Founded by Abiola Bello and Helen Lewis in 2017, Hashtag Press have fast become one of our favourite indie publishers. Passionate about publishing diverse novels and works of non- fiction across multiple genres and age ranges, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading their twisting Middle Grade mysteries, thrilling football-themed adventures, and Abiola’s fantastical Emily Knight adventures, to mention but a few highlights.
Read on to get the lowdown on Hashtag Press, and for some mighty fine book recommendations, with thanks to Helen and Abiola for their time, and for creating some incredible books!
Describe Hashtag Press in three words.
Diverse. Inclusive. Trailblazing.
How did the founders meet? What led you to set up Hashtag Press? And what’s the story behind the name?
Helen: We met at a publishing awards event in London almost ten years ago. Abiola was there as an author, I was there as a book publicist with a client. We never actually ‘met’ in person at that event but I spotted her Emily Knight book, which she had self-published and loved the look of it. I told her friend that I’d love to do PR for her. We worked together on a successful campaign and haven’t stopped working together since!
Abiola: In 2016 we set up The Author School with some funding from Virgin Start-Ups. We wanted an affordable place for authors to get information about publishing so they could make more informed decisions about things like how to get published, how to try to get an agent, etc. At The Author School, Stephanie Nimmo asked us if we’d publish her book. We had never worked in publishing before and had no idea if we could do it, but we don’t shy away from a challenge. We road-tested the publishing process on a second edition of my book, Emily Knight I Am… and Was This In The Plan? by Stephanie Nimmo came out shortly afterwards! We’ve now published more than 20 books over the past seven years.
Helen: Honestly, we were just brainstorming ideas and I have no idea where it came from but I said it out loud and it sounded right!
What’s your editorial ethos?
Abiola: We publish excellent writers with brilliant diverse stories to tell and specialise in diverse and inclusive books. We are open to debut authors especially those from an underrepresented background. Hashtag publishes commercial fiction books for young people that are plot driven with relatable, inspiring characters. As we are a tiny publishing house, we are incredibly selective.
What were the early challenges of setting up a new publishing house? Did anything surprise you as you worked to launch Hashtag Press?
Helen: We had never done any of this before so it was a very steep learning curve. We made connections, met with printers, typesetters, cover designers, read a lot about publishing, and built up our own trusted team of experts. We tried so hard to get a sales team to represent us in the early days. I remember meeting with a company at the London Book Fair and they told us to come back when we have more than 10 books… I remember thinking, “We’re going to prove them wrong.” We got a sales agency not long after that who really helped us over those early years. We’re now working with MMS and are excited for the future book sales and rights deals!
Abiola: I mean we just didn't know so much stuff! We were learning as we went. Neither of us have worked in a publishing house before. I didn't have a traditional deal at that time so even stuff like returns we were like huh?!
What Hashtag Press achievements are you most proud of? For example, we were thrilled to see that The Twig Man, a LoveReading4Kids Book of the Month, was shortlisted for Breakthrough Children's Book of Year for The Week Junior Book Awards 2023, and also longlisted for the Juniper Book Award 2023.
Abiola: I'm proud of all of the books but especially the titles we have that become a bestseller, nominated for an award, win an award - just getting the recognition they deserve and competing against the thousands of books out there. I'm also really proud of Hashtag BLAK, our imprint we set up in 2020 that highlights underrepresented writers.
Helen: We are so proud of The Twig Man, thank you! The fact it’s a middle-grade horror fiction with Kurdish representation really makes this a unique book. It deserves all the love it’s getting. One of the highlights of Hashtag for me was winning The People’s Book Prize Publisher of the Year Award during the first lockdown! Sitting in my garden, hearing our publishing house being described at the online awards ceremony, and realising they were talking about US was a pinch me moment during a very bizarre time.
Which novels from the Hashtag Press backlist should everyone read?
Abiola: Mine, of course! The Emily Knight series, but I think we have something for everyone, from memoirs like Ticking Off Breast Cancer by Sara Liyanage to children's books like Baller Boys by Venessa Taylor.
What about your non-fiction list? Could you tell us about that?
Helen: We are no longer publishing non-fiction as of 2024. Our final non-fiction title will be A Girl Beyond Closed Doors, the final part in the epic, bestselling series. Jessica Taylor- Bearman is the number 1 bestselling author of A Girl Behind Dark Glasses and A Girl In One Room which shares her real life experience with living with M.E (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis).
Abiola: I do love a memoir but we're moving in a new direction with Hashtag and that's focusing on the younger market, which for me is perfect as that's what I write in.
Give us an elevator pitch for some of your upcoming books.
Helen: A Girl Beyond Closed Doors by Jessica Taylor-Bearman
After twelve years of being trapped in the world of one room by the M.E. Monster, Jessica's dreams start to come true. She's pregnant! But Jessica has to adjust to being a disabled mum in an inaccessible world and face the critics who doubt her abilities. Balancing parenthood and chronic illness, expectations versus reality, Jessica discovers alternative fairytale endings are possible in this series finale...
Abiola: It All Started With A Lie by Denise Brown
When Pearl discovers a newspaper clipping showing a picture of her dad holding the baby he found abandoned outside a hospital, it sets off a chain of events of betrayal, obsession, murder. And it all started with a lie. Perfect for fans of Cynthia Murphy and Holly Jackson.
Can you tell us more about the Diverse Book Awards? What’s the criteria, and what great books have won the award to date?
Helen: We were working together in the Southbank Centre in November 2019, and Abiola had been looking for awards for diverse books when the bright idea came about! She told me about it that day and I loved it straight away. We agreed it had to be UK-based to celebrate the amazing talent that we have in this country.
Abiola: I was trying to think of a clever awards name and Helen said, “Why not keep it simple and call it The Diverse Book Awards?” That was four years ago and the awards has grown into something way bigger than we ever could have imagined that day it all began. It felt like almost from the get-go, there was a lovely feeling around it. There are many book awards but very few that are just for diversity and we believe diversity is something to celebrate!
The criteria are simple, the book has to be fiction and fit into one of the categories: Picture Books, Kids, YA, Adult. It has to have been published the previous year to the nomination (at any time that year) and the author has to live in the UK or Ireland. The Diverse Book Awards' definition of diversity, in the context of publishing, is a book that contains characters not typically or widely represented. Everyone deserves to see themselves represented. It's about a range of characters that are not from the same walks of life. This can be diversity in class, race, gender identity, sexuality, disability, background and other forms of identity.
Now we’re in our fourth year and continue to see a rise in submissions each year. We’ve added new prizes too including a Picture Book award, the Readers’ Choice Award and the Malorie Blackman Impact Award.
Who would you invite to your dream literary party?
Abiola: Ooh that's a hard one. I think it would have to be Jennifer Niven - she is very sweet, Judy Blume, Malorie Blackman and Danielle Jawando - me and her would just be joking around the whole time!
Helen: Stephen Fry, Michelle Obama, Alice Oseman and Abiola!
Tell us a secret about books…
Helen: Not everyone has a book in them – that’s a lie!
Abiola: Books are not easy to write...
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