‘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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