MEET THE PRESS Notting Hill Editions

Notting Hill Editions began in 2011, specialising in books dedicated to essayistic nonfiction. From the seminal writing of John Berger, Roland Barthes and W G Sebald to Rem Koolhaas’ hectic essay on cityscapes, all aspects of contemporary culture are considered. This week, they’ve curated the Publishers’ Table at the South London Gallery, and we’ve asked them some questions to accompany their residency.

What made you start Notting Hill Editions?

The company was founded by Tom Kremer, champion of innovation and the man responsible for popularising the Rubik’s Cube.

Having enjoyed a successful business career in invention and toy licensing, Tom decided, at the age of eighty, to engage his lifelong passion for the essay. In a digital world, where time is short and books are cheap, he judged that the moment was right to launch a counter-culture. He founded Notting Hill Editions with a mission: to restore this largely neglected art as a cornerstone of literary culture, and to produce them in beautiful hardback books that would not be thrown away.

Did you have any big influences when setting it up? Why do you think the essay plays such an important role in society?

Essays have had a vital role in our literary, artistic, philosophical and political cultures. Montaigne used his essays to question the authority of the church and society itself – ideas considered so dangerous that his books were banned by the Vatican for over 200 years. From the classicists to today’s literary geniuses the influence of the essay on modern life has been critical. It is so often a more truthful and compelling way of putting across a viewpoint, an emerging state of affairs, than the digital content of rolling news. The essay takes an idea for a walk – its form encourages open-mindedness, exploration and argument – essential in today’s society.

Do you think the desire to have these small, tangible books is any relation to the ease of accessing (often) unreliable information online?

When Notting Hill Editions began, we were told that books could not compete in the digital world. It is in human nature to wish to hold a desirable object. A true essay doesn’t seek to impart information, it reveals hidden truths rather than facts. So an essay will give the depth and colour that is lacking from most online information.

The books have a very consistent aesthetic, what was your thinking behind this?

We wanted to create a series that would be instantly recognisable. In a commercial world of gaudy, clashing images, the idea was to create a cover that was restful on the eye: so the text itself becomes the image, the design glorifies words themselves. The books are pocket-size and very tactile - they demand to be touched. The linen binding and embossed text gives a sense of the past, but the design is contemporary. When we present them at book fairs we have a high rate of theft so we must be doing something right!

What’s your favourite book you’ve put out?

Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment by A J Lees. Written by an eminent neurologist, it charts the strange story of the author’s search for a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, and the unlikely influence of William Burroughs on his medical career. His humanity and open-mindedness shine through and it’s a compelling tale. All of his royalties are donated to Parkinson’s Disease charities

Practically – how is the press structured?

We are a small team with four permanent members of staff. We use freelance designers and all our books are printed in Germany where we can achieve the standard of production we need

I know that Jacques Testard worked with you, and has gone on to set up The White Review and Fitzcarraldo Editions– why do you think it’s such a good time for small, independent publishers putting out engaging content?

Small independents offer a personal touch, and a strong sense of identity at a time when many people are beginning to tire of mass produced, highly-commercial products. Readers look to independent presses to give them new voices and ground-breaking content. Authors, too, want to be published with care, and to know that each book will be given the attention it deserves. The advantage of being a small press is that we can make decisions relatively quickly, and stay close to our ethos. It is an extremely challenging industry, however, and independent publishing specialising in a niche market is not for the faint-hearted!

What’s next for Notting Hill Editions?

We aim to publish no more than twelve new books per year. Content is our major priority along with discovering new talent (via our biennial essay prize competition). We are actively encouraging authors who normally work in other genres to turn their hands to essay writing.

Our blossoming relationship with NYRB will continue to grow and bring our beautiful books to the American audience.

Forthcoming titles include an essay by BBC Music Broadcaster Stephen Johnson on Shostakovich and mental illness: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind; a painfully beautiful memoir called Found and Lost by the holocaust writer Alison Leslie Gold; and an ambitious undertaking: a new translation by Michael Hulse of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. We will continue to grow an eclectic list of classic and contemporary, literary and highly topical, essays that "take an idea for a walk."

Notting Hill Editions' Publishers' Table runs from Tuesday 21 to Sunday 26 March at the South London Gallery bookshop.