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Books Under the Piano

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‘Having a grand piano is very useful,’ says Maggie Hamand, as she rummages about at the back of her Hackney sitting-room in search of the latest book on the Maia Press list. ‘When we were looking for a piano and I explained to the people in the shop that we wanted a grand so we could store books underneath it, I think they thought I was mad. But then, perhaps it is a bit mad to launch a small literary imprint, which everybody says you can’t do.’

It’s certainly brave, in the tough world of chain bookstores and high discounts, but when Maggie and her publishing partner Jane Havell, who lives and works opposite, got talking at a party, they realized they both passionately wanted to do it and had an ideal combination of skills. Jane is an experienced book designer who has, among other things, worked for Virago, which must account for the elegant appearance of Maia paperbacks. Maggie, who is a novelist herself, has worked in publishing and teaches creative writing.

They were also convinced that there was a niche to be filled. So they set about raising money from friends and well-wishers – not a lot, just enough to get started – and in June 2003 launched the Maia Press. The name is based on a version of their two Christian names. Maia, they later discovered, was, serendipitously, the Greek word for ‘midwife’ – an eminently suitable name for a small literary publisher.

‘We both knew good fiction writers who were well worth publishing but who were getting squeezed out by the conglomerates because their sales weren’t big enough,’ says Maggie, returning to the front of the big double sitting-room where Ben (work experience – on a publishing course at the London College of Printing) is sitting by the window, stuffing envelopes. ‘I do feel that what’s happened with the big commercial publishers has become a kind of censorship – not for ideological reasons, but as a result of commercial criteria. It means that a lot of very good writing and important ideas that should be out there just aren’t.’

It was outside these windows not long ago that something horrible happened to Maggie. A group of teenagers came trick-or-treating at Hallowe’en, and when she refused to give them money they beat her up badly. I’m aghast, but Maggie stalwartly waves it aside: ‘I’ve lived here for eighteen years, and nothing’s ever

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‘Having a grand piano is very useful,’ says Maggie Hamand, as she rummages about at the back of her Hackney sitting-room in search of the latest book on the Maia Press list. ‘When we were looking for a piano and I explained to the people in the shop that we wanted a grand so we could store books underneath it, I think they thought I was mad. But then, perhaps it is a bit mad to launch a small literary imprint, which everybody says you can’t do.’

It’s certainly brave, in the tough world of chain bookstores and high discounts, but when Maggie and her publishing partner Jane Havell, who lives and works opposite, got talking at a party, they realized they both passionately wanted to do it and had an ideal combination of skills. Jane is an experienced book designer who has, among other things, worked for Virago, which must account for the elegant appearance of Maia paperbacks. Maggie, who is a novelist herself, has worked in publishing and teaches creative writing. They were also convinced that there was a niche to be filled. So they set about raising money from friends and well-wishers – not a lot, just enough to get started – and in June 2003 launched the Maia Press. The name is based on a version of their two Christian names. Maia, they later discovered, was, serendipitously, the Greek word for ‘midwife’ – an eminently suitable name for a small literary publisher. ‘We both knew good fiction writers who were well worth publishing but who were getting squeezed out by the conglomerates because their sales weren’t big enough,’ says Maggie, returning to the front of the big double sitting-room where Ben (work experience – on a publishing course at the London College of Printing) is sitting by the window, stuffing envelopes. ‘I do feel that what’s happened with the big commercial publishers has become a kind of censorship – not for ideological reasons, but as a result of commercial criteria. It means that a lot of very good writing and important ideas that should be out there just aren’t.’ It was outside these windows not long ago that something horrible happened to Maggie. A group of teenagers came trick-or-treating at Hallowe’en, and when she refused to give them money they beat her up badly. I’m aghast, but Maggie stalwartly waves it aside: ‘I’ve lived here for eighteen years, and nothing’s ever happened to me before. I love Hackney. And you know,’ she adds cheerfully, ‘in our novel Running Hot, there’s a beating that happens just up the road.’ Running Hot (scheduled for this autumn) is a first novel by a local writer, Dreda Say Mitchell, a chapter of which originally appeared in Uncut Diamonds, an anthology of stories by young London writers that Maia published last year. Knowing how difficult it is to get published, Maggie is keen to support new writers, and Maia is launching a competition with Middlesex University to find the best novel by an undergraduate at a UK university. Commercial publishers’ virtual veto on short-story collections – because they sell considerably fewer copies than novels – has also enabled Maia to sign up established authors such as Sara Maitland, and the novelist and critic Michael Arditti. Indeed they are running something of a campaign for the short story and plan to publish at least two collections each year. ‘The short story is in crisis,’ says Maggie. ‘Look at someone like Linda Leatherbarrow [author of Essential Kit – due out in October]. She’s a brilliant short-story writer who’s been published and read on radio and who’s won virtually every short-story prize going, and she was told to go away and write a novel.’ It could be said that the literary novel – the kind of original and adventurous writing that has never attracted huge sales – is in crisis too, since the big publishers have decreed that every book must pay its way and this means inflated sales targets. ‘Because we’re so small, we can sell 3,000 copies and do quite well,’ says Maggie. ‘Nobody talks about it, but I’m often quite reassured when I hear what novels actually do sell. I was amused to be told that one large publishing house had paid a £100,000 advance for a book that sold 200 copies.’ Broadly speaking, Maggie does the commissioning, editing, copy-editing and publicity, and Jane does the typesetting, design and production. Maggie’s husband, who obligingly appears with a tray of tea, helps with checking – ‘he’s much more pernickety than I am’ – and uses his fluent French and German to read foreign submissions, while Maggie’s eldest son has networked the computers and designed the website, which he updates from Bristol where he’s doing a degree. It is all a very far cry from those big glass and concrete offices where the huge conglomerates crouch, luring in small imprints that soon shrivel and die. In fact it is much more reminiscent of Leonard and Virginia Woolf ’s Hogarth Press, which both Maggie and Jane have found an inspiring model. What Maia authors – and their agents – know they will get is the kind of individual attention and scrupulous editing that is increasingly hard to find in the impersonal offices of larger companies. Maggie talks about her authors with passion – among them Adam Zameenzad, twice long-listed for the Booker, whose Pepsi and Maria, a novel set among street children in South America (‘amazing – such a privilege to be able to publish it’), is on Maia’s spring list; Anne Redmon, whose In Denial deals with the difficult subject of paedophilia (‘she’s been Writer in Residence at Wandsworth and really knows what she’s talking about’); and Lewis de Soto – author of A Blade of Grass, about modern South Africa, which was published in Canada to rave reviews – who was so impressed by what he saw on the Maia website that he decided to offer his novel to them. Flying the flag for literature does mean long hours of unpaid labour and occasionally, Maggie admits, they both have moments when they wish they could go on holiday instead of stuffing envelopes, and wonder why they’re doing it. But it doesn’t last long. Bookshops have been supportive and review coverage encouraging. ‘When you actually hold a book in your hands there’s such a feeling of satisfaction,’ says Maggie. ‘If you’re a painter someone is always going to look at your pictures, but for a writer, unless your book is published, it doesn’t exist. We’re trying to publish what we think is very high-quality writing, and that’s really worth doing. Providing we can break even’, she adds, with sudden unexpected caution.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Hazel Wood 2004


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