All hail the small press revolution
You have to admire small publishers. They operate on margins tighter than a celebrity facelift in a market overwhelmed by the amount of product available and where routes to readers are controlled by a handful of outlets. Despite the high attrition rate, independents not only keep on publishing but for every one that folds another five spring up fuelled by optimism and passion.
Independents had the rug pulled from under them in 1995 when publishers’ control over prices was ruled illegal, paving the way for chains and supermarkets to cut prices to consumers and pressurise publishers into supplying stock at ever-lower costs. Since then about 15% has been lobbed off publishers’ bottom line, more for titles in the three for two offers that crowd shop fronts with publishers expected to cough up discounts of 60%.
A fierce market means no one gets special treatment, not even small presses. “We were involved with a three for two with Waterstone’s last year and gave them the discount they wanted,” says one tiny publisher. “It was difficult but we thought it was worth a try. It was quite successful in terms of the number of copies sold, but we didn’t make much money because it is difficult to make money when you have to give away 60% to the retailer.”
Libraries have squeezed publishers equally tight as book budgets plummeted under pressure from councillors keen to stave off cuts to more politically sensitive areas. The effect on borrowings has been devastating: between 1999 and 2004 it dropped by almost 100 million copies. Book budgets remain in freefall, a serious situation for independents, which used library orders to fund print runs.
No wonder Observer literary editor Robert McCrum says successful small publishers need “a madman in charge” – who else would have the chutzpah to succeed? That some are succeeding seems miraculous, and appearances on prize shortlists by the likes of Arcadia, Seren Books, Grove Atlantic and Tindal Street Press, proves miracles happen. The ascent of Scottish-based independent Canongate, whose author Yann Martel won the Booker with Life of Pi is 2003, has been heartening, its reputation sealed with a series critical and commercial successes including Helen Walsh’s Brass.
The gutsiest small presses have one thing in common: they are headed by an emerging generation of publishers who differ considerably from the tweed-suited gentlemen of the past. Not quite McCrum’s madmen or women, but entrepreneurs seasoned by successful careers in conglomerates and fired by frustration with the risk-averse atmosphere of the corporates.
Profile managing director Andrew Franklin is typical of the new breed. Forced out of Penguin following a management putsch, it is hard to imagine his maverick energy, creative intellect and willingness to say dangerous things on the record fitting into a conglomerate. “Franklin has certainly been there as a corporate publisher, but he is a total maverick,” McCrum observes. “That is always true of good small publishers. They flourish in reaction to the growth of the conglomerates.”
The same could be said of the equally vocal Toby Mundy at Atlantic Books, though Mundy was poached rather than pushed from Orion. Mundy is a role model for Philip Gwyn Jones, ex-publisher of defunct HarperCollins’ imprint Flamingo and founder of new start up Portobello Books. Gwyn Jones agrees independent publishing is attracting a new breed of professional. “Profile, Atlantic and Canongate have made it very clear in recent years that it is possible to compete with the conglomerates on your own terms and with your own kind of books,” he claims.
On a smaller scale Snow Books’ founder Emma Cahill comes from a retail background, and has brought commercial nous to what she describes as a “labour of love”. It is paying off. Barely a year old, Snow Books has already broken even and earned praise from none other than Waterstone’s head buyer Scott Pack. “They are incredibly professional,” he enthuses. “They are very proactive, and though they have only been around a year have managed to get their books into three for twos and front of store promotions. They are in the position that Short Books was five years ago.”
This influx of fresh talent has raised the small presses’ game says literary agent Andrew Lownie. The best provide serious competition for the big players in terms of production quality, innovation and the treatment of authors. “Small presses are often a very good way to establish an author,” he adds, though their tight budgets and lack of marketing clout seriously curb their enthusiasm.
As conglomerates downsized their lists, independent benefited by scooping up established talent unceremoniously dumped as less marketable than the bright young things offering an unblemished sales record. It is a quid pro quo for authors. “A lot of authors are happy to be a big cheese in a small house rather than languishing in the bigger houses waiting to be pushed out,” Lownie notes, accurately summing up the paranoia that stalks those writers catching a whiff of cold feet at premier league houses.
Michael Arditti was dropped from Chatto after his novel Easter failed to win in-house backing from the paperback division of Random House. Two-man operation Arcadia took the book on to literary and commercial success. His latest novel Unity will be published by Maia, which successfully published his latest book of short stories, Good Clean Fun. For authors bruised by their dealings with larger houses, small presses offer some healing, because though they are limited in sales and distribution, Arditti says, they place the author at the centre of their businesses. “You get really individual attention. Maia is a three-person operation, but they really took an extraordinary amount of interest in both books, consulting me about everything.”
Rescuing talent otherwise lost to literature is a PR coup for small houses, as is their snatching the lucrative Christmas number one slot from under the noses of the high spending conglomerates. It has helped hype them as the saviours of 21st Century publishing: small, human, creative and above all untainted by the demands of bean counters they publish books that would not see the light of day otherwise. But scratch at the mythology and claims that small presses are storming the gates of HarperCollins et al look more like hype than reality.
So says Jeremy Neat, head of research and international development at Nielsen BookScan, which collates the charts. “If you actually look at the sales figures for small presses going through bookshops, it makes pretty sorry reading,” he claims. “If you take the top selling fiction titles, then the top 20 publishers represent 98.9% of the market, which doesn’t leave much for the small presses.”
Neat blames the hype on the state of the market. It is tougher than ever for an independent to break through, so rare successes like Profile’s 2003 Christmas number one Eats Shoots & Leaves stick out, he says. “What happens if anything is that when an independent does well, it is even bigger news than in the past because it happens less often.” According to Neat 2003 was an annus mirabilis for small presses, which as well as dominating the Man Booker shortlist and Christmas charts, scored unexpected bestsellers including Contender’s autobiography of soap star Shane Ritchie and Polygon’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.
Behind these headlines, Neat points out, Contender went under, while McCall Smith’s sales went stratospheric following Time Warner Books publication of the books in paperback. “Once McCall Smith started to sell in paperback then the Polygon hardbacks that were out there got snapped up,” he claims. “We hadn’t really noticed him in the charts much before that.”
Neat has no doubts what created the McCall Smith gravy train. “Time Warner has the distribution, market and publicity in place to force his books out of shops and up the bestseller lists.” It is a question of scale: Polygon is part of Birlinn, which has a turnover of £2.3m, not much less than Time Warner is said to have paid Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne for their memoirs.
It is a no brainer to claim that the conglomerates outpace small presses in sales, marketing and distribution clout, but what Neat’s statistics fail to acknowledge is that Time Warner would not have had one of its biggest sellers if it had not been for Polygon. Small presses are simply better placed to take a punt on titles that fail to fit obvious marketing categories. That is where the real revolution has taken place: small presses have effectively turned into test marketers for the conglomerates, opening up new niches and breaking new talent like never before.
Risk aversion is endemic in modern publishing thanks to the layers of management that make every decision a collective one. If the stats say it won’t work, then the book is rarely bought. It is the awkward compromise between the art of acquisition and the science of selling. But second-guessing readers is not a science, it is an instinct and is why independents have had notable successes with titles that fail to fit the numbers.
Jamie Byng, livewire publisher of Canongate, says that the downgrading of editors in the corporate hierarchy and the ascendance of sales and marketing has blind-sided conglomerates when it comes to talent spotting. “I have had conversations with editors in big houses who weren’t allowed to buy books we later went on to do well with because they didn’t have the support of their sales and marketing people,” he says.
Corporate escapee Philip Gwyn Jones agrees: “The conglomerates are increasingly concentrating on genre books, at which they excel because brand management and marketing is absolutely crucial,” he says. “But they are less and less able or inclined culturally to accommodate irregular books that don’t follow an already ploughed furrow or fit into an obvious category.”
Their very size plays in favour of independents. Without the massive central overheads of large publishers they can afford to make a lower return on investment. The best houses, such as Random House and Time Warner, acknowledge this and are willing to work with the small presses. Gail Rebuck, ultra-powerful c.e.o. of Random House, last year instructed sales reps to look at local bestsellers and spot titles that could do well on a national stage. As a result it has snapped up a handful of books, including Chas Griffin’s self-published farming memoir Scenes From A Small-holding.
Such deals breathe life into small presses’ stretched finances. Funding ranges from public subsidy to the sale of serialisation and foreign rights. Arts Council England and its sister organisations in Wales and Scotland have poured money into small literary presses, which would struggle to remain in afloat otherwise, but subsidy is only part of the income stream, as shown by a recent Arts Council report Kitchen Table to Laptop: independent publishing in England by John Hampson and Paul Richardson.
It found that of the 129 independent publishers surveyed only two felt financially confident and secure. Money was a primary concern for many presses, with lack of working capital, cash flow and the consequent challenge of medium to long term strategising cited as primary concerns beyond the issue of access to the market.
Tindal Street Press is typical of those small presses heavily reliant on public subsidy: it receives National Lottery arts funding as well as support from Birmingham City Council. “We have been very lucky in that we have had the support of the West Midlands literary officer and from the Arts Council nationally,” Emma Hargreaves, Tindal Street m.d. admits. Its remit to publish literary talent from the West Midlands makes it ideal for subsidy, which is biased towards non-metropolitan talent spotters.
Funding varies from three-year grants to one-off payments for specified projects. But applications require time and effort, and not everyone feels the rewards worth it. “We applied when we first set up two years ago,” says one disillusioned independent. “We spent a year filling in forms and going backwards and forwards with the Arts Council and having meeting after meeting, but the goal posts seemed to be constantly shifting and we got nowhere with our application.”
She feels strongly the bureaucracy distracted her from promoting her books, a view enforced by her experiences with overseas funders. “We received money to publish and promote from overseas. We received around £4,000, which is so much money for us and the bid was taken at face value,” she adds.
A shift in funding policy towards authors has hit subsidised presses. “The amount of money that has gone to individual authors is way in excess of the amount that used to go out with the old Arts Council writers’ awards, which were seven awards of £15,000 each,” explains John Hampson, ACE senior literature officer. “We have doubled that to more than £200,000 and funding for writers is above the seven figure mark.” Good news for authors, but not so great for small publishers, say some. In Wales Seren founder Mick Felton receives funding from a variety of Welsh Books Council projects, says: “The money is of great benefit to authors, but the bottom line is that publishers are having to do more for the same amount of money.”
The policy shift has been mirrored by a shift in focus towards commercial success. It has created a Catch 22 situation, Felton claims: “We are encouraged to become more commercial and to bring out novels that sell four to six thousand copies. You may produce a good novel that deserves to sell that well, but unless you have that little bit of luck—such as a Whitbread short-listing—you will only sell 100 copies.” Seren has been lucky: Richard Collins’ The Land as Viewed From The Sea was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel of the Year in 2004 and its poet Owen Shears has received accolades as well as offers from much bigger rivals.
Small presses have had to be creative with their finances. Ra Page of the Northwest Independent Publishers Network, which represents 50 small presses in the North West of England, is typical. Page runs Comma Press, which subsidised regional short backed by public transport companies in Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. Transport executives paid for distribution. Paid for advertising and an Arts Council grant filled any holes in income.
Booksellers stranglehold on distribution place pressure on presses to earn more from exports, foreign rights and newspaper serialisation. Many have an eye on the US market, but returns from the US can be horrendous, up to 25%. Small presses are savvy at selling serial, according to Mail on Sunday literary editor Marilyn Warnick. “This week is typical, I have probably had seven submission from smaller presses out of over 100 submissions. I have bought serial from one independents,” she says. “We like quirky books and sometimes those presses come out with something that makes a perfect quirky two-page serial.”
Arcadia scored a serialisation coup with the far from typical Arcadia title Lady Colin Campbell’s The Real Diana, which sold for £60,000. The book came to Arcadia by accident after the author offered the book to publisher Gary Pulsifer after Arcadia signed her latest novel. “It’s just being realistic,” Pulsifer says of mixing a handful of shamelessly commercial titles into his literary list. “Selling rights is what keeps us going.”
Arcadia is not alone. A commercial success makes the difference between surviving or diving for small presses and they fund other less obvious hits. How important is that? If small presses had not taken a punt on non-niche titles readers would have been robbed of such gems as Richard Zimler’s The Last Kabbalist Of Lisbon (Arcadia) or Claire Morrall’s Astonishing Splashes of Colour (Tindal Street). Nor would bigger houses able to establish them as full-time writers have spotted those authors. It is a salutary lesson that as the book trade becomes more polarised the big boys need small friends.
* This article first appeared in Mslexia in Winter 2005
Gang of four: small presses tipped for great things:
Portobello Books: new set up from former Flamingo publishing director Philip Gwyn, whose track record of authors Magnus Mills’ The Restraint of Beasts, Douglas Coupland and Naomi Klein’s No Logo, with backing from Portobello Pictures. On launch Gwyn Jones said: “Portobello Books will be unapologetically old-fashioned in its concentration on being exact, open, direct and helpful in its dealings with its writers.”
Snow Books: started a year ago by former B&Q highflyer and Deloitte management consultant Emma Cahill and Rob Jones, another retail whiz kid, with £100,000 earned from playing the rising property market. First title Adept by Robert Finn reached second place in the Bookseller’s small publishers fiction bestseller list last summer. Scott Pack, head buyer at Waterstone’s, predicts the company will be “as big as Short Books in five years time”.
Accent Press: behind the Sexy Shorts series of short stories which have proved a hit in W H Smith. Started 18 months ago by Hazel Cushion after she edited a collection of short stories for her MA in creative writing course. “You have to be prepared to get knocked back,” Cushion says of dealing with the chains. “But if you really believe in your product and look at it from their point of view, you will get to know what they want and they will start to take your books.”
Salt Publishing: offshoot of Australian poet John Kinsella’s operation, Salt started in the UK five years ago under Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery. Self-funded, the press used print on demand for its first titles, and has brought out between 40 and 50 titles a year. Sales are now too big for print on demand. “It is hard work being a small publisher, but it is very exciting and we really love what we do,” Chris says. “We are absolutely determined that this will work out.”
Advice: How to deal with the small presses:
Small presses are seen as a rare route into publishing for those without media contacts. But that does not mean they offer easy access. In fact the scale of small publishers means many do not read unsolicited manuscripts. Arcadia is a case in point. “There are only two of us working here, we just don’t have time to read everything sent in,” explains publisher Gary Pulsifer. “We get books through contacts and agents.”
Authors looking for a way in may be better paced to approach new setups, keen to find fresh talent and with much to prove to literary agents. However, authors should be wary, says Kate Pool of the Society of Authors. Aside from the ability of these small presses to market an author’s work, authors should scrutinise the small print of contracts as some small presses are little more than vanity presses, taking money from the author and offering nothing in return. “Get the contract looked at by someone who knows about publishing, not just some local solicitor,” she advises.
Authors should have guarantees that the publisher will promote the book, and the best incentive for that is financial, such as an advance. She is highly suspicious of print-on-demand based deals, and advises authors to place a time limit on the publisher’s ownership of rights in the book. “With print on demand a book effectively never goes out of print, so they can never buy back rights should it be a success and they want to move,” she warns.