Hi Catherine, you’re the founder of Lafiy Press, a new publishing house committed to diversifying the book industry. What inspired you to set this up?
There were a number of things that came together, some long term, some short term.
The longest term one is: I love reading, I’ve got a PhD in literature, books have been there for me in every type of situation in my life, happy or sad, I think stories can change the world, I think they can help people realize who they are, I just think they’re incredible. For a long time I was happily going along discovering more and more books, but then something started nagging at me. What about the books that had never been written? What about the books that had been written but never published?
Finding out that there are a whole host of social and economic reasons in society in general, but in the mainstream publishing industry in particular, that make writing a predominantly white and affluent occupation in the UK made me really worried for writers who were shut out, but also for readers like me who were missing out on unwritten, unpublished classics.
So there’s a selfish place that this comes from: as a reader I want to find the best writers and the best stories without money or race or gender or anything like that getting in the way.
But at the same time, one of the catalysts was, just taking a long hard look at myself and thinking what can I actually do to improve society? There is a lot that is not in my power to change, but I do have privilege in lots of ways – education, experience – so how can I use that, and how can I even undermine my own privilege and redress the balance?
I know about literature, I know about the culture industry, if I’m willing to put money aside and take a pay cut, I can genuinely make a change.
What does Lafiy mean?
It actually doesn’t mean anything. Just a cute name!
How is Lafiy different from other publishing houses?
The main difference is that we pass a much much higher percentage of a book’s royalties onto the author. We give the author 70% while other publishers offer around 7%. Even when authors are given an advance, that is the often deducted from royalties so they don’t start getting that 7% until they’ve ‘paid off’ the advance through sales, or writers can even be made to repay their advance to the publisher if they don’t sell tens or hundreds of thousands of copies. It’s really really hard for authors to earn a fair wage if they publish through the mainstream routes.
Not a lot of people know that because the process of publishing and the finances of it are hidden behind great marketing by the big companies, which focusses on snuggling up with a good book or empowering new voices even.
But in reality, the truth is, the only unique part of the production of a book, the author, doesn’t get anywhere near the majority of the revenue!
Another difference is that there are two ways that the actual creation of the physical books can be funded. An author, once accepted for publication, can either pay for the initial costs of getting their work out there in physical book form, or apply for a grant from us to get it onto shelves.
A writer’s financial situation will never be an obstacle to publishing with us. If we like your work, and you can’t invest, we will cover the cost of initial book publication.
We’re asking writers to be part of what we stand for. If you’re privileged enough to have money, and the cost of getting the books printed isn’t prohibitive for you, then you pay the initial costs and get your investment back, with interest in the form of the 70% royalties when your work sells. Your investment will allow us to channel our funds into covering the initial costs of publishing books by writers who cannot afford it themselves.
Another difference is that authors can submit to us directly; submissions don’t have to come from an agent. This is partly to offer a way of cutting out what can be just another financial burden. A good agent can be so useful to an author, but there are so many bad ones out there. It also cuts out a layer of cultural gatekeeping. We want to hear from new writers and to publish stories that for reasons of prejudice, worry about profit margins or just a lack of imagination, wouldn’t necessarily be published by one of the major houses.
And we are creating books that tell incredible stories, but that are also beautiful objects with a really definitive artwork style.
Where we are similar to other publishers, though, is in that you can’t self publish through us – you submit and the commissioning editors and me decide what to go ahead with.
Tell us a bit about your career journey up until this point..
I finished my PhD in 2016 and then worked at Birkbeck teaching literature.
Then I got a job at the Institute of Art and Ideas, working in the editorial team, grew my role into marketing as well, and in the end was in charge for a while. That’s really where I learnt about how culture is produced – who the gatekeepers are, what ideas get to be discussed in the media, who gets paid what for which kinds of work etc. I got to work with some incredible people like Kim Crenshaw and Kehinde Andrews, writers like Jo Kavenna, Deborah Levy and Meg Rosoff, musical artists like Lowkey.
I just stepped back from that level of responsibility there to focus on Lafiy Press. And about a year and a half ago I was asked to teach part time at Cambridge University which I still do.
What have your highlights been so far?
If you mean Lafiy highlights I would say the submissions we are receiving are the highlight. There is really great writing out there and I’m meeting incredibly talented and passionate people.
There are also some really cool partnerships coming up which I can’t talk about yet. For charities, for example, we’re a really great publisher to work with because we pass so much profit back to the writers and because our values align so well – watch out for some great publications in conjunction with charities.
Our fundraising activities have also been really exciting. We’re really trying not just to ask for donations or anything like that, but to offer something valuable in return for those who want to support us. We’ve got a really cute and fun knitting kit currently available, for example, that gives people wool, needles, a pattern and instructions to make a specially designed Lafiy Press jumper. We wanted to engage people with their creativity rather than just sell a product. So if you want to support us that’s a great thing to get right now, get it for yourself, get it as a gift, it’s perfect for lockdown!
Why is diversity important in the publishing industry and what can we do to support this?
For those of you who aren’t altruists, follow my selfish reasoning: we all benefit from diversity in publishing. The author of your new favourite book might not be a white wealthy writer from the South West of England (which is what 94% of writers in the UK today are according to the biggest study of its kind).
Big publishing houses try things like quotas, and they are increasingly putting writers of colour at the forefront of their marketing. This does some good; it’s good for people to see examples of writers who look like them, whatever they look like. But it’s also just good marketing for the publishers themselves, who use this to make themselves appear relevant and on the right side of history. What it just doesn’t address, though, are the cold hard realities that need to change: the latest ALCS study shows that professional full time writers earn just over £5 an hour. This doesn’t include self-published authors, this is full time authors, people who you would think have made it, they’ve been rubber stamped as brilliant, they’ve got an agent and a publisher. If you cannot afford to be paid £5 an hour, you cannot become a professional writer. Yes, a tiny minority will earn the big bucks, but most writers just won’t. Because of the way race tends to correlate with lower socio-economic brackets in this country, that is going to leave out not only working class voices, but particularly the voices of people of colour as well. Quotas cannot sort that out, only a redistribution of the massive amounts of money that the publishing houses are earning could really help. That’s why fair pay for authors is the beating heart of what we are doing.
Everybody can be more conscious of which brands they support, what they buy, where they buy it from. It’s true for books as it is other industries. Next time you see a publisher tweeting or writing an article in the media about how they love ‘new voices’ or want to support diversity in publishing, google how much that company pays its authors and google the profits the company makes each year. Then you can do things like comment on social media, share the figures, criticize where criticism is deserved. And find brands doing things right, often smaller companies that you might have to spend time looking for, and support them either by buying from them or sharing your platform on social media.
What’s your favourite book of all time?
That’s impossible to answer, but I can tell you I just read Blue Nights by Joan Didion and it floored me. When I was younger I think I held my breath the whole way through reading Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier, that book had a powerful effect on me. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Jemsyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing both stick with me too.
What do you like to read when no one is watching?
I would unashamedly read anything, anywhere.
Tell us something you learnt from 2020…
We are all part of society, little things that each of us do have a huge impact. That’s literally the science of lockdown – every individual’s simple daily actions have huge consequences.
What are the plans for Lafiy in 2021?
We’ve got some brilliant books in the works for publication later this year, of course.
There’ll be ever more elaborate and exciting fundraising projects – merch, events like writers workshops and panel discussions.
We’re also really keen to be part of supporting local high streets and smaller shops to rebound after lockdown and are looking forward to working with independent stockists across the country, and hosting our events in the cafes, restaurants and bars that have been struggling.