In Conversation with Beth Barker, Founder of the Up North Books podcast

Originally from sunny Blackpool and now living in Manchester where she works as a marketing coordinator, Beth Barker is, first and foremost, a reader.

With books piled high throughout in her room, Beth’s passion for publishing is palpable, which explains her latest venture, Up North Books, a podcast celebrating and discussing books about the North and by Northern writers.

Having written about reading as an act of resistance and actively seeking out titles written by underrepresented groups, Beth knows more than most about the obstacles to regional diversity in the publishing industry and the struggles of those looking to enter it.

Last year, a survey of the UK’s publishing industry found that the majority of people working in it grew up around the south east of England, with only 10% of people coming from the North. As Beth eloquently explains on her blog, this also impacts those reading books, “as a working-class woman growing up in the North, I struggled to see myself in many books, and whilst I enjoy reading in part because it allows me to learn about other experiences, it is special when I find a book I can relate to in that sense”.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Beth to find out a bit more about her perspective on the current state of publishing, and got the lowdown on her new podcast, before asking her to tell us a bit more about her most cherished books and favourite Northern writers.

Could you start by telling us a little about yourself, who you are, where you’re from and what you do? 

My name is Beth and I’m an avid reader, podcaster and writer from Blackpool, a seaside town on the North-West coast of England. By day I am a marketing coordinator, and by night I assist with events at Blackwell’s Manchester. When I’m not creating social media campaigns or drinking wine at the bookshop (sadly a far away memory in the age of Corona), I spend my time reading and reviewing books and attempting to write my own. 

What is your earliest memory relating to books and reading? 

I spent a lot of my early years with my nose buried in books, but this definitely started with my Dad reading his own childhood copy of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree to me before I went to bed. I loved escaping to this little imaginary world and I think this really made a mark on me in terms of finding a love for reading and the power that books can have. I also spent hours in the local library after school, sifting through the shelves for something I hadn’t read yet. They are such important spaces for giving kids the time and access to enjoy literature and I am a huge advocate for their place in our communities. 

If you had to pick a book that represents your childhood, what would it be and why? 

I think I’d probably have to say The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy. I read it over and over again and had this gorgeous navy hardback which I think is to blame for my collector’s attitude towards beautiful books. I also learnt a lot of important life lessons from Mildred Hubble, the protagonist in the series. She’s kind-hearted and cares about the people around her, but she’s also hugely clumsy and things never really go her way (hard relate!) No matter what happens though, she keeps going and everything seems to turn out okay in the end. I guess this is where my approach to life comes from! 

Your podcast, ‘Up North Books’ celebrates books from the North and the Northern authors who write them, what was the motivation for starting this? 

Although I was a big reader as a child, when it came to reading as a young adult I seemed to lose my love for it somewhere along the line. I think a big reason for this was because I struggled to see myself in books. I was working in cafes and pubs and holiday parks whilst studying to get into university and all of these books I was reading about middle-class London weren’t striking a chord with me. I wanted to read about working-class people (particularly women) living in the North of England, but finding books like this seemed impossible. There are barely any books about the North full stop, nevermind books about small towns or the working-class communities within them.

I met my wonderful co-host Kate at a publishing event and we completely connected over our Fylde Coast roots and our passionate Northern identities. We created Up North Books as a way of showcasing Northern writers and books about the North in one space, sort of like our very own bookshelf so people like us could find books they can connect with. 

Leading on from that, do you think it is harder for Northern writers to establish themselves and be published? 

I do. It’s quite hard to pin-point exactly why this is and it’s a question I think the publishing industry is still trying to find an answer to. Publishing is incredibly London-centric, and although we have a fantastic line up of indie presses championing writers in the North of England, the publishers with big money haven’t really been interested until recently. A survey last year found that only 10% of people working in the industry are from the North of England, which seems to me a pretty shocking statistic, and one which probably explains the lack of books about the North being published. Much like the need for more Black authors, disabled voices and working-class stories, I think the industry itself needs to diversify in order to ensure these books are emerging more frequently. Class certainly has a huge part to play though as I myself have found, and the combination of living up North and a lack of wealth or professional contacts can definitely make the process of getting published seem impossible. 

Why do you think it’s important to showcase authors from across the Northern region, what’s the end goal of the podcast? 

One thing we’ve always stressed on the podcast is a recognition of the North’s complete diversity and variety of experience. It’s made up of coasts and villages and towns and cities with rich histories, diverse cultures and stories to tell — who wouldn’t want to read about that? I think because a lot of the networking and showcasing of authors goes on in London, we often get forgotten about. I want people young and old to be able to find books that speak to their own experiences and the places they live in, as well as have their own writing published. We’ve already had such a great response to the podcast and my favourite messages are those from people who have managed to find a book that they connect with in a regional sense. The end goal is to curate a space where we’re promoting books from every region in the North and continue to showcase authors who deserve to be on everyone’s bookshelves. 

Who are some of your favourite authors and books and why?

As someone who reads a lot of books, I always find it hard when people ask my favourite! Some classics I’ve loved over the years have been 1984 by George Orwell, another influenced by my Dad, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando which is beautifully written and completely ahead of its time in terms of the themes it delves into. I also adore Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down which has inspired a lot of my own writing.

Other than books, are there any websites, blogs, newsletters, or podcasts that you listen to and are inspired by? 

Can I say I’m inspired by Twitter? Although social media can be an tumultuous hellscape sometimes, Twitter has been a lifeline for me in terms of my career, finding authors I love and connecting with other people in the book industry who always inspire me to continue chasing my dreams. I love the Comma Press podcast too. They are an exciting and radical indie press based in Manchester and their podcast is such a brilliant reminder of how powerful literature can be. As a young Northern woman working in a creative field and aspiring towards a career as a writer, I’m of course an avid reader and fan of Nrth Lass too! 

Where in the world represents home for you? And what three things do you love about it? 

Home for me is Blackpool and it always will be. I’ve been living in and around Manchester for the last four years and although I love the city and everything it has to offer, I’ll always belong to the seaside. Blackpool has a reputation for being a forgotten town tainted by high levels of poverty and crime, but for me it is home. I love that it is chaotic and strange but also has a very strong sense of community and a unique history that I always love hearing about. One day I hope to return there, buy a house by the sea and write about it’s oddities. 

What book or piece of content has had the biggest impact on you? 

The book I recommend to everyone I speak to is Saltwater by Jessica Andrews because it has truly impacted me more than any other book I have ever read. She’s an incredible writer from the North-East and the book explores what it’s like growing up working-class and finding your place in the world. It was the first book I really saw myself in, and I’ll always love it for that reason. 

Five Northern Writers I recommend: 

● Naomi Booth 

● Eliza Clark 

● Danielle Jawando 

● Jessica Andrews 

● Lara Williams

Follow Beth and the Up North Books Podcast here: @bethrdb_reads // @bethrdb //@upnorthpod

Interview: Jenna Campbell