Stephanie Tillotson examines how Honno Welsh Women’s press has managed to survive a quarter of a century
That the publishing trade is currently living through interesting times will, I’m sure, come as no surprise to anyone. Opportunities, challenges and difficulties do not seem to arrive in equal measure and, whilst no one disputes that the big companies are having a hard time, for small, independent publishers negotiating the terrain is often just plain exhausting. The economy is in recession again, booksellers are struggling as new technology changes the once familiar scene and big publishers tend to hoover up the general interest in books. How are independent publishers supposed to survive?
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For the past quarter of a century, one, small independent publisher based in mid Wales has, through thick and thin, managed to thrive. This year, Honno Welsh Women’s Press is celebrating twenty-five years of publishing – a remarkable achievement. Publisher/Editor Penny Thomas praises the dedication of its four part-time staff, the quality of its authors and the commitment of a voluntary management committee that believes passionately in the company’s original and founding principles for its continuing success and growth.
Honno was established in 1986 when a group of friends met in a flat in Cardiff, over a kitchen table and a cup of tea. Despite the lack of an office, equipment or cash, those first few women believed that they could create a dedicated space for women’s writing from Wales. They had a strong faith in how the business should operate – as a co-operative, with Wales as its community and a core ideology. Janet Thomas, a previous Honno Editor and still a long-time member of the voluntary management committee, defined four continuing objectives as:
- Providing a feminist perspective.
- Giving Welsh women writers an opportunity to see their work published.
- Putting earlier important, but neglected, writing by Welsh women back into print.
- Providing jobs in publishing for women in Wales.
Initially money was acquired through what now we would call crowd funding. Honno’s founding members wrote to everyone they knew (and a few they didn’t) asking for a donation of £5 a share. Within twelve months £4,000 had been raised. In the early days, their ambition was satisfied by the publication of only one book a year, one in English, the next in Welsh. In 1988, however, Honno books began to win awards and since then the press has grown beyond recognition. Today the press publishes seven or eight books a year. It has built a backlist of over a hundred titles and given many Welsh women writers a chance to find their voices and tell their stories.
A selection taken from the body of Honno’s previous work, both fiction and non-fiction, has been published in an anthology to celebrate Honno’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Containing twenty five short stories, articles and biographical pieces, All Shall Be Well is a tribute to a vision that has survived for a quarter of a century.
But it has been a struggle. Janet Thomas comments that, “In the twenty plus years that I have been working in publishing this is the hardest time that I can remember to launch a new writer”. Taking on the big publishers for shelf space can be tricky and making a decent return on books has become increasingly tough for all publishers. Production costs have risen, whilst the squeeze on downward pricing has increased. The collapse of chains such as Borders and the demise of many independent bookshops is also difficult for all.
What Honno does have, however, is the goodwill and generosity of relationships built up over the years. It also has the loyalty of a committed, and growing, number of book buyers for whom Honno means a great deal. There is funding from the Welsh Books Council which helps Honno make its presence felt. And as Penny Thomas says, “We also use our own wit and talents to gain UK media coverage on occasion.” And she added:
“Honno makes a key contribution to women’s writing in Wales, encouraging new writing and publishing an impressive range of novels, anthologies and non-fiction writing to suit many tastes. The Honno Classics series is an enormously valuable contribution to Welsh literature. Our new anthology, All Shall be Well is a wonderful celebration of the range of talented writers published by Honno over the last quarter of a century, a time of large-scale social and political change for women.”
Honno continues to look forward, with a strong e-book publishing schedule, and programmes for writers with ‘Meet-the-Editor’ sessions and workshops on many aspects of writing and publishing. It is the ability of small presses to be flexible and innovative rather than formulaic that is the Press’s real strength. The press is able to stay closer to its committed readership, identify new authors, offer individual attention and encouragement with the result that the readers and writers of Wales benefit.