When Gracie and I moved to west Dorset, ten years ago now, I’d spend hours in the County Museum library and nearby History Centre, researching different essays about rivers, water meadows, woodlands, and the nearby Bronze Age and Neolithic settlements along the ridgeway. When reaching for writers like Llewelyn Powys, Ralph Wightman, John Stewart Collis and Kenneth Allsop, who had walked, and written in these landscapes, it was surprising to discover that none of their books were in print. Some writers were available in local bookshops – Thomas Hardy and William Barnes of course, but many other writers had slipped into obscurity.
The same could be said of landscape and nature writing in other parts of the British Isles. Again, there were exceptions like Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne and Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, books lodged in cultural memory. But a decade ago, these few works did not reflect the breadth of writing that has emerged over centuries in the British Isles, the regional and local nuances, the shifts of style, subject or wider historical and environmental context.
It was around the same time that Robert Macfarlane’s Common Ground essays began to appear in The Guardian, and one of them in particular grabbed me, calling for “a library of the classics of nature writing”. I wrote to Robert soon after and announced naively that I was going to answer his call. I didn’t tell him that I had absolutely no experience of publishing.
From what is now our son’s bedroom, we started Little Toller Books in 2008 by preparing three titles: The South Country by Edward Thomas (introduced by Robert Macfarlane), Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (introduced by John Lister-Kaye) and Men and the Fields by Adrian Bell (introduced by Ronald Blythe). With the distribution support of the Dovecote Press, I taught myself how to design books and proofread, while Gracie, heavily pregnant, chose artwork, negotiated rights for covers and telephoned almost every single independent bookshop in the country, telling them about the nature library and asking ever-so sweetly if they would possibly, perhaps, please, take a book or two.
The warmth of booksellers was amazing, and when our first batch of titles arrived on crates from the printers, we both discovered – for the first time – the now familiar waves of anxiety and joy that take over as you send books into the world. Even as your skin toughens to survive just how precarious it is being a small publisher, a Lilliput in an ocean of leviathans, this feeling of excitement never fades.
We have doubled in size now, to a team of four – with Graham working with me on design and taking good care of the website and photography, while Jon diligently and passionately works to engage bookshops and the wider world in the things we’re publishing every year. The nature library is still at the core of Little Toller – there are over 40 titles in the list now, including Richard Mabey, H. E. Bates, Edward Thomas, Clare Leighton, Joseph Conrad, Gavin Maxwell, Adrian Bell and Rowena Farr. But the success of this classics project has given us the confidence to support new writing and new authors, mainly through our Monographs and Field Notes series. Alongside more established writers likes Iain Sinclair, Marcus Sedgwick, Jay Griffiths, Adam Thorpe and Oliver Rackham, we have also discovered and supported new voices like Paul Evans, Hetty Saunders, Zaffar Kunial, Martha Sprackland and Carol Donaldson.
To stimulate these new voices and provide them with a committed space for experiment and early development, in 2012 we started publishing a new online journal called The Clearing. Edited by poets Jos Smith, Luke Thompson, Isabel Galleymore and Ben Smith, all living and working at the time in the west country, The Clearing not only brought in new talent (writers, musicians, film-makers, poets) but also enabled this small editorial team to cut their teeth, and now all of them are either running small presses or continuing their writing or publishing careers in different parts of the UK.
It was the success of our recent crowdfunding campaign for My House of Sky and last year’s publication of Arboreal, our collection of new woodland writing that made us realise that our hopes to nurture both editorial and writing talent could become more robust. If we could somehow combine The Clearing and our network of subscribers and supporters, with the regular publication of a collection of new writing, it could bring with it a vitality that helps sustain Little Toller’s independence in years to come.
To find out more about the Clarissa Luard Award for independent publishers, click here.