Indie publishers move in for their share of the Pi
The energy, focus and commitment of smaller companies could be a lesson for the bigger houses, writes Alison Walsh
Think of the word "independent" in the book world, and you imagine young fogeys in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, earnestly proclaiming the merits of obscure novels by Japanese octogenarians which sell precisely three copies before being remaindered.
However, the best-seller lists of recent years tell quite a different story. Eats, Shoots and Leaves, The Life of Pi, Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves, the Booker-longlisted What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn, all demonstrate that the current crop of independents are energetic go-getters, unearthing treasures that would be lost in bigger houses, and publishing them with focus and a positivity that would put their bigger counterparts to shame.
But are these successes simply one-offs, or part of a larger sea-change in which the flat-footed behemoths that are the conglomerates are being outstripped by nimbler, smaller rivals? Do independent publishers really make a difference?
Andrew Franklin, publisher at Profile Books, is responsible for two of the biggest Christmas hits of the past few years, Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Why Don't Penguins Feet Freeze?.He is convinced that the answer to the second question is "yes" for two reasons.
"Independent publishers look at things mainstream publishers wouldn't publish. They make some difference to what is being published, but secondly, they publish in a different way: they can be more experimental in how they publish and the audiences they try to reach, just because they are not part of a great big machine that churns out 1,000 books a year."
Antony Farrell, publisher of Lilliput Press, one of Ireland's most individual and quirky houses, agrees.
"We are a seedbed for promoting and identifying unusual books that corporate publishers would overlook and that wouldn't come through agents."
But how do they do this? Not by the traditional, tried-and-tested method of the agent's lunch, or the six-figure auction bid, for entirely practical reasons. Andrew Franklin explains, "If they can get a £50,000 advance, they won't come to us, where they would get £20,000. We have to get books from elsewhere, so we are bypassing gatekeepers who consume such a lot of publishers' time."
An interesting perspective on the symbiosis between literary agents and publishers. He goes on, "If you are getting wonderful things in from literary agents, you won't have time to get things from elsewhere. It might be more regional, more specialist-based, about talking to people more, rather than expecting them to come to you. You will have more ideas for creating books. You might think of something you really want to do, and approach someone to do it. A different way of doing things." Antony Farrell cites Lilliput's recent publication, Ireland's Other Poetry, which, "was developed and commissioned by us in conversation with our authors. It turned out beautifully."
But once they take on a book, what can indies offer writers that conglomerates can't? Jamie Byng has been owner and publisher of Edinburgh-based Canongate Publishers for 13 years, and has been responsible for its transformation from fusty respectability to ground-breaking hipness -- and great sales. "We have shown during that time that, although we are small, we can publish any book as well as any conglomerate, in any city. This doesn't mean that we are always as successful, but some of the successes we have had have equalled those of any other publishers."
Key amongst these successes is The Life of Pi, Yann Martel's fable which enchanted so many and which won the 2002 Man Booker Prize. Sales of the book in all editions currently stand at an astonishing two million copies. Byng puts its success down to passion and belief. "If you are bigger, you tend to have greater distribution and more resources at hand, but this doesn't mean you will publish books better. I feel pretty bullish about what independent publishers can do with a book."
There were several key steps in the success of Life of Pi that highlight the differences between the independents and the conglomerates. The first was acquiring it. As is well known, only one other publisher, Faber -- another indie -- actually bid for the book. Then, "An amazing amount of care and passionate thought went into the publication of that book. From the commissioning of the artwork from a great designer called Andy Bridge. There was a level of care in the book's production values, which typified the process."
Unlike some conglomerates with large budgets, smaller houses rely on endorsements or "puffs" as they are known in the trade. Byng sent a copy of The Life of Pi to Margaret Atwood, and although she was unable to endorse it, composing a very witty poem by explanation -- I Only Blurb for the Dead -- she volunteered to review it, "and so I had my pick of the literary pages. Margaret did a brilliant review for the Sunday Times." Then, Byng put forward the novel for the Man Booker Prize -- this might not sound like rocket science, but as he astutely points out "a bigger publisher might not even have put it forward," due to the two titles per publisher rule.
Endorsements seem to be the key for smaller houses. Alan Mahar is publishing director of small Birmingham imprint Tindal Street Press. From a list of only six novels a year, it has achieved the singular feat of having two featured on the Booker lists: Clare Morrall's Astonishing Splashes of Colour, shortlisted in 2003, and this year's longlisted What Was Lost, which has also been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. "We can't throw money at it, because we haven't got money, but we need endorsements. It can buy us advance publicity we couldn't afford. Jonathan Coe was sent a manuscript of What Was Lost and agreed to read it, and came back with a fantastic endorsement, which we put on the front cover. Then we got reviews in the Guardian and Observer and then it was reviewed in the Daily Mail. Radio 5 Live chose What Was Lost for its book of the month, on Simon Mayo -- the radio version of Richard & Judy." Asked how he made Why Don't Penguins Feet Freeze? a success, Andrew Franklin's response goes to the heart of the small versus big debate. "It was an improbable book, but it succeeded because it was improbable, and also because we had the time to devote to it." He goes on to say, "When you have spent £6m on Wayne Rooney, every nerve is going to be strained to recoup that advance and that is a distortion on your publishing. Literary fiction and serious non-fiction and other books are not likely to get the attention and the resources."
Which is crucial. All of these small publishers have experienced success with literary fiction, which is considered to have almost leper status in mainstream publishing these days, with much moaning about how "difficult" it all is. Andrew Franklin agrees that publishing fiction is tough. "It's hard to get the very best fiction if you are an independent, because advances are high. One way is to go to the great wells of European and international fiction." And, lest this conjure images of the tweed jacket and leather elbow patches, some of the biggest successes in recent years have been fiction in translation, big European titles which have sold foreign rights all over the place, such as Carlos Ruiz Zafon's In the Shadow of the Wind.
Jamie Byng agrees. "Literary fiction is as hard to publish now as it's ever been. But if you make smart selections and stick to your guns in terms of what you think is worth publishing, you can surprise yourself." As an example, he points to Niccolo Ammaniti's best-selling, I'm Not Scared, a translation from the Italian which has sold 120,000 copies in the UK, with Canongate's sister company, Text, selling 70,000 in Australia. "We bought it for £5,000. None of us knew it would end up being a success."
This all sounds wonderful, that a combination of passion and commitment can secure glowing reviews and prize-short-listings, but surely indies can't take on the might of the big retailing chains?
Well, no, they can't, but, ever resourceful, indies have found a way around the problem with the Independent Alliance, in which publishers such as Granta, Faber, Icon, Profile, Quercus, Atlantic and Shortbooks have formed a cooperative. Franklin explains: "Faber do our selling, but we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in negotiation with people, in press stories and information and really helping each other. It's like a traditional cooperative." He continues, "We have to say to our authors, hand on heart, you won't just be the 999th book to be published this year, but on top of that we can really go and talk to Tesco and Waterstone's. If we can't, then we shouldn't be taking them on because we are not offering them a proper publishing deal. The Alliance helps us to secure place in promotions, and buy our way into catalogues, etc."
Interestingly, Franklin suggests that a similar alliance would "be great for the Irish publishers, particularly with the growth of the UK publishers in the Irish market". Antony Farrell feels that Lilliput is at somewhat of a disadvantage when dealing with retailers, as they are dominated by one or two wholesale outlets. "They take five out of six books that go into wholesale, and we don't get as much front of shop space as we haven't got the marketing spend."
So, is the future small? The i-Pod Nano of publishing as opposed to the great big ghetto blaster of the corporate world?
It's probably not as simple as that: in order to compete, independent publishers have had to form relationships and alliances -- to become bigger, in some ways -- and there is always the fear that, like trailblazer Fourth Estate, they will be swallowed up by a bigger fish. But there is no doubting that larger houses could learn a lot from their smaller counterparts.
Far from being tweedy old fogeys, smaller publishers have an energy, a focus and a commitment to books that can often get lost in the larger corporate world, where decisions are increasingly made by marketing departments and publishing priorities are decided by the level of advances paid. Smaller publishers publish books that are mercifully outside the mainstream, that can surprise us and remind us why we love books.
As Antony Farrell says, "We create the market, we don't follow it."