburgh, with her carer, wearing matching pinks and purples and with three pairs of glasses round her neck. “I’m going to be a bloody old nuisance,” she announced. But she wasn’t. She was wise, her writing was lyrically descriptive, and we all loved her. We discovered that she had written a memoir about Edinburgh at the turn of the century—a book of cameos describing a garden in moonlight, dancing classes, her mother’s bustling restaurant on the Mound. It was exquisitely written. The writing group decided it had to be published after she told us, “It’s been turned down by every publisher in the land.” That meant I would publish it—with no experience whatsoever of the publishing world.
The memoir was hand-written in biro, so my first task was to type it out. Then, weekly, I sat in front of the gas fire with Marjorie and her cat, Tufty, in the house she’d lived in since she was twelve, and she read out loud one chapter a week while I made notes. Childhood’s Hill needed only the lightest editing. My daughter-in-law restored old photographs of Marjorie and her family, and photographed drawings by her sister Agnes for inserts of illustrations. I chose a small independent printer and the book was made. For one week, Childhood’s Hill beet Ian Rankin in Edinburgh Blackwell’s best sellers. I sold hundreds of copies of the memoir and there was a double feature with a color photo of Marjorie in The Scotsman where the book is described as, “luminous, episodic, sensual, rather like memory itself.” I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a false dawn for this inexperienced, naive publisher. Easy, rewarding and utterly satisfying, I thought. I was right only on the last two counts.
After you published your first book, what made you decide to start a full-fledged indie press and how did you go about it?
I loved creating a beautiful book from Marjorie Wilson’s biro-written memoir. I enjoyed working closely with her, and as she read, listening for places in the prose where I could suggest changes that would make her writing flawless. I loved designing the cover, choosing colored end papers and the font, and finally handling the finished book with its gorgeous illustrations. I felt very much in my element, working with prose, working with a woman writer, working to make a book that is unashamedly beautiful to read and handle. I had been an academic for a long time, and producing Childhood’s Hill gave me a lot more pleasure. Carrying on was a no brainer. I was a writer myself with, at that stage, eight published books, so I wasn’t straying that far from my comfort zone. But it proved a very steep learning curve as I got to grips with distributers, printers, promotion and marketing, and during the next two years I made some horrendously expensive mistakes when I took on three unknown authors with debut novels.
My natural skill is editing. I can see the structure of a book and see how the separate chapters and paragraphs hang from the scaffolding. I can tune in to a narrative voice and hear when it falters. I have read voraciously all my life, and the cross-over to editing other women’s writing was not such a huge step. Marketing was a different matter, and it’s taken years to understand that we can’t compete with the crushing Amazon or the Big Five who dictate choice by throwing thousands of pounds after a few books that will top the charts. I’ve learned to be wily, cunning, and devious to sell our books and currently it feels like pushing several boulders up a steep hill.
You’ve published books from established and debut authors alike. What is it that draws you to the authors you decide to publish?
The writing, the writing, the writing. I look for an exceptional command of language and style, an assurance with sentence structure and vocabulary, a natural sense of rhythm, a consistent narrative voice, and a lovely surprising originality. The best writers do all of this almost without effort. I can read the “trying” with lesser writers, and it blocks fluency and trips me. I prefer novels with layers rather than superficial, domestic, or romantic stories. When a story is set in a strong historical or political context, there is an interesting depth and density to the writing.
Linen Press is now the only women’s press in the UK. When did you make the decision to publish exclusively women and how did you arrive at that decision?
I had already worked with women writers for ten years in various settings in Edinburgh when I published Marjorie Wilson’s Childhood’s Hill. A few men attended one group for a while but they were all writing cop and thriller novels, trying to be the new Ian Rankin, and I couldn’t help them. I have a natural affinity with women writers.
I have no qualms whatsoever about choosing to publish women. In the publishing world, the scales are heavily tipped against them, so why not try to redress the balance?
In the UK, 60% of books published are by women.
22% of the authors shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction in the past decade have been women; 30% of winners have been women.
Prior to the Women’s Prize, 11% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize were women.
38% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the past decade have been women.
4% of authors who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature have been women.
30% of the winners and 32% of those shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year in the past decade have been women.
25% of books reviewed by established national newspapers are by women.
In your opinion, why does women’s writing often get overlooked for literary awards and prizes? And what can publishers do to help?
The publishing world is still male dominated and patriarchal. More male writers are reviewed in the pages of serious newspapers, and more men than women win the big prizes. Author Catherine Nichols found that submitting her manuscript to publishers under a male name brought eight times more responses than when she submitted in her own name. In an essay, she says, “And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”
The perception seems to be that women do not write novels of ideas but stick to the familiar territory of domesticity and relationships. But the message is more complex than that. If intelligent women do find homes for their intelligent novels, they may find their prose squeezed inside pretty pink-flowered covers. Heaven help a bookshop that advertises a women writer as challenging or difficult or intellectual.
We need more initiatives like the recent challenge by Kamla Shamsie to publishers to publish only women writers in 2018. Only And Other Stories took up the gauntlet. Kamila says, “Her provocation . . . the disproportionate space given to male authors and reviewers in the press, the male skew to writers submitted for the Booker Prize and the greater number of male protagonists in award-winning novels.”
We need more prizes for women and prizes which small presses can afford to enter. The big Women’s Prize (formally the Orange and the Bailey’s) asks publishers to contribute £5000 and 70 free copies to marketing if their author is shortlisted, more if they win. That rules out most of the indies who take on high-risk authors and who barely manage to make ends meet.
What is the best way a reader can support indie presses, like Linen Press, that promote off-the-beaten-path writers?
By buying books directly from our website rather than from Amazon, by spreading the word when they’ve read a good book published by a small press, by leaving reviews, and by inviting our authors to events where they can talk passionately about their wonderful books.
Here are the sums:
It costs about £750 to create a book, and that’s with no pay for my many, many hours of editing. To break even, we need to sell 400 copies with the revenue we get from our distributer Ingram Sparks. Nowadays, that’s a challenge.
If readers buy from the Linen Press website, £7.99. per copy goes to Linen Press.
If readers buy from Amazon or other sales platforms, distributor Ingram Sparks takes 35%-40% and we offer the retailer 35% leaving Linen Press with less than £2 a copy profit.
We can’t get our books into Waterstones because they demand a 55% discount on RRP. So that’s 35% to Ingram Sparks plus 55% to Waterstones and £1 royalty to the author = Linen Press would be paying Waterstones to sell our books.
Can you tell us about the latest or upcoming titles from Linen Press?
I’ve bought the rights of my own third novel, The Red Beach Hut, from Inspired Quill Press because they managed to sell only 25 copies in three months. I know times are hard, but that’s really bad. The novel is highly topical with the issue of pedophilia running under the surface of a fleeting, poignant friendship between a gay man and a lonely boy on a rain-soaked English beach. It’s about society’s attitude to outsiders and their vulnerability. Maureen Freely, President of English PEN, writes of it, “We are lucky to have writers like Lynn Michell to remind us that even here, even now, it is possible for the lonely and excluded to connect. It is rare to find such beauty.”
In April, we’ll publish In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon, a fictionalized biography set in Edinburgh and St. Andrews in 1843. It’s a masterly portrait of Scottish artist, D.O.Hill, and his collaboration with early photographer Robert Adamson, narrated in linked but stand-alone chapters by the women who sat for him. In the background is a vivid evocation of early Victorian Scotland. Nick Bellorini, photography publisher, judge of Magic Oxygen Prize, 2017, writes, “That moment of dawning self-consciousness, so delicately rendered, yet so resonant . . . just knocked my socks off.”
Sometimes A River Song by Avril Joy, published by Linen Press, is set in a 1930s river boat community in Arkansas. The naive-wise narrative voice of Aiyana is lyrically in tune with the river and the seasons. The darker backdrop is the brutal, abusive patriarchal society from which she plots her escape. Poet Kathleen Jones writes of it: “This is one of the most moving books I’ve read in a long time. The narrative itself is song-like in the way the prose moves. It reminded me initially of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, mainly because the narrative voice of the girl is so distinctive and haunting.”
I want to read beautifully crafted writing that speaks to women. I want to fall into a novel and not emerge until its ending. I want to gasp at sentences that defy literary gravity.
While Linen Press has been on its character-building journey, I’ve been on a personal jaunt which has ended in a clearing in a French oak forest, up a steep track where, with my husband, I’m building a house. Life is a rainbow rotation of writing, editing, running Linen Press, and labouring inside and out to build a house that slots into the magnificent Languedoc landscape of vineyards and mountains. Hands on, like everything I do.