In 2012, the London Review of Books featured 210 books by men and 66 books by women. To get women’s voices read and recognised, the literary world needs companies like Linen Press, the independent publisher set up by Lynn Michell to champion “great writing, by women. For women”.
Going against the current trend in mainstream publishing, Linen Press never prints the pastel, lipstick-illustrated covers too often associated with and “for women”. Rather, Michell picks manuscripts which are “tough, honest, relevant and brave enough to take a broad look at the world and women’s place in it”.
Enticed by the company tagline, I interviewed Linen Press founder and writer Michell and her team to learn more about the ethos and the concept behind the publishing house.
Michell got the idea for Linen Press after a serious and sudden illness cut her career in academia short. Having always enjoyed writing and editing, in addition to lecturing English and psychology and her anthropology research, she started a creative writing class in Edinburgh, where she realised working with writers was her true calling. Setting up her own publishing house was the natural next step.
Naming the company Linen Press was the first homage to women. “I was thinking of traditional female activities and came up with fabric, texture, washing, ironing, folding, washing on the line drying,” Michell remembers. “In Edinburgh’s Victorian terraces and houses, there are very shallow cupboards called ‘a press’ which are fairly useless except with the doors removed for bookshelves, so I was playing with the words Linen Press - a shelf or cupboard where Linen is folded and stored. The phrase ‘The story unfolds’ came next. And finally my name is Lynn. Blend ‘lynn’ with ‘women’ and you get Linen.”
2013 was a successful year for Linen Press with the publication of two well-reviewed books: Sailing through Byzantium by experimental novelist Maureen Freely and Shooting Stars are the Flying Fish of the Night by Michell and Stefan Gregory.
Although Michell is mum on her plans for 2014, she reveals the company is hoping “for a Booker long-listing”.
Linen Press isn’t just a place for great writing: the company takes its championing of women’s rights in every domain very seriously. Last April, it started backing the One Billion Rising campaign, which demands an end to violence against women and girls, by giving £1 from the sale of each Hema Macherla novel to the cause.
The author’s stories are the perfect fit for the campaign. “My Indian author Hema Macherla writes about taboo subjects like abuse in arranged marriages, the plight of child widows and fallen women, and the practice of suttee. Her approach is subtle and she is a born story-teller; her personal campaign is to write novels that tell the truth about women in India while pulling you into a page turner”, Michell tells me.
Raising awareness of women’s condition around the world isn’t limited to donating money. On its social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, Linen Press shares links and insights directly related to the books and memoirs it publishes. “For those unfamiliar with Linen Press and its ethos, the social media networks are often a good introduction to what we are about”, Michell explains.
Followers can also click on general links about women and the literary world. Recent shares include a first person account by published novelist MM Finck of how she struggled to recognise the writer within herself and a New York Times op-ed by Amy Wallace about life as a female journalist. In other words, if you are a woman writer, or just interested in writing and or women’s rights, the Linen Press social media platforms are a good source of information.
This strategy is all part of Michell’s attempt to change the literary industry from within. “Women writers struggle to find a foothold in the male-dominated world of publishing which gives many more prizes to and reviews to male authors and often doesn’t include women on the shortlists for the glittering prizes. Linen Press regards the publishing industry as a only-just-ajar door to women writers and our mission is to help redress the balance.”
Much of the social media content is run by female interns. How does she reconcile championing women and employing interns, a hot topic in the news for its unfairness and its favouring of the most privileged? For Michell, It’s all about making sure the interns get actual experience under her mentorship and leave Linen Press equipped with all the skills they need to secure that hard-to-get first job in publishing.
Interns also play a key role in responding to the numerous submissions Linen Press receives. Michell trains them personally to make sure they, as well as the manuscript writer, get the best possible skills out of the experience. “When I take on a new intern, I work with her on a batch of submissions, checking her comments and criticisms, and asking her why she would accept or reject a piece. Most can do this pretty well, but they need to witness the very high standard of writing I expect”.
Michell has some advice if you are a female writer after that all-important acceptance letter from a publisher.
First, study the company website and make sure your manuscript is a good fit. Linen Press for instance is “looking for literary and top end contemporary fiction”. If your thing is illustrated stories or science fiction, your submission will be automatically rejected.
Secondly, “write about something that has truly moved you, changed you, or made you stop in your tracks to think and reflect, then make sure you have transposed that experience into fiction or memoir”.
Lastly, polish up your narrative voice. “I want to hear a strong, singing narrative voice that sucks me in and doesn’t let me go. That’s a lot to ask.”
Disclaimer: Linen Press has kindly provided me with copies of Sailing through Byzantium and The Making of Her for review.