Tag Archives: publishing

Overcoming alcohol and drug addiction to achieve a Master’s degree

Azad Ashim Sharma graduated in April with an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. Here he tells his remarkable story of life growing up, his battles with alcohol and substance misuse, starting a publishing company, and his aspirations for the future.

Azad Ashim Sharma celebrating on his graduation day

My childhood was strange in a way. I’ve come to look at it not through rose-tinted glasses or nostalgia, but through a sense of compassionate inquiry. Being raised in an intergenerational home deep in South London, I was co-parented by grandparents, who were political exiles from apartheid South Africa. My grandmother was a political activist and our family in South Africa are quite close to the anti-apartheid liberation movement.

Our family home was always busy: my younger brother is autistic, so we had a large care team. During my school years, I attended two local independent schools, and my brother, who is severely autistic, was home-schooled. I was bullied at school, which was really quite traumatic for me at the time. I sought solace in music and art from a young age and my most special childhood memories are of attending exhibitions with my mother.

My family’s love of reading certainly made its mark on me, as I went on to study BA English at the University of Sussex. After finishing my course, I knew I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in Critical Theory at Sussex. Whilst I was on track for a distinction in 2015, my mental health deteriorated. I had returned to London to look after my brother who was unwell and under-supported due to austerity. I came home to support my mother with his care and all three of us were also trying to cope with the grief of losing our grandmother a couple of years before that. What started off as something I did socially spiralled out of control into alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to drop out of my Master’s degree to contend with that dark patch in my life.

I’d always been writing poetry at Sussex and this continued during this difficult patch. I published my first poetry collection in 2018, exploring islamophobia and racism in the time of Brexit Britain. In 2018, I received a surprising invitation to read at a poetry festival in India. Reading outside in Delhi, surrounded by flora and fauna in the pleasant hazy sunshine, I had something ignite in me that made me think, wow I want to do this for the rest of my life.

When I got back to the UK, I applied to Birkbeck because I knew several alumni who recommended studying there. I managed to get sober by the time I submitted my application. For a period of nine months, I was totally integrated back into normal life. Approaching a year at Birkbeck and filled with so much energy, I founded a publishing company with two friends called The 87 Press, named after the number of my family home. Our company mission was to change the landscape of publishing, by advocating for fairer trade and more smaller presses in bookstores, but also a more clearly defined representation of under-represented writers. We started off very clueless as to what owning a company would entail, but thrived off the energy of hosting events, publishing books and visiting universities to hold creative writing workshops with students, offering them the chance to get their work published.

Everything was going really well for me, but I was growing wearisome of being ‘that guy’ that always has the lime soda. So, I started walking out the door of sobriety again. I suffer from depression and anxiety too, and everything was taking its toll. During this time, I also met the love of my life who’s stuck by me through all of this recent drama. Both her and my family have been steadfast and invaluable supports.

At the beginning of 2020, I felt really disorientated with everything going on. I needed some counselling, so I signed up to Birkbeck’s counselling service. My counsellor was wonderful and compassionate, and really listened to me. I’ve now been clean for over a year – it’s not been easy, but I’m pleased that now sobriety is my normality.

My ultimate career goal is to become a lecturer, so this autumn I’m pursuing a PhD in English and Humanities at Birkbeck. I got the news that I had been awarded funding for my PhD on the day I was a year clean, which is serendipity to the max.

I plan to continue with The 87 Press during my PhD. We’ve just published our 15th book and it’s such a joy – it continues to surprise me what our initiative can do and the people it can reach. After my PhD it would be a dream to become a lecturer at Birkbeck and have the opportunity to give back. Birkbeck really is a place that gives people second chances in life.

Further Information


Open Access: process, ethics and possibilities

For International Open Access Week 2018, Birkbeck Library held a panel discussion exploring the future and the radical potential of open access publishing. Melissa Steiner, Assistant Librarian, reports on the event.

What would the world look like if access to knowledge was free? This was the question we at the Library asked our students during International Open Access week, 22-28 October. Many responses cited advantages not only to students’ own education but also to the development of knowledge across the world, with the winning answer stating it would ‘unleash people’s potential… Who knows what people could achieve if the barriers to education were removed?’

The theme of International Open Access week this year was Designing Equitable Foundations for Open Knowledge. At Birkbeck, we considered this theme through a panel event held in the Keynes Library entitled Open Access: process, ethics and possibilities. This was chaired by Sarah Lee, Head of Research Strategy Support at Birkbeck and was held the day after the launch of Birkbeck’s new Research Office.

The first speaker was Martin Paul Eve, Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing here at Birkbeck and member of the UUK Open Access Monographs Working Group. His presentation considered the implications of HEFCE’s proposed mandate that monographs will be required to be made available open access (OA) for the REF in 2020.  Martin laid bare the (high) costs of monograph publishing, and considered funding options for OA publishing in the humanities. He concluded that time was running out for a framework to be built to make this mandate possible, given that the various options available would have repercussions for one or more stakeholders.

The second speaker was Simon Bowie, a library systems worker at SOAS, University of London. He has worked on the implementation and support of open-source systems in HE libraries. Simon’s talk focussed on the radical and disruptive potential of using open source software/infrastructure in libraries. He critiqued the assumption that technology is neutral and proposed an alternative to the hold proprietary software companies have over libraries, urging systems librarians to consider the ethical implications of the software they use and realise the potential that open source offers.

The final speaker was Lucy Lambe, Scholarly Communications Officer at the LSE. Lucy’s talk focused on an initiative at LSE in which researchers were paired with comics creator Karen Rubins, who developed the abstract of their academic articles into comic strips. The success of this initiative demonstrates the power of open licensing (in this case Creative Commons) and open access publishing. The research, which may have been otherwise inaccessible to those outside of the university, was turned into something more easily disseminated to the non-academic public, an important factor when considering how much research is publically funded, and increased the researchers’ impact.

Birkbeck Library was very pleased to be able to bring together a panel with the expertise and thought-provoking insights of our speakers, and it was an excellent opener to the rest of OA week which included sessions on using open access resources, understanding green & gold open access, a DOI for data/ORCID drop in, and of course, the Open Access board game all run by library staff.

Removing barriers to accessing knowledge is an issue close to the heart of library and information workers and we look forward to next years’ International Open Access Week!


The Future of the Book – Dead or Alive?

This post was contributed by Megan McGill, who will be starting Birkbeck’s MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature this summer. Follow Megan on Twitter

Is the book dead? Is the eBook in decline? These are some of the questions that prompted talk at ‘The Future of the Book’ panel on Wednesday evening, chaired by editor of the Writers’ Hub, Rebecca Rouillard. Speaking were Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, Emma Wright of The Emma Press, and Dan Kieran of Unbound. The talk was both engrossing and informative, making the process of editing down eight pages of handwritten notes incredibly difficult. The topics discussed were wide-ranging, from the competition between physical and digital books, the relationship between a publishing house and its readership, and techniques for broadening your audience, giving an insight into the inner-workings of publishing to an audience who may not be, certainly for me personally, that knowledgeable on the topic. It certainly achieved an important closing of the gap between publishing houses and readers that Wright discusses later.

We must first discuss one of the most common questions asked to publishers: books or eBooks? EBooks have proven a massive success for international audiences recently due to the eradication of a need for postage costs; however it’s hard to translate the illustrations of a physical book into a scrolling-screen format. This is problematic with today’s books, with publishers raising their design game over the past five years, experimenting with design, paper, and illustrations as a way to reinstate the importance of physical books. Wright explained how she designs her publications to look purposely handmade as a way to remind the reader that it’s an object made by people, and therefore straying away from the corporate looks many houses have taken up.

Forming this personal relationship between the reader and publisher is becoming increasingly more important, especially when it comes to the provocative subject of the price of books. There’s been an enormous downward focus on the price of books recently; you only have to look at online marketplaces to see this in action. Books prove a better value for money than seeing a live sports game, or going to the cinema, but this pressure to keep their price low still seems to be imperative for many businesses. This doesn’t have to be the way, however. Unbound prints the names of its pledgers in the back of the books they helped fund as a way to show the direct relation between the book and the reader. Kieran explained how the public no longer want to be passive consumers like we saw in the culture of 1990s, but are seeking more enriching personal experiences.

This connection with readers also helps you to know, and therefore grow, your market. This is incredibly important for Wright specifically as she tries to sell poetry to the vast market of non-poetry readers. As a reaction to the erotica boom sparked by 50 Shades of Grey, the Emma Press published an anthology of mildly erotic verse. It’s all about knowing what’s popular and what people want in order to interest new readers, but still keeping to your own way of doing things to maintain your niche.

Did the speakers have any predictions for the future of the book? The eBook boom is levelling off, said Freudenheim, so both print and digital need to be focused on. The physical book isn’t going anywhere, with the majority of publishers still getting 80-5% of their sales from them. For Kieran the importance lies in the use of networks for both publishing houses and authors. Knowing your audience and getting them excited about your releases is the new way of selling books. People will always read and write, it’s how we sell it that will change.  Professional publishing has so many advantages and the majority of successful self-published authors end up becoming professionally published for their subsequent works because of all of these advantages. Large publishers frequently get bad press, but the good aspects of the way they work are truly beneficial. These are the aspects that need to be kept in any development of the industry if it wants to have a rewarding, and successful, future.

Thank you to all of the speakers who took the time to come and teach us about the industry and how many different forms it can take today. I learned so much and am inspired by the stories they told of their personal experiences taking what they’re passionate about and turning it into something new, and rewarding.

The speakers were:

Adam Freudenheim, Pushkin Press. Formerly Penguin’s Publisher of Classics, Modern Classics, and Reference. Now focuses on his passion, translations, discovering popular works from abroad unknown in the UK.

Emma Wright, Founder of The Emma Press. Previously worked for Orion’s eBook division. Now commissions, illustrates and edits books with her friend Rachel Piercey. Press specialises in poetry anthologies, postcards and pamphlets, soon to be releasing their first non-poetry pamphlets of short stories, essays, and plays.

Dan Kieran, Co-founder of Unbound. Unbound is a platform for authors to have works crowdfunded, but also to communicate with their audience. Inspired by the old ways of selling books in the eighteenth century, where readers subscribed in advance for a book.

Learn more about Unbound by clicking here and The Emma Press by clicking here.


The Writers’ Hub: Self-Publishing – Vanity Fair or Brave New World?

This post was contributed by Catriona Jarvis, an alumna of Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing.

Attendance was high and the audience attentive at this Room 101 panel discussion deftly chaired by Julia Bell, senior lecturer on the MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck who introduced us to the panel: Orna Ross, Irish writer of both novels and poems and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors; Alison Baverstock, writer and lecturer on the MA in Publishing at Kingston University, and Karen Inglis, children’s author.

It was extremely heartening, not only to hear from such a talented and successful all-woman panel, but also to hear their unanimous message that self-publishing works, and that it is most certainly not the option for those who can’t cut the mustard. Far from it! It puts the author in the driving seat and brings her closer to her readers.

Orna, who was a journalist before becoming a published novelist, (encouragement for those of us who have been many other things and are now striving to become published novelists…), unhappy that publishers were, in her view, selling to retailers such as supermarkets and chain stores rather than readers, wrenched her two-book deal away from Penguin and e-published instead.

Perceiving the need for a non-profit organization to represent and support writers, Orna launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the latest London Book Fair. She had last been there as a writer and felt there was a gulf as the only writers there seemed to be the celebs. This year, however, there was a big ‘e-section’ and a most definite sense that there is a place for both e-publishing and other self publishing, with flexibility for authors to move between self-publishing and the more traditional route.

Although we are watching the re-arrangement of the deck chairs, they are not on the Titanic, says Alison Baverstock. Self-publishing is not just for those who comprise slush piles. There are huge numbers of good writers out there, but publishing houses are culling their lists. In what is now a vast proliferation of media, authors are required to market themselves. But she was firm that the industry is not on the run and certainly not dead. Rather, this cloistered world is opening in order to share the bread and wine and this is an exciting time. Writers need to have a blog and be seen and heard on Utube and twitter (NB. Alison reads book reviews on twitter). (Caution: use one form of social network properly rather than all of them badly. Spend no more than ten minutes, three times a day networking). Above all there must be professionalism. Services are now available from those such as professional publishing for the self-funding writer and the Society of Editors and Freelance Proofreaders. As Alison pointed out, well-managed publishing is invisible and any self-publishing must be highly professional. One option is to build a profile through self-publishing and then turn to the traditional publishers for professional publishing and marketing services (although most authors do not come into public view until their third book…). In what is another big change of policy, the Society of Authors will now admit you if you have self-published and sold at least 200 copies of your work in a year.

Karen Inglis wrote The Secret Lake and Eeek! some ten years ago and they sat on her hard-drive. Although Bloomsbury had liked what she wrote they said it was too short for a children’s book. She writes professionally, works on web design and has a blog (have a look at wordpress blog – it is free and easy to use!). She took the plunge and self-published with the benefit of help from The Advice Centre for Children’s Writers, both in hard copy (on demand) and online(see for example ‘lightning source’). A freelance artist found via the internet designed her book covers. She sells about 100 copies per month via Kindle, (Kindle also provides a lending library service, free to the reader with a small fee to the author). She designed the layout, picked the typeface and did all her own PR (for example through her local paper and her local bookshop- Waterstones). Be under no illusion that it is very hard work, but it brings 70% royalties instantly; there is no such thing as ‘out of print,’ and you are not ‘remaindered’ after a few weeks. (Caution: check the terms and conditions of any contract with great care).

Julia reminded us of the writing community that has grown from Tindal Street press.

Do not under-value your work. At 2.99 it equates to a greeting card, but at £4.99 it remains under the psychological £5.00 (or $5 barrier).

The writer was a resource to be mined but is now a partner with the publisher.

It is a nonsense that self-publishing is vanity, says Orna: vanity is embodied in intention.

It was also hugely affirming to hear from Alison that what fascinates us is what we want to read about, and that self-published authors are happy people.

Keep writing.

Get out there.

Catriona Jarvis (not out there yet…)

MA Creative Writing (Merit) Birkbeck, 2009