Indie Fiction Subscription #10: Introducing Influx Press
As if Influx Press need any introduction to Burley Fisher fans! But there's so much to shout about what they do, "publishing innovative and challenging fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction from across the UK and beyond" and doing it in style.
At BF we've been waiting for this month's Indie Fiction Subscription title, Variations by Juliet Jacques for two years now, since Juliet read some of her work-in-progress at an event for our Regenerate writing group. Look out for our podcast interview with Juliet, and meanwhile enjoy our chat with Gary Budden and Kit Caless, and follow Influx on 🐦@influxpress and 📸 @influxpress for what's coming next…
Happy 9th birthday! Acquired for Development By was published in April 2012, approximately a thousand years ago, and it still feels so fresh and relevant, as does Life in Transit (nine years ago this month). Do you feel like you’re still powered by that same rage and energy now?
GB: Damn that makes me feel old. But it’s nice to hear people still consider it relevant – I think it’s general points about gentrification and redevelopment still stand. Both Kit and I no longer live in Hackney, me for several years, so it does feel like a bit of a time capsule for me now. Part of me feels that actually a lot of this kind of writing about these parts of London, ostensibly objecting to the rapid gentrification of the area, actually helped hasten that progress. But the work itself still stands up.
I haven’t looked at Acquired for Development By in a long time, and it’s well out-of-print, but I’m still proud of it – though of course we would do things differently now. That book was very much us learning as we went along how to put together and publish a book – which at the time seemed like an incredibly opaque and mysterious process.
We’re still motivated by the same energy that made us want to publish that book – the idea that we wanted to publish work we thought was valuable and that we want to read that may not find a home elsewhere.
KC: You know I didn’t think we would do this for nine years. There’s a point during every one of those nine years I’ve wanted to put it all in the bin and do something else, but I just can’t do it – the longer it goes on the more there is to lose and the more elongated our legacy, I suppose.
I’m glad AFDB still feels fresh, and I’d like to think all our books do. That’s possibly because Gary, Sanya and I don’t really look for trends or books a la mode, so they can’t necessarily be lumped into a certain time period. But with AFDB, I think we thought the gentrification process of east London had reached its apex in 2011/2. Little did we know it was probably only just beginning of the middle. Like Gary says, there is a worry that we’ve contributed to that by documenting and publishing about Hackney, but I think our intentions were sound, and I feel with anything, if the intention is ok, then whatever the end result, you can still hold your head high.
I think I have, perhaps, a different energy these days. Back then it was just exciting to start something, and I’ve always been someone who finds the start of things the most exciting part of life – now we’re established, there’s more of an energy of, ok what can we do next within Influx, rather than let’s start something new from scratch.
How did you kick off as a publisher? What’s the secret for turning that “let’s do this” discussion into actually doing it – and keeping it going for nearly a decade?
GB: We never really had the aim to be a publisher – initially the idea was just to do Acquired for. There was never any sort of plan, but the book did well enough that we wanted to continue. For the first few years Influx was very much a side-project, with only a few titles a year, and it grew organically until we made a decision to take it more seriously as a fulltime thing.
In terms of how to turn an ‘idea that sounds good in the pub’ into actually doing it… all I can say is that you have to begin. It sounds trite, but it’s true.
And not expect everything to be perfect immediately or have success overnight – due to the distorting lens of social media, we tend to see only the successes, the high points and the positive edited reality of what people are doing, where in fact there’s a huge amount of everyday, boring, work that keeps a press like Influx going. So you have to be prepared to do all that behind the scenes work that is neither sexy nor Instagrammable.
If ever I need motivation, I end up putting on the 80s NYHC classic, ‘Start Today’ by Gorilla Biscuits, that teaches you all you need to know about getting things done.
KC: I think it helps that Gary and I have known each other since we were eleven years old. We know each other very well, what makes us tick, what annoys us, what to do when the other one is stressed. A lot of the publishing houses within the UK independent scene are marriage / civil partnership run – like And Other Stories, Galley Beggar, Bluemoose, etc., and in a way Gary and I are in some sort of marriage – at least we bicker like we are. I think, somehow, that helps the direction of the press, because you’re a team outside of just having a business vision. Influx represents who Gary, Sanya and I are, as much as it stands a publishing house. You don’t get that with corporate publishing, I think.
With regards to starting stuff, yeah just get on with it. No one’s waiting for you. Ask people for advice, be prepared to make some serious mistakes, learn from them, move forward onto making different mistakes. Eventually, you’ll be proud of what you’ve done because you’ve taken a risk to do something. I get the feeling a lot of people can drift through life without challenging themselves.
I’ve messed up enough times in my professional and personal life by now, at the grand age of 38, to know that everything you do teaches you something about yourself. You may not like what you discover about who you are, but it’s better to know your true self than to keep who you are hidden from your view. Publishing, as with life in general, is fraught with ethical, emotional and philosophical dilemmas – and provides a richness to your human experience.
What’s changed in publishing and bookselling since you started, for good and bad? And how are you imagining the next decade?
GB: I think that the status of independent publishers is much higher now than it was a decade ago, that we are more visible and certainly taking more seriously at a mainstream level. Significant successes from indie publishers (many who formed around the time we did) have helped elevate the role we play, especially at a time when more mainstream publishing feels risk averse and catering to a limited demographic.
The next decade will be interesting. I suppose now Influx is considered part of the old guard of indie publishing – I really hope there are WhatsApp groups full of aspiring indie publishers pointing out everything we do wrong and saying how they’d do it much better than these guys pushing 40. That to me would be a sign of a healthy creative culture.
Mainstream (by which I mean Big 5) publishing seems to be in a tumultuous state, making pleasing noises about issues of diversity and representation but doesn’t seem to be acting on them very quickly. Publishing is a business like any other, and these giant companies will naturally, always, publish work that follows trends and sells books – you could see it as depressing that TV celebrities become best-selling fiction authors, or incredibly basic self-help platitudes disguised as fiction sell in their millions, but all this seems to happen in a world very distant from what Influx are doing.
How I imagine the next decade? I hope that the conversation about class in the publishing world will increase dramatically, and that something is done about it.
KC: It’s an interesting question. Gary and I had no experience in publishing before we started Influx, not even a single day in media, really. So we came at the industry from proper leftfield. We didn’t know anything about the ‘industry’ when we started so everything we’ve learned has always been through the lens of Influx, apart from our own published writings, of course.
I’ve enjoyed seeing Burley Fisher grow, I must say, and that’s not just to flatter you guys. Burley Fisher, Pages of Hackney, Review Bookshop, amongst so many others (and so many outside of London too) all seemed to start post-banking crisis, and that’s been incredibly useful for Influx and other independents. Creating a network of publishers and booksellers who believe in books that are trying to push envelopes has been the best thing over the last decade.
As everyone in the book industry knows, audiobooks are currently the future. And I don’t just say that because my next book is an audio-original! Haha. But it does seem that it’s heading that way. I think there’s a really interesting space opening up where a book maybe written for audio first, and then rewritten for print after the audio book is out. They are different media, and just reading a print book out loud is not going to cut it in the near future, so audio-originals are being written with audio in mind from the get go. We may see small independent audiobook producers popping up to challenge Audible and the big 5 in house audiobook producers, which would be very exciting.
You’re also very much a London publisher in the best sense of untelling and retelling the city’s less-heard stories, most recently with Lucifer Over London: A Guide to the Adopted City, as well as books about the city’s margins. Why is the local important to you? How have you seen it change over the last decade, and how is that reflected in your titles – thinking of Frankie Miren’s forthcoming The Service, for example?
GB: I love London, and have lived here many years now. I think it’s normal to take a keen interest in the place you live and consider home.
The term ‘London publisher’ is an odd one – you see people using that phrase as a shorthand to mean the giant companies like PRH, who do of course have their offices in London, but it’s a disappointing and myopic way to look at ‘London’.
We publish work from all over now, including work in translation, but I will always chime with a great London novel. It’s why we loved The Service when it landed on our desk – a brilliant exploration of a totally different side to the city that many readers may have little experience of.
KC: London is a literary city. Always has been, always will be. In the way New York City is like a film set when you visit due to the sheer volume of films set there, London feels like a book because it has been written about for centuries. When we publish books set in London we have to make sure they are telling a new or unheard story because we want to build on that literary legacy. We want to add new paths and spaces for the mind to travel down, rather than rehash the same old cliches, stultifying narratives that already exist.
Like Gary says, we look elsewhere these days, but there is still a bit of room left for London in our publishing schedules. It’s one of the world’s greatest cities, how can you not want to publish work about it.
There’s an intriguing kind of… fictional non-fiction? Archival fiction? Fiction with realness? I don’t know what to call it that I see in Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions and Juliet Jacques’ Variations, both of which have brilliant takes on history – or histories. They play with our ideas of what constitutes official history, and the place that emotions and personal experience have within that. First of all, do you have a term for this genre? And second, what draws you to it?
GB: I’ve always been drawn to, and fascinated by, the idea of unofficial histories. As soon as you realise that the historical narrative you are taught at school, and via the mainstream culture, is itself a form of fiction, then you realise there must be many other narratives and voices to be heard. That has always interested me – this should be one of the key roles of fiction.
KC: It’s interesting that we could call this a genre unto itself! I’m not sure one can declare one’s own genres, someone else has to do that, Wiley called grime ‘eskibeat’ when he invented it, but then someone called it ‘grime’ in the media and that stuck. So I’m unwilling to give it a name.
It’s important to me to do these things through fiction because that’s how you get the emotion into the unofficial history, plus you can play around with facts. History is a contested space, of course. I only recently learned that the Nazis were all jacked up on meth in the 30s and 40s which completely changed the way I saw the invasion of the USSR, for example haha. But there will always be competing narratives and interpretations around history, it’s a privilege to publish something like Plastic Emotions, which genuinely brought fresh light onto Minnette de Silva’s pioneering work and celebrated her as a feminist figure. With Variations, as soon as it came in we knew we had to publish it. Juliet is a fantastic writer and I learned so much in the course of editing and working on the book with her. Hopefully readers will too.
Gary and I are well aware that we are two white blokes in their late 30s running a publishing house. And it’s important to us to platform voices and histories that are not our own. Not only is it interesting to learn about things outside of our own lived experience, it’s healthy for culture too. We can be as myopic as the next man, stuck in our ways, but that’s why we have brilliant people like Sanya by our side, to help us unstick. We’re far from perfect, and we never will be, but I like to think, at least we are attempting to see outside of ourselves.
Among other things, Influx have been massive champions of short stories – publishing both anthologies and collections by writers like Linda Mannheim, Eley Williams, and Clare Fisher. Why are short stories so important – for writers, for readers? I’m also thinking about the recent proliferation of independent magazines, in print and online, like Extra Teeth, that are also championing short stories and bringing new voices through… What’s happening in that ecosystem?
GB: I’ve always loved short stories, and am a writer of them myself. The skill of constructing an effective short story shouldn’t be overlooked – there’s no room for bagginess or waffling on like there is in a novel.
KC: Short stories bang. That’s it, that’s the message. But they also provide writers a space to try out ideas, experiment with style and approach. Our recent publication Man Hating Psycho by the imperious Iphigenia Baal is a case in point – the stories there are full of verve and ambition, stuffed with electricity and experiments, you just wouldn’t be able to do with a novel.
I’m not sure the ecosystem is any different than it used to be, other than there are newer publications like Extra Teeth doing it, and doing it well. Short story collections, on the whole, still don’t sell as well as novels in the UK and I think that’s sad. But it’s also reflects the way the industry sees them. For example, the Goldsmiths Prize, which is supposed to reward experimental fiction, is not open to books of short stories, yet that’s where all the experiments are happening! The UK has a love affair with the novel that doesn’t exist in other literary cultures and I think, somehow, it’s to do with our class system. But don’t quote me on that unless someone clever can back me up with theory and evidence.
2021 has been a banner year, with a book a month landing from a very varied and ambitious list, including three translations (Self Portrait in Green, The Country Will Bring Us No Peace and Cockfight), a novel with photographs (In the Pines) and short story collections from cult faves Iphigenia Baal and Percival Everett. How’s the year shaping up? How’s the subscription model working?
GB: We could’ve done without the lockdown and global pandemic, but the year has been going very well considering. We’re actually running some live events later in the year too, which I’m looking forward to a lot – the live and social aspect was always a key element of what Influx doing and losing that has sucked.
We’re approaching 200 subscribers now, which is exciting. Maybe we’ll give the 200th subscriber a prize. (Ed: subscribe here to be in with a chance to win?!)
KC: 2021 has been pretty good, following the disaster that was Covid-19 in 2020. We so happy bookshops are reopen, for example. I think we’ll see how it pans out in the latter half of the year, but we’ve already got some books on the prize lists this year which bodes well!
All three of you – Kit, Gary and Sanya – are writers as well as editors. What does that bring to the way you work with writers as Influx editors, and to how you build your list?
GB: We understand the process from both sides, which I hope is beneficial. Having had books published, and worked with agents and editors, can only help when we’re in the publisher/editor role.
KC: I write non-fiction, so I suppose that puts me more automatically in the space of acquiring that for Influx, and I hope to do more of that in the future. Gary snaffles up all the fiction, which doesn’t leave me much room hahaha. Sanya has been instrumental in our growth, acquiring writers like Shiromi Pinto, Marie Ndiaye, and more to come, I’m so pleased with her progress and she has a wonderful eye for books. I think, as writers, perhaps we are more aware of the troubles of the writing process than only-editors, but that’s just a hunch.
Variations is our Indie Fiction subscription title this month, and it’s a completely remarkable book with a unique structure, a chronologically-ordered collection of stories, each with a different form from diary through conference paper to film script and even blog posts. What was the experience of editing it? And how are you hoping that readers respond?
KC: Editing this was a joy, a genuine joy. Juliet is such an erudite, learned and empathetic writer. She also redrafted this several times before it go to me, so it was more a case of fine tuning, asking questions and deciding on style etc, than having to overhaul any structural issues.
I hope that readers respond in the way we did when we read the submission. That this is a book chronicling an untold part of British history, as much a part of everyone’s British history as it is transgender Brits. It’s tempting for publishers to pretend they are publishing for a certain community, but that just assumes those outside the community won’t be interested. Trans people will feel that their history is being represented, I think, but regular old cis-het fellas like me will get a lot out of this book too. It’s British history, told from a different angle. You can’t not like it.
It’s a set of wonderful stories that take you in immediately, with wit and skill rarely seen in fiction. I hope it will sell big and win some prizes, but you can never know that will happen until it does. It deserves to be in the canon of great experimental story telling, and Juliet is one in a million. The cover is sick too, which always helps.
Max Porter writes of Influx: “They call out bullshit. They scream praise for good work, good people and good ideas. They are political.” So: what’s the bullshit that needs calling out in publishing and bookselling? What have you come up against in publishing writers who are (one or more of) working-class, Black, queer and trans? And, beyond calling it out, what needs to be done?
GB: I could write about 10,000 words on all the bullshit that needs calling out in publishing.
For me, the biggest, unavoidable problem is one of class. It seems absurd that two white grammar-school educated men from Kent can still feel out of place at certain literary events, but we do. An industry primarily made up of people all from a certain culture and background is always going to struggle to identify and publish important work that comes from outside that world.
We have the problem of an overwhelmingly white middle-class ‘literary’ culture supplied by an industry also made up of those people, catering for readers broadly from that demographic.
I struggle greatly with the idea of ‘literary person as a personality’, or the notion of reading fiction making a person exceptional in some way. I don’t believe there to be anything inherently valuable in fiction as an artform – it all depends what is being written. Fiction can be an electrifying and radical thing, but it can just as easily be a bourgeois indulgence or a mollifying and unchallenging form of reassurance.
Problems we’ve come up against? It’s clear to me now that work by working-class men is much harder to get reviewed and find a readership in the current climate, which is very disappointing. But on the positive side, there has been great support for the black, queer and trans writers we have published so far – the reception for Variations has been a wonderful thing to see.
KC: Most of the conversations about publishing happen on Twitter these days, it seems. I think it’s best for us to just get on with what we’re doing, rather than pontificate about it. I used to want to wade into arguments about diversity and representation, but I don’t do that anymore.I think partly due to not wanting to be some voice on a big topic when there are far better qualified people to talk about it, but also because, you know, I’m not doing it perfectly either. I make mistakes, I’m as useless and boneheaded at times as any white bloke.
There’s always a temptation with straight white people like me to point a finger at other straight white people and tell them that they aren’t making enough of an effort, but I realised I was doing that to deflect from my own shortcomings. I’m done with that because, ultimately it serves no one but myself.
I think we want to quietly just do our best. We are going to announce some exciting initiatives soon that Sanya is spearheading and that is where I want to be, celebrating our progress, rather than denigrating anyone else.