The Publishing Post
Indie Spotlight: Blackstaff Press
By Caitlin Morgan and Millie Kiel
Blackstaff River is the river that runs through Country Antrim in Northern Ireland, flowing underneath Belfast city and eventually meeting the River Lagan. Its presence marked on maps since 1791, the river is mostly invisible today due to modern infrastructure, but its presence remains and its silent but powerful nature does not diminish. The Blackstaff Press, based in County Down, can be compared to this consistent, historical and powerful current: not silent – never silent – but undoubtedly ever-present, helping to sustain and flourish the Irish literary scene for years.
Founded in 1971, The Blackstaff Press is considered as “one of Ireland’s foremost publishers,” publishing a wide variety of literature: both fiction and a fantastic selection of non-fiction, too. Publishing authors and figures such as Monica McWilliams, Kevin Doyle and Tony MacAuley, the tones of the books published by Blackstaff show that this publisher is not scared to tackle difficult, hard-to-swallow topics, a uniqueness and bravery that is seldom seen nowadays.
One thing that’s always interesting to observe in recent years and months is how publishers and bookshops (for Blackstaff Press covers both!) have handled the pandemic. Periodically and unpredictably over the last couple of years, bookshops all over the world were forced to close their doors to customers in the name of public safety. Nevertheless, while we desperately tried to stem the flow of COVID-19, Blackstaff Press and their bookshops continued to sell, continuing to take orders both online and over the phone. What’s more, postage on these orders was free, and, for anyone too impatient to wait for delivery, most titles were made available to download as well.
Books were a lifeline for so many throughout the lockdowns and isolation periods, so to see a publisher try so hard to ensure its books remained easy to access throughout is refreshing to say the least.
Furthermore, what makes Blackstaff so interesting and exciting is how proud it is of its Irish heritage. The proud Irishness upheld by Blackstaff invites proud Irish authors and literature too. With the publisher openly inviting and calling for authors from and submissions about both the north and the south, there is clearly a keen desire on the publisher’s part to represent all voices and stories of Ireland and the diversity and layers that come with it. Blackstaff’s publications are distinctly (and overwhelmingly) Irish in nature and spirit – the publisher, in its publications and its legacy, is in a way writing a love letter to its home country: its history, its present and what is to come.
Speaking to this, one of their most recent books was an autobiography from Monica McWilliams - Northern Irish academic, peace activist, defender of human rights and former Member of the Legislative Assembly. Stand Up, Speak Out is her account of her time working for women’s rights, peace and equality in Northern Ireland. From working several jobs at aged ten, to being a mould-breaking activist and politician, Monica McWilliams has always stood up and spoken out. The book has garnered attention from other strong women, with Hilary Clinton even stating that “anyone interested in Ireland, ending conflicts, making lasting peace, defending human rights, women in politics and feminism will love this book.” Meanwhile, Lyse Doucet, BBC chief international correspondent, has called it “an unmissable memoir of a soaring hope for justice and peace, and of shocking misogyny.”
As well as publishing fiction and non-fiction titles to sit on your shelves, Blackstaff Press also offers publishing solutions to public and private bodies. In the past, they’ve worked with organisations such as BBC Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Belfast City Council and Queen’s University Belfast. This remains true, whether it’s project management, editorial services, cover and page design, typesetting, marketing or printing.
In an age when independent publishers often struggle when faced with larger conglomerates, this innovative approach is fascinating and eye-opening. It also serves to underline the invaluable space that publishing occupies in our society. Without the skills and services that such publishers offer, we would miss out on a vital tool for communication, and without communication, who knows what else we would miss out on?
We can’t wait to see what more Blackstaff has in store for readers and authors alike: there are no signs of slowing down, and its 900+ published titles only further reinforce the power and might of the press today.