It's been a blisteringly successful 2017 for publishers 404 Ink. We talk to Laura Jones and Heather McDaid about Nasty Women, celebrity endorsements and sharing a stage with the First Minister herself
'I'm not sure 2017 would have happened for us without Margaret Atwood.' Laura Jones is reflecting on the first full year of 404 Ink, the punk publishing company she runs with Heather McDaid. They're talking from the latter's spare room in Edinburgh, while honorary partner Luna the Labrador mooches about with her toys.
Thanks to the resonance of Nasty Women, their timely non-fiction collection 'on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century', it has been a year of supportive celebrity endorsements, high-profile hobnobbing with the First Minister and other pinch-me moments, not least (we like to think) being toppermost of The List's Hot 100. Mostly though, it has been a year when Jones and McDaid made a passionate, articulate and very necessary contribution to human discourse in the era of fake news.
404 Ink launched in summer 2016, and produced the first edition of their literary magazine before the year was out (riffing on their name, the theme of issue one was 'error'). But the seeds of a very eventful 2017 were sown on the day Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the USA. Reclaiming Trump's description of Hillary Clinton as a 'nasty woman', along with the millions who marched against his misogyny in the wake of that election, Jones and McDaid decided to commission new and established female writers on a whole spectrum of their challenging experiences. 'Nasty Women clicked together really quickly,' says McDaid. 'It all made sense, it meant we could publish a lot of rad women and seek out stories that we hadn't heard. We knew as soon as we had the idea that we had to do it really quickly.'
Inspired more by independent record labels than traditional publishing houses, the pair were able to respond instantaneously. They approached a few writers directly and put out an open call on Twitter, gathering eloquent essays on sexism, racism, abuse and harassment, but also pieces on what they don't tell you about pregnancy and the pill, on the fallibility of role models, on the handing down of family traditions, both healthy and unhealthy. Nasty Women was commissioned in four weeks, funded in three days and published two months later.
Atwood's small but significant contribution to their fortunes was to respond to a tweet about their Kickstarter campaign to fund a project which was already exceeding expectations. The esteemed author of The Handmaid's Tale has since described Nasty Women as 'an essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now', and there has been further vocal support from Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson, author Ali Smith and performer / activist Amanda Palmer (Jones is particularly excited about the latter, being the bearer of an Amanda Palmer tattoo).
Such was the impact of the collection that McDaid was invited to share a platform with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Turkish novelist and commentator Elif Shafak at one of the Edinburgh International Book Festival's most publicised events. 'That was mad!' she says. 'It was incredible and strange to consider that someone thought we should be alongside them. I felt a bit like an imposter.'
There will probably never be a bad time to spotlight the inappropriate and abusive behaviour suffered by women around the world but the recent revelations around film executive Harvey Weinstein has given the stories in Nasty Women an extra piquancy. 'I think it will be a marker of the time,' says Jones. 'Regardless of whether it gets better or worse – that's another thing altogether – but I think it encapsulates a feeling right now.'
'With the American election in particular, people didn't know what to do with a problem that big,' says McDaid, 'and this gave people a little act of protest. In backing this book, they are promoting voices who would be silenced elsewhere.' But 2017 was about more than Nasty Women: it was also about witty men. With the excess money raised through Kickstarter, Jones and McDaid were able to fully fund issue two of their mag (The F Word) and the publication of Chris McQueer's short story collection Hings, which has deservedly attracted comparisons to (and endorsements from) Limmy and Irvine Welsh.
Their newest release is The Last Days of James Scythe by Lilly Banning, an alias cover for Southampton horror rockers Creeper, which is intended to solve the mystery introduced on their current album Eternity, In Your Arms. Jones and McDaid will join the band on tour in December to sell the book.
With the taste of being the hottest of The List's 100 still dancing on their tongues, plans for 2018 include two collections by their dream author Helen McClory. For writers aspiring to join McClory, McQueer and Creeper in the 404 Ink family, Jones has the following guidance: 'We need to be able to get along really well with the people we work with – if we don't think we'd have fun with you in the pub, we probably won't publish you.'