Lyndsey Garrett shares her experience of the Small Publishers Fair at Conway Hall.
I have a confession to make – until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never been to a book fair. It sounds an astonishing thing for a writer to admit, but it was always the kind of event I’d hear about AFTER it had happened. Over the last year I’ve been subscribing to whatever mailing lists relating to writing and books I could find (and of course getting into the regular habit of checking out the MIR Events page for upcoming activities). This might not be the healthiest of outcomes for my inbox, but it has shown me how much is out there to visit and take part in. Readings, exhibitions, panels; I’d never realised how much was available! Many events have a fee, but that’s not always the case. One email that caught my eye was a Conway Hall update – the annual Small Publishers Fair would be taking place in their premises on 16-17 November. There would be stalls, there would be talks and it was free entry.
I love books, that’s no secret. Especially to my bookcase. Physical books are still my preference over e-books, though sometimes the portability of an e-book is incredibly useful (especially if the particular volume you’re reading is a tome that could use its own pushcart to carry around). I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect at the fair, but the presence of lots of books was a sure bet. It did not disappoint.
What a crowd I found! I arrived maybe an hour and a half after the doors had opened and the main hall, where the stalls were situated, was bustling like any good marketplace. I was impressed both at the scale of publishers here to show their works and the number of people here to take a look and have a chat. My usual tactic for markets is to do an initial round, absorb what there is. A tip if you find yourself at Conway Hall for an event – they provide communal coat rails in the corridor outside the main hall. Incredibly useful, especially when you want to keep your hands free to look over the beautiful books and prints. I made an initial mistake in keeping my thick winter coat on me as I tried to ease between the tables and patrons, very acutely aware I was at times inches from brushing against something on a table.
There was a lot of visual work present across the stalls, whether posters, cards or book work, with or without text. Whether this is representative of a shift in narrative styles, and what we consider poetry or storytelling, is perhaps something to be looked at in more depth in a separate post. However there were still plenty of books, zines and pamphlets of written work to view. What was apparent was the care each publisher pays to their work. The quality of pieces was superb and the care that had been paid in the publishing process was evident. The mix of price points also meant that most budgets were catered for, with some zines priced as low as £1 to handmade volumes that broke into the hundreds.
It’s a great space to meet people, whether familiar faces attending the event or new ones among the publishers present. I’m personally very anxious when it comes to striking up conversations with strangers, but everyone at the event was very friendly and approachable. I spoke to one publisher about a medium used by one of their artists; they’d produced an incredible graphic narrative using the wax scratch paper with silver backing. Reproduced to print it still carried that metallic contrast.
I also spoke to a couple of students from the Royal Holloway’s MA in Poetic Practice, who had produced pamphlets and books of their own work and were performing from the Main Hall’s stage throughout the afternoon. They were sharing the stage area with the Test Centre exhibition, a showcasing of work produced by Test Centre Publications before it split into Test Centre Books and Prototype. It was amazing to see the variety of material that had been produced and is still produced by the two legacy entities.
Just down from the Main Hall, in the Brockway Room, other talks and performances were scheduled throughout the day. This is a room that doubles as an exhibition space, the walls adorned with images from the latest show. At thirty minutes, each talk was very concise. I made it to two sessions over the course of my visit. The first was by GG Print Studio – Lina NordenStröm performed and discussed some of her poetic works, including a reading of page 184-185 and a sound performance using a typewriter. She also took part in a Q&A with Joakim Norling from Timglast Editions. They discussed the materiality of her work and its relationship within the history of poetic movements, such as Concrete poetry, and how the use of instruments like the typewriter has influenced NordenStröm’s work.
The second talk I made it to was MsPress – Christine McCauley discussed the process and creation of her work commemorating the Peterloo Massacre. McCauley’s discussion was incredibly moving, talking through the horrific actions of the authorities on a peaceful protest and the poetry it inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to write. In creating her book McCauley specifically wanted to tackle the concept of working-class accounts only being seen in chapbook style formats. Instead she created a pamphlet that emulated the richness of the banners produced by the protesters at St Peters. She also used items from her own family’s history to help in textualizing her work.
The afternoon was a fantastic experience and it was great to see so many different small publishers with the variety of work that they produce. The booklet provided by the organisers means that I have a list of all the presses who were present and can research what other events they may be heading to. It was a lovely way to spend an otherwise dreary Saturday, and I’ll definitely be looking out for news of next year’s event.