Rebecca F. John charts a journey through the pandemic – one which saw book sales soar, stories sustain us, and the UK government’s disdain for the arts come to the fore – detailing how this became formative in the establishment of her own indie publishing house, Aderyn Press.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Her Majesty’s Government, in its infinite wisdom, produced and disseminated an advert containing an image of a ballerina, sitting elegantly straight-backed and lacing up her ballet shoes. The text which accompanied the image read, ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’.
I think it’s fair to say that this advert drew a collective gasp of disbelief from artists, dancers, actors, writers, designers, singers, and musicians across the country. (The graphic designer employed to create the ad, I imagine, gasped loudest of all.) Where were the arts in this new world order, where decades of dedicated training and sacrifice could be so easily abandoned in favour of an entirely obverse career? Where was the admission that Fatima’s skillset held equal importance to that of an accomplished IT technician?
The ad offered us none of this subtlety. Fatima – a dedicated ballerina, a passionate performer, a conveyor of story and beauty – could instead work behind a computer screen. It was as simple as that.
I couldn’t shake the ad from my mind. It might seem trivial now that we’re moving out of lockdowns and restrictions, but I was outraged. This particular statement was just another demonstration of Tory disdain for the gloriously variegated creative culture of this country. Yet again, the arts were being relegated to ‘hobbyist’ status.
Thankfully, the uncrowned prince of Wales, Michael Sheen, offered his voice in opposition to the implication of the ad. ‘The idea that the arts is […] a luxury add on to what we do is just not true,’ he said. ‘The arts are fundamental to who we are and who we can be. Something would die in us if we weren’t able to tell those stories.’
Yes! His words hit me almost physically. This is how I feel as a writer, as an editor, as a reader… As a human. What are we without our stories?
In July 2020, BBC News ran the caption, ‘Brits working from home during lockdown have turned to the comforts of coffee, tea and biscuits, and a good book.’
The data backed up this assertion.
Business Matters Magazine informed us that ‘Bloomsbury Publishing […] reported record annual profits as more people turned to reading books during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.’
In January of 2021, the Guardian reported that, ‘More than 200m print books were sold in the UK last year, the first time since 2012 that number has been exceeded, according to an estimate from official book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan.’
Faced with the greatest disruption to our everyday lives in much of the population’s living memory, we turned to books, to reading, to stories. Of course Michael Sheen was right when he claimed that, ‘The arts are fundamental to who we are.’ Confined to our houses, denied the comfort of our families, robbed of the freedom afforded us by travel, our careers, our interests, free movement, we did not just want the escapism of a book, we needed it. The arts constituted part of our survival. In the depths of grief and fear, our human instinct was for imagining.
How poor the Government’s response to the people who create those stories was. How dismissive. How reductive.
Watching this scenario unfold played a major part in persuading me that I wanted to establish a press of my own, for two easily-relatable reasons: firstly, it is more apparent than ever that we need stories as much as we have since those times when we sat around fires and exchanged them verbally; and secondly, there is real opportunity now, given the availability of print on demand and remote working, for those stories to come from as many different voices as possible. And why, I wondered, shouldn’t I – a working-class Welsh woman – be a conduit for those voices? Why couldn’t I?
In the aforementioned Guardian article, Nicola Solomon, of the Society of Authors said, “Book sales are up”, but attributed the growth to increased sales amongst “Big names [and] established series.” What a shame, that as the country’s hunger for books soared, the publishing industry offered its customers that which was already tried and tested. For all their merits (and, truthfully, I’m 100% in favour of any book which persuades a person to read), I, as a reader, didn’t want the next Richard Osman or to return to Hogwarts. It might be assumed that thousands of other readers didn’t, either. I wanted the lyrical, the shadowy, the quietly dark and beautiful. Others, no doubt, yearned for experimental fiction, wild fantasy, contemplative contemporary novels…
Deciding to start a business during a pandemic might seem foolhardy, but for all these reasons and many more besides, I knew I needed to set about establishing Aderyn Press. The name (aderyn = bird) was not an accidental choice. The bird is indicative of flight, of growth, of freedom. It is my hope that, through this press, I can offer the writers I work with the freedom to tell those stories which are essential to them. I hope, in turn, that together we can offer readers the opportunity to discover the stories which are essential to them, too.
After all, hasn’t the last year taught us just how much we need our stories – not only to explore ‘who we are’ but to imagine ‘who we can be’?
Aderyn Press – publisher of spooky, historical, and speculative fiction – will launch in January 2022, with its first title, The Empty Greatcoat by Rebecca F. John. A debut novel (to be announced) will follow later in the year. You can find out more about Aderyn Press here.