This article by Deborah Bennison, the founder of Bennison Books, first appeared in The Wagon Magazine.
Who are the arbiters of literary taste? Why are gifted writers routinely rejected by the established publishing houses? Just why is it so difficult to ‘get published’? These are questions that continue to puzzle and frustrate many people – writers and non-writers alike. They are certainly questions that frustrate me and this frustration was instrumental in my decision to set up Bennison Books, an independent publishing house. My aim was to publish the work of writers that I admire and that I strongly believe deserve a much wider audience. But where was I to start?
Inspiration and encouragement came from an unexpected source. I happened to be reading Hermione Lee’s wonderful biography of Virginia Woolf and became fascinated by Lee’s account of how Virginia and her husband Leonard bought a printing press and set up their own independent publishing house, Hogarth Press. It is a wonderful story.
Lee explains how they first thought about buying a printing press (no powerful computer programs or ‘print on demand’ available at that time in the early twentieth century!) on 25 January 1915, Virginia’s thirty-third birthday. They eventually made an impulse purchase of a small hand press machine plus ‘teach yourself how to print’ booklet from a shop in London in 1917.
It is now almost impossible to imagine how intricately difficult and slow the work of typesetting and printing a book by hand would have been. Virginia had to learn the painstaking work of compositing, using individual pieces of type (letters and punctuation) to physically build up words and sentences until there were enough to print onto one page at a time (Leonard’s job). It was a huge undertaking, and as well as publishing Virginia’s work, Hogarth Press went on to produce many other publications including notable poetry, fiction, novels and memoirs (527 titles in 29 years). Perhaps ironically, given its independent beginnings in the Woolf’s dining room, Hogarth Press is now one of many Penguin Random House imprints.
Inspired by this story, I realised that with the benefits of modern technology, plus social media as a marketing tool, I too could set up an independent press, and so Bennison Books was born.
In the four years since, Bennison Books has published outstanding prose and poetry by English, Australian and American writers, as well as an international anthology of poetry (Indra’s Net), the profits from which are going to The Book Bus charity. Laid out, edited and designed to exacting standards, these books bear visual comparison with any produced by the mainstream publishers, and the quality of the writing is also second to none.
It is one hundred years since the Woolfs began their publishing venture, revelling in the excitement, autonomy and independence it gave them. And crucially, the establishment of Hogarth Press meant that Virginia no longer had to rely on her half-brother Gerald Duckworth to publish her work – a dependency she had long resented, saying that he “could not tell a book from a beehive”.
I would argue that independent publishing is equally if not more important today. Of course, both mainstream and independent publishers will always run the risk of publishing “beehives”, but the existence of independent publishers such as Bennison Books will continue to play a small but important part in helping to ensure that gifted authors who are – sometimes inexplicably – overlooked by the major publishing houses can still leave a permanent legacy in the literary world.