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Transitioning to ethical eco-publishing .... and the birth of a new magazine

Two Ravens Press has always been different from other publishers. It sprang into existence in November 2006 as a result of one brief moment of whimsical madness, dreaming about what use could be made of a Master’s degree in Creative Writing that hadn’t taught me much about writing, but had given me a flavour for the publishing business and a long list of associated complaints. We gave birth to our new publishing baby on a working croft just outside of Ullapool in the north-west Highlands of Scotland, midwifing good literature with a healthy whiff of sheep and sea-salt.

Since then we’ve gone on to publish an impressive list of contemporary literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Our books have been highly commended in, longlisted for, shortlisted for, or have won a number of major literary awards. We’ve been reviewed in all the major national newspapers and literary mags. We’ve published debut writers, and writers with long credentials of prize-winning excellence like Alasdair Gray, Alice Thompson, and the acclaimed Franco-American experimental writer Raymond Federman. What made us different from the beginning, apart from the fact that we were operating from a croft with no staff, no reception and no pot plants, was the fact that our focus always has been on work that was challenging, innovative, and full of new ideas. “This is not a game. This is the Alamo,” our publishing ‘manifesto’ states. “We want ideas, we want the language that Albert Camus demanded should ‘disorientate and challenge us’. We want literature as a rallying flag, as a sanctuary, a bayonet, a broom. We want what Cormac McCarthy wanted when he said that a book only matters if it deals with issues of life and death.”

In May 2010 we fled from the increasing suburbanisation of the group of crofting communities we were a part of, and bought a dilapidated house and croft right at the very end of the farthest road south and west on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, sandwiched between sea and mountains. On a good day we can see St Kilda from our kitchen window; beyond that there’s nothing till you get to Canada. The croft, now renovated, is the most important thing in our lives; we keep two small flocks of pedigree sheep (Hebrideans and Jacobs), two breeding sows, a large variety of poultry, and coming in January 2012, a little black Kerry milk cow. Oh, and we have a very tame polytunnel and a collection of raised beds in which we aim to become self-sufficient in vegetables. I spin wool from our own sheep, weave, gather seaweed from the shore to cook with or fertilise the land, and we spend as much time working outside in this stunning wild landscape as we can.

It was inevitable that our growing focus on crofting and our immersion in this particular wild place should, five years on, lead us to refocus Two Ravens Press to reflect our increasing preoccupation with the land and the environment. To take into account what we have learnt about publishing, about the power of some books and the impotence of others, and to reflect world events which have seen the dominant narratives of western culture begin to dissolve and lose their relevance. We plan now to publish only books – whether fiction, nonfiction or poetry – that face head-on the new certainty that an attitude of ‘business as usual’, as a society, is not going to hack it. We're looking for books that are wilder. Books which reflect the fact that the division of the world into the human versus the natural was always a dangerous fiction. Books that explore ways of living and being human outside the paradigm of growth-addicted consumerism. If we have to put a label on it, we’re looking for ‘eco-books’ – ecofiction, ecopoetry, ecophilosophy and ecopsychology. But really we’re looking for something much broader than that. We’re looking for books that are capable of challenging and unpicking the status quo, of shifting the worldview of their readers away from the creed of 'Progress is Growth is Consumption'.

And that’s another thing about Two Ravens Press: we don’t publish for profit. It’s not that we wouldn’t like some! – but we’ve grown to recognise that the kind of books we publish aren’t going to make us (or their authors) rich. So in five years of publishing we’ve yet to pay ourselves a penny – yet we’re very proud to have paid several thousand pounds worth of royalties to our writers. This means that we do what we do for love, just as we love to keep sheep and spend time communing with the pigs ... So: if you’re interested in buying books from, our being published by, a publisher that has absolutely no desire for big-city offices and all their trappings, that doesn't do glittering celebrity-studded launches, that doesn't do hype and that doesn't do fashion – a publisher that publishes only what they want to publish and really believe in, sells only in ways that they consider ethical and to outlets that they can work with with some degree of mutual respect – head on along to the Two Ravens Press website and join our Facebook page (Two Ravens Press on Facebook) for news and conversation about books and life (and, occasionally, pigs and cows and sheep).

The change of focus in our publishing list sprang predominantly from our own reading tastes as well as our wild crofting lifestyle: we both devour good writing about the natural world and our place in it. There’s an increasing demand for good writing of that kind, but although some very fine books have come out of the UK in recent years, it’s a genre that seems to be less developed here than it has been in the USA for many decades. So we thought we’d contribute to the growth of the genre by developing a magazine that focused on, and provided a showcase for, writing about nature, the environment, and place. And so EarthLines was born: a full-colour A4 magazine dedicated to high quality writing which explores the relationship between people and the natural world, and encourages reconnection. Our first issue will be in May 2012, in both print (£4.99) and digital (£2.99) versions, available from our website and a handful of selected outlets. We hope to produce two issues in 2012 with the aim of making it quarterly if successful. And we’re actively looking for submissions. We’re still working on a website but in the meantime we have a blog and a Facebook page on which we can keep everyone up to date in the meantime.

The Outer Hebrides, a working croft, a publishing house and a new magazine – a way of life that is all about reconnecting people with the natural world. It makes sense to us; please do come along to one of our online forums and engage with us in whatever ways you’re interested in.

Sharon Blackie, Two Ravens Press

View from the croft 1; A Wilder Vein; Two Ravens Press; view from the croft 2