Founded by Managing Director Isabelle Kenyon in 2018, independent publisher Fly on the Wall Press packs seriously mighty punch. With a specialism in political fiction and poetry, Isabelle is committed to serving readers thought-provoking novels, anthologies and writing-craft books that are both ground-breaking and eminently accessible, with a strand of fiction also devoted to novels of satire, transgression, and deliciously dark humour.
Add to that an integration of social activism into literary activities, plus a commitment to environmental stewardship, and Fly on the Wall Press amounts to an outstanding publisher.
Over to Isabelle to tell us more about the one-woman powerhouse that is Fly on the Wall Press (her journey to founding the company is truly incredible and truly inspiring), along with reading recommendations that might just lead to you to find your new favourite writers.
Describe Fly on the Wall Press in three words.
Ethical, political, accessible.
What led you to found Fly on the Wall Press? What’s your editorial ethos? And what’s the story behind the name?
I started the Press by accident! I was working in Theatre marketing at twenty-one and wanted to keep my creative writing alive. I started a poetry blog and named it Fly on the Wall Poetry, as I wanted to keep some form of anonymity when sharing my writing and suggest my style of writing. Fly on the Wall refers to observing people: the coffee-shop watching kind of writer!
I found that, despite having started the poetry blog as an act of anonymous sharing of writing, I loved the connections I was forming with writers internationally, back in the good old days of Twitter. So, I put a call out on the blog for writing themed around mental health. I wanted to create a collaborative book, with fellow writers, which would fundraise for Mind. From a modest Twitter account and blog, I received over 600 submissions! The call-out really connected with people.
With a lot of elbow grease and the networks of the 116 poets chosen for the anthology, I published our first anthology in February 2018. ‘Please Hear What I’m Not Saying’ is now not in print, but it was the starting blocks for the community Fly on the Wall Press has built. It was also shortlisted for a Saboteur Award for Best Anthology!
After that, I had the bug. I wanted to create another charity anthology, this time on the theme of exile, and I wanted to challenge myself with an in-person launch. And so, the journey begun… We had become a publisher.
Having published over 200 poets in 2018, there was an appetite for us to publish single-authored collections. In 2019, we started publishing poetry chapbooks, 2020 saw us publish short story collections, 2021 was the YEAR of the short story (we launched a subscription service in lockdown), 2022 launched our novel series and 2023 saw our books hit the national newspapers, from reviews in The Guardian and The Daily Mail. We have now published over 70 titles, and I have run festivals in Ireland and will be on a Scottish novel tour with The Sleepless by Liam Bell and The Unpicking by Donna Moore this November!
Growth has been fast, and editorial vision has been honed. We’re looking for narratives that start conversations. It’s no surprise to me to see our short fiction become a popular book club choice, for example – debut author Alice Fowler and ‘The Truth Has Arms and Legs’ has already visited three book clubs to give talks and listen to discussions since her release in July.
We are also known for feminist narratives such as Indy Voices Editor, Victoria Richards, and ‘Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep… but we don’t mind’, in which female voices are struggling to be heard, and indulge in ‘delightful insanities’ and Rachel Grosvenor’s feminist fantasy ‘The Finery’, in which a 100-year-old professor leads an underground rebellion against a dictatorship!
‘Political’ is a broad church, and in the past, we’ve said ‘socially-conscious’ – ultimately, we publish narratives which feature underrepresented characters, diverse voices, own voices, but with an element of humour and fun!
And now for some backstory. What was your personal path into publishing? Was working with books a long-held career ambition?
Publishing in the North (we are based in Manchester) has long been notorious for its scarcity in jobs. When I started publishing books, I remember being glued to YouTube. I learnt all about design software, website design and SEO. I still adore a good strategic marketing book (you have to be geeky to work in publishing) and I’ve always been someone who finds that it is easier to accelerate my learning and skills, when I seek out answers myself, rather than waiting for an opportunity to find me.
In 2019, I remember applying for unpaid work experience in Northern publishing houses, but all were too busy to accommodate (I now completely understand this, as FOTW as a lot of history of scaling up interns and it can be exhausting as an extra workload).
I realised I wasn’t going to be invited to the Manchester publishing scene unless I invited myself. I created the Northern Publishers’ Fair in 2019 and invited the publishers to display their wares. Since then, this has been my absolute favourite event to run, and attracts hundreds of people from the North to Manchester Central Library each April (and sometimes end of November, for a Christmas fair!). My networking effects have created opportunities for me, in advice and job offers, but it has been an alternative path into publishing.
I’ve always adored books and have been inspired to write and create by the women in my family, but it was always theatre that I thought I’d work in long-term. I’ve found that publishing has filled my creative itch, and I don’t miss theatre producing in the way that I thought I would six years ago.
How big is the Fly on the Wall Press team?
Essentially, one. Crazy, I know! We have a lovely intern currently, with intentions to hire next year, and we often outsource our proofreading prior to print. How closely I get to work with my authors, from commission, to cover design, to blurb sculpting and developmental editing, is a real strength. It means I’m the perfect person to speak to my book reps, or to sell the rights of their books in other territories.
We couldn’t help but notice how many awards Fly on the Wall Press has won. Could you give us a run-down of your achievements so far? What are you most proud of?
Thanks so much! We have just been awarded finalist status in the People’s Culture Awards for Manchester (Manchester Evening News) which is lovely, as I love a wholistic prize, and I do love the city. It feels part of my identity.
We’ve been a finalist in the British Book Awards for the past 4 years running, and this award I’m most proud of, because it gives me chance to define what I class as success each year and see how fast we’ve grown. The longlisting of Fauna by Dr David Hartley in the Edge Hill Prize last year was brilliant, and a recognition of our quirky and innovative short fiction.
We also have a real strength in eco-poetry, and the longlisting of Ricky Ray’s ‘The Sound of the Earth Singing to Herself’ in 2021 by the Laurel Prize was wonderful. We got to meet Simon Armitage!
With LoveReading being a bookshop with social purpose, we love, love, love your commitment to driving social change. Could you tell us how this is integrated to your publishing, and to the wider business?
Love a bookshop with a social purpose! We started with a specific aim: to be a publisher with a conscience. Our anthologies fundraise for charity, and generate conversation about global issues, such as Climate Change and homelessness. It also extends into how we operate with authors and our outreach programme with writers.
We want to be accessible and open – the publishing industry has been a closed door for too long. We demystify the publishing process, we are transparent about money, and we pay ethical rates. I also tour universities, colleges and schools, to talk about how they can get into publishing in more non-traditional routes. In 2024, I will be visiting colleges over a series of Climate Anxiety workshops, to help young people find a vocabulary for their anxiety through writing.
Which books from the Fly on the Wall Press backlist should everyone read?
Definitely ‘Planet in Peril’ – a beautiful hardback and limited edition, so only available via our website and a few indie bookshops! It fundraises for WWF and The Climate Coalition, and brings together the voices, photography and artwork of contributors aged 8-80, alongside scientific abstracts and a commissioned poem by Helen Mort. I adore the photography of Emily Gellard in this book – originally from Glossop, she is based in the Brazilian Pantanal, and her photography of wild Jaguars and more is exquisite.
I’d also love to spotlight ‘Disobedient Women’ by Sangeeta Mulay, because I feel it represents what we do best. Confronting issues of religion, bigotry, sex and politics, ‘Disobedient Women’ tells the interwoven stories of two families and their battle of ideologies. This is a novel of the choices women make under pressure, where to be disobedient is the only option that offers change.
Give us an elevator pitch for some of your upcoming books.
This month we publish Tracy Fells’ short story collection, THE NAMING OF MOTHS, which features stories of magical realism, myths and legends re-imagined, where all the characters are undergoing transformation or facing a pivotal moment of change in their lives.
In January, we publish New Gillion Street by Elliot J Harper, a science fiction novel set on the politically-neutral planet Neo-Yuthea, where the community is brought to the brink of chaos by the agenda of an extra-terrestrial dictator…
Who would you invite to your dream literary party?
Oo, good question… Angela Carter would be a vibe. Sayaka Murata would fit right in. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might just steal the whole party.
Tell us a secret about books…
A good book does not ‘find its audience’ without dedication to marketing and publicity, and a lot of hard work!
Stay up to date with Fly on the Wall Press:
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And, to discover more from the people who bring you all those books you love, read the rest of our Industry Insights series.