East London Indie Book Club: An Interview with Sam Burt
By Kayley Stanbridge
This issue, we speak with Sam Burt, who is a Creative Writing graduate, English tutor and bookseller living in Walthamstow, East London. Sam often jokingly describes himself as “a recovering ex-teacher” but in fact found his work in schools deeply rewarding and hopes to return to the classroom one day.
The idea of founding a book club occurred to Sam after completing a Creative Writing MA in Manchester. Upon his return to London, he was already missing the absorbing conversations with his fellow students and tutors about works of classic and contemporary fiction. He had wanted to find a way to keep those discussions going.
“The MA got me specifically interested in the role of independent publishers in promoting creative experimentation,” Sam explains. “I took a module in contemporary fiction, which focused on the familiar downsides of increasing market concentration in publishing, and attended industry talks that introduced me to innovative smaller publishers like Comma Press and Galley Beggar Press. I wanted to do something after graduation to celebrate the work of these smaller, independent publishers specifically – thus we call ourselves the East London Indie Book Club.”
Sam has been a part of many book clubs over the years himself, and during his participation in these book clubs noticed that the books selected would often be books he had already read. So for his own book club, he wanted to choose books that were “hot off the presses” and that were only published in the last twelve months in order to minimise the chance of members having already read them.
The East London Indie Book Club had its first meeting in October 2021. The book club has read four books together so far and are working on choosing their fifth! With regards to the book selection process, Sam explains that he “wanted the process to be as democratic and inclusive as possible. I have a list of eligible publishers (drawn from numerous sources, e.g. longlists of prizes or a useful directory by the bookseller @LozLit on Twitter) and generally keep an eye out for their recent releases. They should be of reasonable length (<250 pages, ideally) and a good indicator for me is if they haven’t been reviewed yet across all the usual places – we want to read books that the literary/critical scene hasn’t yet made up its mind about.”
Sam brings a list of three titles to each book club meeting and invites the other book club members to nominate titles, and then the vote is carried out through an online poll which stays open for forty-eight hours. The book club meets monthly to give everyone time to hunt down the book and read it. The club is currently made up of fifty members across its Facebook group and mailing list.
When asked what challenges he has faced, Sam tells us, “Not many, thankfully! One challenge was deciding whether it should be in-person, online or a mix – especially as we were just getting going when the Omicron variant hit the UK. In the beginning there was a definite consensus to be 100% in-person. We went online for our last meeting of the year and have since returned in-person, but there seem to be some members who attend online but not in-person and vice versa. So I’m still figuring out whether we need a complementary online club for those who can’t make it, and what the demand for that is.”
We asked Sam to tell us about any presses, podcasts or book clubs that inspire him and Sam reveals, “Because of our indie presses ‘niche’, I draw a lot of ideas for themes, titles and discussion points from podcasts and websites that review these slightly below-the-radar books. In terms of podcasts, Literary Friction is great for recommendations, as they always feature excellent recommendations on a theme. Unsound Methods is a podcast where they interview a writer each episode and so gives a deeper perspective from the writing side, while the Waterstones podcast dives into how finished books reach the bookshelves. So with all three, you get the writing, publishing and reading stages covered.”
On how you can join the book club, Sam explains that “anyone is free to turn up – there’s no need to let us know you’re coming! We meet in The Leyton Star (a pub that’s a five-minute walk from Leyton Tube station) on the third Monday of each month, usually from 6:45 p.m. until 8 p.m. or thereabouts.”
On why Sam wants to pursue a career in the publishing industry, he explains, “As someone from a low-income background, who worked with students from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, the classism that is still too prevalent in the industry – and in contemporary fiction – concerns me. I would like to see more stories in our culture coming from unexpected directions.”
Visit the Facebook group here, or email Sam to join the mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org