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From bookseller to small press: No Alibis on the journey—and the joy—of publishing

No Alibis Press receives funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to publish Seed by Joanna Walsh

by Emma Warnock

No Alibis Press is the publishing arm of No Alibis Bookshop, a cultural hub of Belfast’s literary scene and host to events and informal literary chats since 1997. In 2017, owner David Torrans decided to expand into publishing—and in 2018 No Alibis Press launched, with the publication of Gerard Brennan’s Disorder

The press is a small not-for-profit company with four members of staff—including David—who also work in No Alibis as booksellers. 

Disorder was followed by Ian Sansom’s December Stories. Then came Still Worlds Turning, an anthology of short fiction which saw Laura-Blaise McDowell’s ‘Balloon Animals’ short-listed for the An Post Irish Book Awards’ Writing.ie Short Story Prize 2019, and ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams making the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award 2020. Following this was Declan Burke’s The Lammisters, ‘a pitch-perfect bullseye of comic brilliance’ (Irish Independent Books of the Year 2019). 

That was late 2019. Then the pandemic happened.

No Alibis was forced to close its doors for the first time in almost 25 years. However, thanks to a loyal customer base, business continued with online orders and deliveries; carefully considered safety measures were put in place for the periods when customers could be welcomed back. 

At this time, plans were already speedily advancing for No Alibis Press’s next publication, Seed by Dublin-based writer Joanna Walsh. 

Walsh’s novel is, in the author’s words, ‘a queer non-coming-out story about sex, adolescence, class, fear and contagion in the 1980s’. 

Seed‘s narrator is on the threshold of adulthood, living in an English valley at a time when life is overshadowed by fears of nuclear contagion, AIDS and CJD. Composed in narrative threads of poetic prose, and with hidden linguistic and political constraints, Seed explores universal themes of restriction and desire, delving deep into the narrator’s subjective consciousness, and demonstrating the polyphonic discourse—fashion magazines, art, public health advice—and relationships that shape her becoming.

cover design by Stephen Connolly

As review copies circulated, positive feedback for Seed quickly started to emerge: ‘Seed is Joanna Walsh’s best book, and that’s saying something’ (Isabel Waidner, author of Sterling Karat Gold.)

An interactive app ‘Seed’ was published in 2017 by Visual Editions to wide critical acclaim, and was shortlisted for the prestigious Europe-wide Lovie Awards in the Digital Experiment and Innovation category.

This digital novella version of ‘Seed’, with lush illustrations by Charlotte Hicks, explores non-linear narrative in a playful and experimental manner which followers of Joanna Walsh’s work keenly anticipate: with each new publication or project, Walsh takes the reader / viewer / player in an unexpected and enthralling new direction. Entering the text on a mobile device, the reader can choose which vine of the narrative to follow, which combinations should appear. 

The novel Seed also follows a non-linear narrative, but manipulates different aspects of form and linguistic constraints to explore how meaning is created. 

Joanna Walsh is also a visual artist and has written the code for a digital artwork called ‘Thicket’ (available through noalibispress.com). The author / artist’s descriptions of this innovative work and its processes demonstrate her approach to narrative in Seed:

‘Thicket is spontaneous-looking generative artwork inspired by fractal natural forms, which I coded to create visuals for the book. I wanted to make a digital drawing that I couldn’t entirely control, and that viewers could run to generate their own iteration of the work, subtly different every time so that no one who visits this website will ever see exactly the same version. The directions taken by the line on the screen are “pseudo-random” (in standard coding there are no “real” random numbers), allowing a degree of freedom within set parameters. The work generates messy, tangled lines which, like natural forms (and like the social constraints on Seed’s narrator) appear to grow haphazardly, despite the underlying structures that control them.’

Until the pandemic forced the bookshop to move to online orders, No Alibis Press was financed exclusively by sales of its own books and by the bookshop.

In 2020, No Alibis Press received funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s National Lottery grant.

Receiving financial support from the Arts Council meant that plans to publish two editions of Seed could go ahead: a standard edition to ensure affordability for as wide a range of readers as possible, and a limited edition in a presentation case, including artwork by the author. Stills from ‘Thicket’ will also be used to illustrate the final publications. 

At a time when booksellers are facing challenges that demand overhauling business practices, caused by the pandemic and the additional complexities created by Brexit, Arts Council funding has boosted the positive outlook of bookseller and publisher David Torrans: 

“After 30 years of selling books, entering the world of publishing seemed to be a natural, if challenging, progression.

As an independent bookstore our focus and way of doing things is never going to be on the corporate level. Our existence and survival are dependent on being different in everything we do: how we sell, what we stock, what we do not stock.

“This is the same for independent publishing. Being able to publish something that you have faith and belief in, takes the whole process to a wonderful new level. Seeing what you have published in other bookshops is joyful ­– that is a mind bender for a bookseller. 

“Thinking of the future, particularly during this last year, has been an incredibly challenging thing to do. Consolidation and care have been the main focus. 

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland have been instrumental, not only in enabling No Alibis Press to continue with its publishing programme, but to publish work, like Joanna Walsh’s Seed, that pushes boundaries of form.

It has also allowed the press to represent Joanna’s creative abilities through her art, digital and illustrative. This has been a blessing for a work like Seed. We are eternally grateful.”

Seed will be published by No Alibis Press on 3rd June 2021.