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Review of independent publishers, Royal Society of Literature

Going to the Wall? Are these the last days of the small, independent publisher?

In the last year the bell has tolled for the burial of many of the great names in publishing. Harvill, with its distinguished list of foreign writers in translation, finally surrendered to the tender embraces of Random House –which is now owned by the Bertelsmann group. Previously Fourth Estate, the most innovative new publishing house of the 90’s had been acquired by HarperCollins - part of Murdoch’s News Corporation media empire. Saddest of all is the demise of John Murray, a family business established in 1768, that published Byron and most of the great names of British exploration throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It has been subsumed into Hodder Headline – itself part of the W.H.Smith megacorp. Next year the door of that portrait-lined and manuscript filled house at Albemarle street will close behind its last living author.

Times are clearly hard for the independent publisher. It is a common refrain that the small publishers foster talent while the big businesses profit from them. Spurred on by percentage hungry literary-agents, the big publishers can buy up a promising author by offering an individual advance that can exceed the whole annual turn-over of a small business. They alone have the resources to muster up a big PR campaign; with posters, TV tie-ins, reviews, publicity tours and well-timed profiles in the glossy magazines. This can be combined with the gentle marketing art of ‘renting’ the front tables in a chain bookshop, paying for the privilege of a window space and giving ‘presentation copies’ enlivened by a suitably thoughtful present, to the individual booksellers. Faced by this professional attitude to marketing the small publisher is inevitably shoved – if they are lucky- to the back of the shop.

The discounts demanded by the big booksellers creep ever upwards (usually somewhere between 40-65%), as does their control of the market. Waterstone’s and W.H.Smith straddle 67% of the business with the smaller chains, Ottokars, Blackwell and Borders/Books Etc collectively taking hold of a further 17%. Nor is the situation much saved by the independent bookshops who do most of their stock ordering through such big wholesalers as Gardners and Bertram – who again demand hefty discounts. By the time the bookshop discount has been added to the cost of warehousing, sales, printing and production (not to mention the author’s royalty) – the potential profits even on a modestly successful sale, of say 8,000 books, are clearly very small. Rather than find out why the independent small publishers were, one by one, going to the wall, it is a mystery how they survive at all.

One thing however soon became apparent. They are owned, run and managed by an astonishingly articulate, passionate and self-confident group of individuals. They might be short on the vast reserves of investment capital and marketing clout of the big companies but they make up for this with ideas and opinions. And commitment. I am probably not alone in feeling that Verso, with its left-leaning list of books on politics and current affairs has proved itself a much more credible opposition to the absolutist foreign policy of the current US President than our own government. Nor can the habitual tag of anti-semitism be flung at the only publishers who had the balls to publish “Telling Lies About Hitler” against the threats of costly litigation. Typically it was Profile, another talented small publisher that has also produced the timely and telling, “War on Iraq’ by Scott Ritter.

Harvill for all the equisite taste of their list of translated literature, could never be accused of being a design-led outfit. This is not the case of two new small publishing companies that have risen up in the last four years to take up the challenge of promoting a European-wide vision of literature in Britain. Both Pushkin and Alessandro Gallenzi’s Hesperus have brought the high production qualities of a small French or Italian private press to the larger market place. They have both begun by printing up a back list of classics as the spring board from which to promote new translations of contemporary European writing. Solidly financed, they are also empowered by a determination that the current generation of young British readers will not be blinkered within the Anglo-Saxon world view.

‘Short Books’ and ‘Sort of’ are another pair of brand new publishing companies that have recently emerged. They are both run, set-up and managed by successful insiders within the inter-linked world of publishing and the media. The Short Books team have taken the skills learned from decades of journalism to create new forms of publishing, derived from extended profiles and magazine articles. Far from being discouraged by the agent-led deals that corner the market in the annual crop of Big political biography, Big cookery book and Big TV profile books, they have actively head-hunted new talent. Sort of with just seven titles to its name was recently disqualified from entering an annual prize for small publishers. Clearly the judges don’t know the book business for ‘Sort of’ already has a track record that breaks the rules. Not only do they jump around the genres (breaking the first rule of small publishers which is to specialize): with a cartoon book one year, a drug-taking confessional the next, they have also come up with a prize winning science book. They have also hit the jack-pot with two best sellers in as many years - Chris Stewart’s Andalucian travel book, Driving over Lemons, must now have clocked up sales of over half a million. The Sort of team had the right publishing background; part of the team that first set up Rough Guides and the right contacts within the tight world of marketing, but they also had the confidence to follow their own hunch and risk their own money.

Then there are the seemingly more traditional companies like Persephone and Eland that specialize in re-discovering lost classics. Although very different, Eland specializes in travel while Persephone chooses books that are mainly by women for women, they both determinedly occupy an identifiable niche market. They also keep a commitment to quality, in both text, design and book production that might at first sight seem determinedly uncommercial. They have however in the process attracted a loyal, trusting readership which has allowed them to neatly side-step the pit falls of small publishers by developing direct sales. This was Persephone’s chosen strategy from the start, based on the knowledge that busy women, who were already known to buy clothes by mail-order, would do the same if there was a publisher that they could trust – and one who knew enough about day to day life to pack books in an envelope that will fit through a standard mail box. Both Eland and Persephone have also in their highly idyosncratic way also managed to produce recent best-sellers (such as The Road to Nabs End by William Woodruff and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson). They are also free to take risks. Eland are about to launch a series of poetry of place notebooks, while Persephone has just published a whole novel in verse.

These are the decisions that would probably get you fired in a more hierarchial company. Long live the independent publisher.

Barnaby Rogerson is married to one, however his new book: The Prophet Muhammad, a biography is due to be published in March 2003 by Little, Brown which is part of the enormous TimeWarner corporation.

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