Progress Press fills a gap in publishing with small books for big change

Katee Hui and Zoë Gibson Quirk founded the independent publisher to create a space for stories of lived experience, devising an accessible editorial process for first-time authors.

What does the modern bookshelf look like? Is there room for contemporary books among the classics?

It is worrying to think about how many stories are being lost because there's no space to share them or certain experiences might be considered taboo. The world of publishing is famously difficult to navigate and notorious for prioritising privileged authors with the right following and the ability – financial or otherwise – to promote their books.

Enter Progress Press, an independent, female-founded publisher on a mission to fill the gaping hole in our bookshelves with unique stories of lived experience.

The Origin Story

Katee Hui and Zoë Gibson Quirk met while working at Pentagram and, since moving on from the studio, they have become each other's "accountability partners". Both women were keen to write a book on personal experiences that they felt other people could relate to and learn from, and so they both wrote and sent proposals to publishing houses.

"I really wanted Zoë's book to live in the world because I wanted to buy it," says Hui, "but there are other macro forces that motivated us to do this."

"Our world is so polarised – like you can't talk about anything anymore without getting offended – and we also released that people don't know how to approach conversations around lived experience, diversity, equity and inclusion because they're afraid to say the wrong thing."

After the initial burst of enthusiasm that encouraged them to share their stories with others, Hui and Gibson Quirk were concerned about what would become of their stories if no publisher picked them up. Instead of waiting for a yes, they reached out to people in their network to see if they would be interested in writing a long-form essay on a personal experience.

From a strategic perspective, starting with people they knew was the best option, according to Hui, as they could test and validate their process and structure. They also hired two other former Pentagram colleagues, Robyn Siân Cusworth and Rebecca Penmore, as editor and designer.

"We worked very calmly and thoughtfully, and there's been no stress," says Gibson Quirk. Since Gibson Quirk is based outside of London, Hui in Toronto, Cusworth in Doncaster and Penmore in Bristol, the publisher operates completely remotely.

Hui believes that Pentagram instils "a certain type of rigour" in its workforce, which is why the four women are linked by "a common culture in the way that [they] work". Three of the founding team also have children under two, so working remotely allows them a better work-life balance.

The whole idea of Progress Press is that people can share their stories and experiences in a way that is approachable and inclusive, so the people reading them aren't too intimidated. The formal process of turning submitted essays into a collection of pocketbooks began last September.

The Point of Difference

Originally, the plan was to launch a collection of ten books but, once Hui and Gibson Quirk realised that this would drive the price higher, they looked to produce a collection of six instead to increase financial accessibility. Although the first collection will feature six books, there are still ten in the works in preparation for the next collection.

Contributors are based all over the world, which Hui says is in direct contrast with what you normally see on "New York Times or Sunday Times bestseller list".

"We want to transcend borders like we do with our team, so we gave one of our contributors in Montreal the option to have her book in French too". Another contributor wanted her book to be photographic to make it more accessible to people who can't read English.

Gibson Quirk adds: "We also call people contributors rather than writers", a bid to encourage people who aren't writers by trade to share their experiences.

Making contributors feel valued by giving them access to an editor was also key in making Progress Press a success, which is why all are given the option to work with Cusworth when writing their pocketbook.

When it comes to author introductions, Progress Press bucks the trend and doesn't identify people by where they live and their occupations, focussing more on who they are as a person. Headshots also aren't included in the books as, although they have a diverse set of contributors, Gibson Quirk and Hui "wanted the experiences to come first".

Unintentionally, all contributors so far have been female, although anyone can submit an experience to Progress Press. People can even write under a pseudonym if it makes them more comfortable, another thing which is often discouraged in traditional publishing.

Brand and Editorial Direction

Early on, the founders developed a brand strategy and creative brief, as well as editorial principles that guided them. The latter considers things like handling experiences with empathy, not standardising whether contributors use British or American English, and ensuring that stories are split into sections so readers can easily follow them. Generally, Hui and Zoe tried not to make the editorial rules too prescriptive.

Thinking about what the books would like, they were immediately drawn to the Penguin Classics aesthetic, as these books are beautiful both individually and when lined up on the shelf. Progress Press sought to design this collectable look and feel into their collections, foregrounding the women's names and the challenging topics that they address on the spines.

Leading titles were developed for the books by the editor, each appearing in a typeface unique to the story. Using multiple typefaces and pairing them with different colours – also related to the experience detailed inside – meant there would be more colour-typeface combinations available than if they used one standardised typeface.

The Progress Press brand symbol was designed to subtly signify progress, with the ellipses chosen to intrigue people about what comes next.

Collection One

Ingrid Enriquez-Donissaint is one of the authors included in the first collection, who writes on representation, remembering summer days spent at a Montreal-based Haitian cultural centre as a child and unravelling what feeling seen means to her.

Another author, Jo Corrall, focuses on hormones and mental health when telling her unfiltered experience of life with Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) and its pendulous impact on her sense of identity.

Community care is the topic of author Shóna Slemon, while Wren Lee writes on doubt and strength, in both the mental and physical sense.

Books by the Progress Press founders also feature in the first collection. Gibson Quirk writes on love and mental health, sharing her experience of crisis and how the most everyday acts of love can mean everything.

Hui's pocketbook tells her experience of belonging, recounting her founding of a women's football club in East London and the deep friendships that followed, on and off the field.

The Future of Progress Press

In the future, Progress Press will continue to publish collections which won't necessarily be grouped by subject. Once there are enough books on offer, people might even be able to curate their own collection of six depending on the experiences that they feel will resonate with them.

"I want us to become so trusted that people can buy a Lucky Dip of books, which means that people will trust that we've curated some really interesting stuff and that no matter what they read, they'll be learning about a critical perspective", says Hui.

There could be a collection told by people whose jobs involve a form of service or some books authored by people over 80, which are also very uncommon in the industry.

What surprised Hui and Gibson Quirk most is that the vast majority of the presale was for the bundle of six, not individual books. They believe that "people are buying into the philosophy and every story, not just buying a book because they know the person or the subject".

Crowdfunding for the first collection is ongoing, and the presale is still live on the [Progress Press website] ( Crowdfunding will close at the end of April, and the first collection will be shipped in the summer of 2024. From a sustainability point of view, Progress Press will only print what they sell.

Hui and Gibson Quirk revealed plans to publish a second collection later this year. They are also actively seeking out partners, like schools and universities, to get their books in the right places, as well as charities like Age UK and mental health organisations that might be able to connect them with people who have experience to share.


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