Cynthia’s extensive experience within the book trade includes bookselling, publishing sales and, most recently, marketing & PR. She has held senior positions in a variety of independent houses and has promoted a medley of non-fiction authors from iconic boxer Frank Bruno to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Armed with a first-class MA in book history from the School of Advanced Study in London, Cynthia is also a published award-winning performance poet, former BBC Radio dramatist and crafter of criminally poor puns.
Thanks for joining us Cynthia! What does The History Press publish?
Well, it's going to shock you but we mainly publish history books! A collection of imprints were merged in the past and put under the umbrella of The History Press. We mostly focus on British and European history and cover a range of periods from the Tudors and Victorian era, to the World Wars and more recent history; we recently published a book on the history of the 1990s called Accelerate! by James Brooke-Smith. We have a Local history branch which champions regional history, and books that cover areas such as transport. RMS Titanic is a specialist subject area for us and we published our amazing fine press edition Letters From Titanic late last year. It includes selected letters and ephemera from people who were on board. It’s incredibly poignant and records people’s excitement about boarding the ship and even includes a dinner menu. The letters varied significantly depending on the class and literacy of the writer, which adds a further layer of poignancy.
Are there any new special topics that you’d like to introduce into your list?
In 2020 we introduced a new imprint called ‘Flint’ which commissions titles intended to spark conversation, ideas and excitement. This imprint isn’t about history and we’ve covered topics such as the four-day work week; climate change; abuse in same-sex relationships. One of our most recent titles is War Diary of the Ukrainian Resistance. It tells the story of a young team of journalists who were fired from Kyiv Post over their editorial freedom. They then went on to set up The Kyiv Independent and within 14 weeks, Putin had invaded Ukraine. The group is made up of Gen Z and millennials, and they are right at the coalface of the invasion, so are sharing some fascinating and horrific stories.
How do you market these titles?
With independent presses, you have to get your hands dirty, you can't just be top-tier, so we all roll our sleeves up and get involved with everything. We have major broadsheet coverage with a lot of radio but not as much TV as we would like. We’re very busy on social media and are active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. It always starts with who and where our audience is and this tends to be a slightly older generation, so we are not focused too heavily on BookTok for now, though we do a lot of targeted PPC advertising. We don’t have an eCommerce site at the moment so most of the activity we do online is to raise our profile and visibility. Our authors regularly write articles about their recent titles which we share on our website, social media and newsletters, too.
Before you were at The History Press, what were you doing? I think you mentioned you were in bookselling a while back. Do you think that's quite an essential foundation if you're working in publishing?
I think the way people get into publishing has changed quite a lot and I’ve watched it change throughout my career. I started off in the book trade as a bookseller in London and this was a good training ground to learn about different aspects of the industry. Now, a lot of the buying that bookshops do is centralised. Back when I was a bookseller, it was branch level, so one of my main duties was seeing sales reps from all the different publishers, and they would pitch their books to me. I then became a sales rep so worked on the other side of the desk and was pitching to booksellers, so that was another angle of the trade.
A lot has changed since I first started out. The Net Book Agreement, which standardised pricing, has gone and this means books can become incredibly cheap. Ebooks then came in, but, although formats change, I don’t think people will ever want to stop reading! I think it's a shame that you don't really get that bookselling entry point in the same way now and I’m horrified by ‘the unpaid internship route’ as a solution. It’s not really a solution, it’s just a form of genteel slavery! The fact that publishing in the UK tends to be centred in incredibly expensive cities, like London and Oxford, also makes it very hard to start out.
This sounds like an area you think needs addressing, is there anything else in publishing you want to see changed?
I feel that publishing's biggest problem is class rather than race, which can lead to lazy recruiting and missed opportunities. If an applicant is working class, say a white person from Lancashire, and the other is a black person who is London-based and went to Oxford, the job would likely go to the latter. As I was saying, if you're trying to work in an industry which is low-paid and concentrated in expensive cities, you really need to have financial support. Hybrid and home-working solutions can help, but it’s still something we need to keep in mind.
When we last spoke, you mentioned that you had a number of job losses over your time. How did you pick yourself back up after those and how do you think the industry treats job losses?
When I went to a Women in Publishing event, I was constantly asked which publisher I worked for and I told them I was in between jobs. They sweetly responded saying ‘that’s terrible and seems to be happening to a lot of the younger generation these days’. But I’m Gen X - so yes, just older and unemployed! They weren’t too sure how to respond.
Publishing is very collegiate and responds to networking, so thankfully I’ve accrued a lot of contacts over the years. You never know when those connections can come in handy later on. If you find yourself in a similar position, between jobs, I recommend making yourself visible at these events and keep hold of those connections. Also, maintain a daily routine. I would still get up early, go for a walk etc, as well as job hunt. Some of the best jobs I’ve found were through networking.
I understand you used to do some performance and poetry work. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yes. So, another angle I’ve experienced of publishing is as a published writer. While I was studying for my literature BA in Liverpool I started doing poetry performance. My poems were comic and part of the ‘stand-up poetry’ scene. I started performing with a group called the Dead Good Poets Society and did some radio too. I was invited to a poetry slam at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, which at the time was the biggest championship in Europe. I ended up winning the championship and was the first black person to win, the first woman and the youngest person at the age of 21.
I was later published in Poetry Review and Benjamin Zephaniah saw one of my poems and fell in love with it. He namechecked me in The Guardian and put it in The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems, and also in the inlay of the jacket. He hadn’t actually asked permission to use it, I just saw it but was so pleased, so I wrote a letter to his agent to say thank you. Benjamin then phoned me and said ‘ah, you're the one who wrote that poem!’ The poem is called Contradictoria, and is still my most popular poem. It’s about the confusion of hating someone you’re in love with – I just decided to give it a clumsy title! Benjamin apologised for not asking my permission and explained the reason he hadn’t asked was because he thought I was a dead poet! He then realised I was very much alive and also very young. We became quite good friends after that and he’ll still phone me out of the blue.
That led to me doing more writing and I sent a script to the BBC. A year later they contacted me about doing a radio drama so I did a few of those as well.
What is your favourite book or poem that you would like to recommend to our readers and listeners?
I've never had a favourite because that’s just cruel to all my other favourites, but one of the poems I adore is Roger McGough’s Summer with Monika. It's a long form poem and it's often published in a little volume of its own. It takes you from the heady beginnings of a love affair all the way through to the horrible end when it all falls apart. The beginning is so full of passion and then you see it starting to go wrong. I think most of us have been through a journey like that, but it just depicts it so beautifully. He's such an incredibly talented poet so I really recommend that to anyone. And anything by the iconic Jamaican folklorist Louise Bennett is wonderful, too!
You can find some of Cynthia’s writing in IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, edited by Courttia Newland and Kadija Sesay.