Making Books in Bristol: Publishers’ Perspectives

As the new academic year brings a wealth of events for the Centre for Material Texts, we thought now would be a good time to look back on Making Books in Bristol, a series of lunchtime workshops held in May and June.

The idea behind Making Books in Bristol was to celebrate the book-related activities being carried out in the local area, from printing to publishing, via translation, design, illustration, editing, and marketing. For the first two talks, we invited two local publishers to give us their perspectives: Richard Jones from Tangent Books and Greet Pauwelijn from Book Island.

tangent

Richard Jones told us that the name of his company reflected his habit of going off on tangents, although most of his publishing has some connection to Bristol. Tangent began with The Naked Guide to Bristol, which was supposed to be the first in a series of city guides, but instead was followed up by the suitably West Country Naked Guide to Cider. Later books have often been by or about Bristolians, including our most famous street artist Banksy.

Through his talk, Richard offered a brief history of publishing in Bristol and the legacy it has left for Bristol based publishers today. The first Bristol publisher was Joseph Cottle who published the Lyrical Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth in 1798. Like many publishers, he was broke! Moving forward, Redcliffe Press is, in Richard’s view,  the most important local publisher of recent times. Their Children’s Bristol, first published in 1976, was a bestseller, with new versions still being published today. Another key reference point was the Bristol Review of Books, which published 21 issues between 2006 and 2012. Local talent has equally been supported by the Bristol Short Story Prize, which receives around 2000 entries – clearly there is a lot of material for those interested in local writing to work with! Today, anthologies of the prize winners are just some of the texts published by Tangent, who focus on the subcultural while fellow publishers Bristol Books offer more mainstream local history. Small Press will soon launch a poetry imprint, likely in conjunction with the Letterpress Collective, as they are concerned with the relationship between form and content.

The link between form and content was at the forefront of Richard’s talk. He has published over 120 books in 20 years but few are produced locally, as skilled book printers are dwindling in the UK. Most Tangent Books printing is done in the Czech Republic, where he can find different kinds of finish, such as the hand-painted red pages of Catacombs of Terror. Touch is a key factor of book design for Richard, so the cover of Banksy’s Home Sweet Home is designed to feel like paint, while the cover of Stanley Donwood’s Household Worms was printed to seem slightly warn, reflecting Donwood’s desire for the book to feel like an old friend. Richard also advocated using a letterpress as that way you make mistakes that you could never make on a computer, and mistakes are almost always as interesting as what you are trying to achieve.

greet

Greet Pauwelijn started Book Island in New Zealand but moved to Bristol in 2016. As a parent from Belgium, where there is a rich illustrated tradition, Greet was disappointed by the children’s books in NZ, and as a translator herself, decided to translate and publish the best of illustrated children’s books from around the world.

Greet trawls book fairs and publishers’ catalogues, looking for a combination of a great story, beautiful illustration & book design. Her ideal is a layered book that has something for the adults and something for the children. She has noted that there are many more taboos in the Anglophone market than on the continent: death and nudity are seemingly off limits. However, Book Island aims to challenge received wisdom about what children can and can’t read.

If Greet buys the rights to a book, she gets the book ready formed, and just has to put in the translated text. This means she has not yet had to commission illustrators, but as Book Island expands, she hopes to bring local illustrators and story-tellers together to create books which can then be translated and sold to her contacts across the continental children’s book market. Greet is happy to pay more for a good translation, as the story needs to read well. Often the country of origin gives grants for translation. To find a translator, Greet would go to the translation fund in that country and then ask them for recommended translators.

Greet brought along examples from the various stages of production for us to see: plotters (printed on normal paper), wet proofs (on the paper to be used for printing), folded and gathered. All of these stages are to ensure the quality of the books, to avoid mistakes that would mean destroying books and starting again. We also got to enjoy some originals from France, Latvia and Belgium, among others.

book island originals

Throughout the Making Books in Bristol series, local book artist Angie Butler was taking notes, photos and scraps to inspire her own artist’s book, which will be presented at the University of Bristol soon. You can read more about Angie Butler’s book on A-N Arts News.

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About Katie Brown

Katie Brown is a Teaching Fellow in Hispanic Studies at University of Bristol, book-lover and translator.
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