Times article on To Hell with Publishing

The book club that says To Hell with publishing

by Ben Machell October 23 2010

Lucy Owens, Laurence Johns and Dean Ricketts are an outift with fingers in many literary pies

Lucy Owens, Laurence Johns and Dean Ricketts

Ben Machell October 23 2010 12:01AM

Monthly event set up by an independent publisher encourages the submission of manuscripts and it runs a competition.

Once a month at Peter Parker’s Rock’n’Roll Club — a cosy bar underneath one of the many guitar shops on Denmark Street, in Central London — you will find To Hell with the Lighthouse, a popular literary night. To begin with, it’s not an obviously bookish do: a surplus of sticky, silly-looking happy-hour cocktails, a lot of soul music and a young, giddy crowd doesn’t scream “salon”. But over the next couple of hours a quartet of aspiring novelists take to the tiny stage, read from their books and receive warm applause before — they hope — selling a few copies, earning a few drinks or winning themselves a few more thumbs-aloft “likes” on Facebook.

So far, so groovy book night, the kind that has proliferated remarkably over the past 18 months or so. What sets it apart, though, is that the monthly event was set up by an independent publisher. To Hell with Publishing, founded in 2007, is one of the few UK publishers that encourages the submission of unsolicited manuscripts and it now runs a competition, To Hell with Prizes, conceived to uncover the best unpublished novel in the UK, plus a dedicated imprint for first novels, To Hell with First Novels (this year’s inaugural winner was Grant Gillespie’s The Cuckoo Boy).

Finally, as well as its literary night, its publishing label and competition, it also puts out a regular journal, under the (possibly now guessable) banner To Hell with Journals.

For one small outfit to have this many fingers in this many literary pies might seem unusual and, given the uncertain state of UK book publishing, rather reckless. But it is the very state of publishing that prompted Lucy Owen, Laurence Johns, a rare-books dealer, and Dean Ricketts, one of his customers and the owner of a marketing agency, to act in the first place.

“When we decided to start something, it was at that point when everything was being sold three-for-two, everyone was discounting heavily and celebrity culture had taken full hold of the book market,” Ricketts says. “You could feel that something was wrong … in the quality of the new releases, in the amount of new releases … It was clear that fewer risks were being taken in investing in new writers.

“We would talk about how interesting genres and subcultures were always led by small publishing houses and bookshops, but how these had been slowly eroded,” Johns says. “The distinctive voices — where were they going to come from in a generation’s time, when there is no room for independent publishing?”

“Independent” should not be confused with “marginal”, though. Big literary names haven’t been shy in associating themselves with the To Hell with … project: earlier this year David Vann gave a reading at one of its events, also attended by Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch. Adam Thirlwell, DBC Pierre and Hanif Kureishi have appeared at the To Hell with the Lighthouse night. Their journals have included contributions from Simon Armitage, Richard Milward and Hisham Matar, the first issue put together by the Faber editor Lee Brackstone. Big publishers are paying attention, an unavoidable fact when you consider that the winner of their To Hell with Prizes competition — Bed, by David Whitehouse — was picked up for publishing by Canongate. “There’s been a massive amount of goodwill from the rest of the industry, which I was surprised by,” Johns says. “All the big publishing houses and agencies have said, what can we do to help?”.

Drawing some of their inspiration from existing independent, multifaceted publishers, such as Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s or City Lights in San Francisco, To Hell with Publishing put out its first book, Shorty Loves Wing Wong, in 2006 — a collaboration between the writer Michael Smith and the artist Jim Medway featuring anthropomorphic cats in Hartlepool. “For us, it’s about understanding the writer and knowing what they are trying to do,” Ricketts says. At a lot of publishers you’ll find books being turned down because ‘the climate’s not right for that’, but no one asking whether it’s actually any good.”

“The publishers are going the way of major record labels and playing a numbers game,” Johns says. “What they do is think, right, we’ll get ten writers, give them each a five-grand advance that they can barely live off, and then hopefully one of them will sell enough to cover the cost of the rest of them.”

In contrast, independent publishers and bookshops should be nurturers of talent. “Places like City Lights and Shakespeare and Company in Paris weren’t just about selling books or even selecting good books. Authors went there when they were broke, or needed somewhere to stay, or to get feedback on their work,” says Johns, who runs his own independent bookshop, Amuti23. Has he ever put writers up in the shop?

“Erm, I’ve ended up with people in there overnight,” he grins. “Not always intentionally though.” Johns is leaving his premises at the end of the month and taking the shop online — not, he claims, because the business is struggling, but so that he can devote more time to To Hell with Publishing. “We would like to open a To Hell with bar at some stage, though,” he says.

What he and Ricketts and Owen all maintain is that, despite To Hell with Publishing’s reactionary-sounding name, it is not doing anything particularly groundbreaking. “In a bizarre way, we’re more of a return to traditional publishing. We do all the things a publisher is supposed to, and which were traditionally done: readings, galvanising the audience, searching for new talent,” Johns says. “To Hell with Publishing isn’t supposed to sound negative … we see it as more of a battle cry, or a toast.”

It is not the only publisher doing something new by being old-fashioned. In a small second-floor studio unit in Dalston, East London, Ditto Press Ltd not only publishes its own books, but prints them too. Using a simple stencil-printing process, Bess Freeman and Bruno Bayley, in their mid-twenties, have produced limited but successful runs of art books for the past two years. From January they are set to start publishing and printing novels too.

“The first one we will be doing is the seventh novel by a writer called Duncan Fallowell,” Bayley says. “He was The Spectator’s rock critic at 21, he was going to be the lead singer of Can, and his work appeals to anyone who has an interest in travel or music or sex or drugs. It could quite easily have been put out by a bigger publisher, but he wanted to deal with us.”

Freeman and Bayley explain that though major publishers are letting readers down through lack of choice and variety from above, the fact that “everyone who has ever written something can now make a made-to-order laser-printed book of their own work” means we are also swamped from below. “We are over-saturated with stuff we don’t want to read,” Freeman says, which is where the role of new indy publishers and bookshops as both filters and tastemakers come in. Just like the music industry, Freeman says: “When I was younger I was really into underground music … the rave scene, punk and hardcore. I’d go over to record shops with a crate of records and meet all these people and talk about what was new. I’m doing exactly the same thing now with our books.”

On the other side of London from Dalston, on the slightly more scrubbed-up Kensington Park Road, this approach still holds true. “Selling books has always been about matching readers to titles,” says Felicity Rubinstein, the co-owner of the independent bookshop Lutyens & Rubinstein, which has been open for business for a little more than a year. What sets Rubinstein and her business partner, Sarah Lutyens, apart is that they double as working literary agents and, like Ditto and To Hell With, are also operating in another part of the book-selling process as a reaction against the limitations of big publishers.

“There’s huge frustration about the way books are sold in this country,” she explains. “Our jobs as agents is to hand-sell individual projects with individual editors. But after we’ve placed them with a publisher, we have very little control over how it gets to the readers. To be able to come round the other side and actually put books in people’s hands is fantastically satisfying.”

Similarly demonstrating this kind of flexibility and fluidity is the London Word Festival — founded in 2007 as a young, fun, spiky alternative to traditional literary festivals — which has just commissioned a limited-edition book, Shad Thames, Broken Wharfby Chris McCabe. And there are signs that major publishers understand that there is value in keeping abreast of how people are responding to an uncertain books industry in which new, small thoughtful movers can operate on their own terms. Craig Taylor is the editor of the downloadable literary magazine Five Dials, which covers topics ranging from Sartre’s letters to the 1980s rap group NWA, and is supported by Hamish Hamilton and thus under the auspices of Penguin.

“I don’t think Penguin even knows what it has on its hands with Five Dials … but it serves them well, because people get excited about it,” Taylor says. “We have launch parties in great locations, with people like Jonathan Safran Foer and Grayson Perry involved. And if a young writer doesn’t necessarily have a novel or a full-length non-fiction book, we can still publish one of their essays or stories. We’re doing what magazines have always done — cultivating talent.”

And like To Hell With and Ditto , Taylor thinks that Five Dials may one day start to publish its own books. “We could definitely spin it out that way. If you take the opportunity that this time of upheaval affords, then when the dust settles you can be in a good position,” he says. “Publishing is in such a weird state. Right now we can be anything.”


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Farm Lane Books Blog Review


Oct 14th, 2010 by Jackie at Farm Lane Books Blog

The Cuckoo Boy was recently short listed for the Not the Booker Prize, but it appealed to me from the moment I first heard about it.

The book is about a boy who was adopted at birth. His twin brother is said to have died, but we know next to nothing about his birth family or the reasons for his adoption.

James’ new mother is Sandra. She struggles to cope with him and as he grows he becomes increasingly difficult. As soon as James can talk he tells everyone about his friend, David; the only problem is that no-one else can see this imaginary friend. The two boys collude to commit increasingly evil acts, but there is always a reason for their actions and so the reader is left wondering whether the children are evil or just unlucky.

This book reminded me of The Fifth Child, but it also had elements of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and classic Gothic ghost stories. I loved the way in which we never knew whether David was the ghost of James’ twin brother or just a figment of James’ imagination. Many episodes of the book were quite chilling and so this is the perfect book for Halloween.

I’m always fascinated by books which explore motherhood. The Cuckoo Boy is especially good for discussions about whether children are born evil or whether it is the fault of the parents. The fact that Sandra isn’t James’ biological mother leads to some interesting insights into maternal bonding and I was impressed by the way in which the emotions of motherhood were accurately described.

This book was gripping and thought provoking, but it also contained many of the amusing observations that only young children can get away with. There were so many talking points that I’m sure I could spend hours discussing it – making it a perfect book club choice.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in books about motherhood.

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Hydraxia Interview

Hxydraxia The Book Collecting Portal

Monday, 06 September 2010 20:03 | Author: Simon Patterson | Grant Gillespie Interview

I caught up with Grant Gillespie recently, author of the well-received ‘The Cuckoo Boy‘, featured by Books To Furnish A Room. He kindly, answered a few questions for me and provides an insight into the inner workings of his writing, with the odd sentence reminiscent of this generation’s great authors – I’ll let you decide who:

HY. What started you on the writing path?

GG. I’ve loved writing stories since I was a child. I remember at school, it was called ‘composition’, which is somewhat dry but lyrical too I suppose. When I was about 17, I won a creative writing competition and was awarded a place on a writing retreat with Helen Dunmore, which was really exciting. I’ve written short stories and novels ever since.

HY. Where did the cuckoo boy idea come from?

GG. My ideas for The Cuckoo Boy accrued over quite a long period. I’ve always enjoyed writing about childhood, because children are so rawly human in their appetite for joy and cruelty. Then the Bulger killing – and the reactions of the press and politicians – had me examining the age old question of whether we are all born ‘innocent’ or whether some people are born ‘evil’. The question at the heart of the book is ‘Given the wrong set of circumstances, what child isn’t capable of murder?’

HY. What was you’re experience of getting published?

GG.I have always written because I love the act of writing and creating, but getting a novel published was really thrilling. The process itself was so rewarding too because To Hell With is such a uniquely noble enterprise. I don’t think that I could have landed in more sympathetic or visionary hands. I’m eternally grateful to them.

HY. Which writers influence you?

GG. It’s hard to say exactly which writers have influenced me because I’m always reading and a real mishmash of genres and eras, so probably all of them in one way or another. My favourite authors though are mainly English and American from the early to mid 20th Century – Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemmingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. In fact I have lined my writing room with the pages of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I think that would be my all time favourite.

HY. What are you reading?

GG. I have a few books on the go, which isn’t like me. There’s The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber, Lights out for Wonderland by DBC Pierre and Troubles by J.G Farrell.

HY. Have you signed a lot of your books?

GG. I have signed a fair few books, mainly for my pals.

HY. Which do you prefer, writing or acting?

GG. I love writing and acting in equal measures. The first involves maximum autonomy. I can write wherever I choose and don’t need anyone else’s involvement during the initial process – but then it’s a solitary pursuit, whereas acting requires a director/producer/fellow actors and it goes on and on and on. As I an actor I can’t really generate my own work, but on the plus side it’s very sociable and is all about working with a team of people. For me the two jobs make a very happy marriage. They’re very different animals but there is also a very useful overlap in terms of character development.

HY. What are you currently working on?

GG. I’m currently on the second draft of a novel called There is the Sea, about tsunamis, synaesthesia, suicide and talking doors…

HY. What’s next?

GG. Next is hopefully some more acting work, then perhaps a modern day ghost story?

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Article on Hydraxia, The Book Collecting Portal

Books To Furnish A Room

Hydraxia: Monday, 02 August 2010 20:25 Author: Simon Patterson

Grant Gillespie Cuckoo Boy

The longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize will be announced this week. There is usually a modest boost to prices for longlisted novels, with a more substantial boost when the shortlisted books are announced. The increasing trend towards simultaneous hardcover and paperback releases (with small print runs of the former), along with a range of special/limited editions of leading novels makes collecting the Booker Prize increasingly difficult. Nonetheless, it remains a worthwhile challenge and the shortlisted books over the years provide a useful benchmark of trends in literary fiction. Spotting the winner at an early stage opens the opportunity to a significant profit in some years if you wish to sell. Wolf Hall, the winner from 2009, has sold for several hundred pounds in the first edition, although among the shortlisted novels The Glass House seems more uncommon. Of the books I have read this year, I think that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Even the Dogs are strong candidates. However, as always there are other contenders!

My book of the week for this week is a first novel issued in paperback only – The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie. This is the first novel issued by To Hell with Publishing. The print run was 1000 copies, and it has now been reprinted. The book has been praised highly by a number of bloggers, and picked up reasonable reviews in the Guardian and Observer. Several reviewers have commented on the similarity of the theme to “We need to talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver, but the book has a different tone. It’s unlikely to be a strong candidate for the prize, but perhaps has an outside chance of making the longlist and it certainly seems worthwhile picking up a copy if you can find one to read carefully and set aside for the long term.

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The Booktrust Review


The Cuckoo Boy By Grant Gillespie

This impressive debut is a parable that deconstructs the ‘perfect-family’ model with eerie tension

Published by To Hell With Publishing

Grant Gillespie’s debut novel The Cuckoo Boy starts quietly, slowly and awkwardly, as a repressed suburban couple adopt young James and crumble under the weight of raising a boy they feel no connection to and ultimately don’t understand. Steeped in the perfect idea of what parents should be, they try to mould the obstinate child into their own image, failing to ever engage him.

As he grows older, he starts to rely entirely on an imaginary friend called David. Then suddenly, about halfway through the novel snaps into shocking heart-wrenching territory as James meets the real life counterpart of his imaginary friend who helps to draw him out of himself and lead a more sociable life. This leads to an act of revenge that outs James as ‘not normal’ crushing the public perception as his not-so everyday parents.

The spirit of Gillespie’s novel lies in penetrating suburban conformities. Through a mixture of pathos, humour and sparse prose, he deconstructs the model family with care, wrestling with weighty topics like nature over nurture. His writing is confident and tinged with sadness for the poor Gardners, misguided in their dysfunctional needs. They never wanted James; they just wanted the idea of him, and if he couldn’t grow up to be the boy they wanted, well, where would he turn.

It’s a strange and interesting parable, bubbling away, and as the first novel to be published on the To Hell with Publishing imprint, signals a promising direction for independent publishers.

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An article on actual Cuckoos by Olivia Judson of the NYT

New York Times

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! By OLIVIA JUDSON

A few weeks ago, I was walking through a wood in the English countryside when I heard the unmistakable call of the cuckoo. For some reason, it caused me to fall into a reverie, and as I walked, I began to meditate on that iconic bird and what it represents.

The European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is, famously, a “brood parasite”: the female lays her eggs in other birds’ nests. Typical victims are small birds like reed warblers and wagtails. When the young cuckoo hatches, its first act is to dispose of any other eggs: it heaves them out of the nest, leaving itself as the sole occupant.

What happens next is peculiar. The foster parents don’t appear to notice they are rearing a monster. Instead, they work hard to satisfy the demands of the chick, even though it sometimes becomes so large that it no longer fits inside the nest, and has to sit on top. It’s one of the oddest sights in nature.

Cuckoo bird

(Roger Wilmshurst/Photo Researchers, Inc.A reed warbler brings food to a young cuckoo that hatched in the warbler’s nest, an example of brood parasitism.)

The cuckoo habit has evolved several times. It’s found in species as diverse as cowbirds, indigobirds, honeyguides and even a species of South American duck.

(Actually, brood parasitism can also occur within a species — geese sometimes slip an egg into a neighbor’s nest, as do coots and starlings. Nor is it restricted to birds — fish and insects sometimes foist the rearing of their offspring onto others. But for the rest of this article, I want to focus on the birds that are “professional” brood parasites — the ones that, like the cuckoo, never build nests, and always palm their offspring onto another species.)

Among professional brood parasites, different species have different levels of destructiveness. The duck, for example, is rather charming: it doesn’t destroy any eggs nor enslave its foster parents. All it needs is a bit of warmth for the egg to incubate. The day the duckling hatches, it paddles off into the world, fending for itself right from the get-go. It’s one of the planet’s most independent young birds.

A honeyguide chick, in contrast, is one of the most vicious. It hatches with special hooks on its beak; it uses these to destroy any eggs, or kill any nestlings, that it finds in the nest. (The hooks disappear when the chick is about 14 days old.) Meanwhile, parasitic cowbird chicks don’t usually attack the other chicks in the nest, but they do compete with them for food.

One reason such birds are interesting is that they allow us to watch evolution in action. In general, the stronger the threat from the cuckoo (or honeyguide or whatever), the stronger the selection on the hosts to spot intruders — and the stronger the pressure on the cuckoo to evolve to be undetectable.

Which is why the eggs of these birds often bear a close resemblance to the eggs of those they victimize. Among European cuckoos, for example, individual females specialize on particular species — so the egg of a cuckoo that preys on great reed warblers looks different from the egg of a cuckoo that preys on redstarts, which in turn looks different from the egg of a wagtail-specialist. Yet each egg looks remarkably like the host egg, down to the color of the shell and the pattern of any splotches. The resemblance is particularly strong in species where the host is prone to rejecting cuckoo eggs.

Assessing the degree of egg resemblance is tricky, for birds don’t see the world as we do: they see more colors. Therefore, what looks like a good match to us may not look like a good match to the bird; and vice versa. Fortunately, it’s now possible to measure egg colors and patterns with machines, not humans — and such measurements do, by and large, show that there really is a good match.

This raises a question. If cuckoo eggs evolve to look so similar — why don’t the chicks? Especially as, in species of brood parasite like the indigobirds, the young look much more like the “real” chicks.

The obvious answer is sinister. As far as birds like reed warblers are concerned, it may be that cuckoo chicks do resemble their own offspring. That is, the cuckoo taps into the hosts’ sensory world: it has a brightly colored open mouth, and it sounds like an entire brood of extremely hungry warbler chicks. (To compensate for the fact that there’s only one mouth, not the usual four, the cuckoo begs much more noisily than reed warbler chicks would.) Apparently, this is enough to stimulate the little birds to care for it.

Which makes me wonder: what are we missing? Like the birds — like any organism — our sensory system defines the way we perceive and interact with the world, and it is limited in important ways. As I said earlier, our sense of color is not as vivid as that of most birds. As mammals go, our sense of smell is poor. We hear a limited range of sounds: unaided, we cannot hear much of the conversations of elephants, or of bats.

True, we have invented machines to detect many aspects of the world that are invisible to us, but most of these are kept in fancy laboratories and are not available for daily life. If another organism, a dog say, were watching us, what “obvious” problems would they spot that we are oblivious to? (My guess is that dogs often have moments when they look at us and wonder, “Why don’t they notice?” For dogs are often able to smell things about us that we cannot. Many cancers, for example, change the scent of our urine and our breath. Without special machines, we cannot detect this — but dogs can.)

And in a more metaphorical way, the sight of the cuckoo chick makes me wonder what we miss by our routine habits of thought. To what extent do our preconceived notions narrow our perception of the planet, and ourselves?

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Review quotes so far…

Louise Laurie, The Bookbag, 1/06/10: 

Fine comic lines throughout […] It is a fine piece of writing. Who is right? Who is wrong? A deeply thought-provoking book. Recommended. The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie

Catherine Taylor, The Guardian, 29/05/10: 

Enterprising new publisher To Hell With states its intent with Gillespie’s emotionally visceral debut.[…] The spectre of Lionel Shriver’s Kevin is omnipresent, particularly in the black comedy and ambiguous aspects of the tale. Yet this is a confident, impressive work in its own right. First Novels


Simon Quicke, Inside Books, 29/05/10: 

Very clever…this book is both relevant and provocative. It might not be comfortable reading but as a way of taking a reader on a journey, which good books should do, into the mind of a unloved and desperate child it delivers. Thoughts at the halfway point of The Cuckoo BoyAuthor interview – Grant Gillespie author of The Cuckoo Boy Book Review – The Cuckoo Boy – Grant Gillespie

Mary Fitzgerald, The Observer, 16/05/10: 

Through James and David, Gillespie explores the chasm between how children and adults perceive the world, and the devastating consequences of falling through this gap. […] The Cuckoo Boy is a savage indictment of hypocrisy and forced social convention. Debut Fiction

William Rycroft, JustWilliamsLuck.blogspot.com, 12/05/10: 

It would be easy to expect an actor to be good at writing dialogue or creating a narrative voice (in fact most actors are terrible at improvising dialogue that sounds real – never underestimate the skills of the playwright!) but Gillespie deserves genuine credit for what he achieves with all his cast and particularly with James and David. ‘the invisible enemy’

The Sleep Club (guest post), 11/05/10: My personal fix, my crutch, my panacea – is sleep.  Where some people are heavy drinkers, I’m a heavy sleeper.  And I love it.  If narcolepsy were contagious I’d dry hump a dyssomniac.Confessions of a Sleep Addict by Grant Gillespie

writerspet.wordpress.com (interview), 10/05/10: 

The whole thing is about mismatches and misunderstandings, and it filled me simultaneously with laughter and a deep knot of dread all the way through. Now over to Grant, on Ayn Rand, thinking like a child, and trying not to be too clever (it’s tough). Writer’s Questions – Grant Gillespie

Lynne Hatwell, Dovegreyreader.co.uk, 6/05/10: 

Grant Gillespie is a wizard, an absolute natural at dialogue and inner voice with an omniscient narrator who sifts out all those perceptive angles. The Cuckoo Boy ~ Grant Gillespie

Booktrust (guest post), 5/05/10: 

Grant Gillespie, debut author of To Hell with Publishing’s first book The Cuckoo Boy, writes beautifully about imagined dreamscapes and viewing the adult world with a child’s eyes. We asked him to guest-blog about his favourite author… Lewis Carroll. Authors we love … by Grant Gillespie

William Rycroft, JustWilliamsLuck.blogspot.com, 4/05/10: 

Therefore next week I’ll be letting you know my thoughts on the first release on their To Hell With First Novels list: The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie. (to hell with waiting that long to find out whether it’s any good or not though – it’s really good) To Hell with…Blogging

Lynne Hatwell, Dovegreyreader.co.uk, 3/05/10: 

A fabulous concoction of emotions and observations, lots of nature versus nurture ponderings and a razor-sharp narrative voice to die for, which all adds up to my first truly un-put-downable new novel of the year to date. Stop all the reading clocks… The Cuckoo Boy is here

Evie Wyld, author of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize-winning After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, quote for the jacket: 

A dark and elegant story of childhood, The Cuckoo Boy is horrifying and disarmingly funny. A book to keep you awake at night.

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