The future of the small press is under threat

The future of the small press is under threat

As London’s writer development agency and a charity Spread the Word’s work is focused on opening up access and opportunity for writers from under-represented backgrounds to develop their craft and kickstart their career as authors. We need a vibrant and multi-layered publishing industry so that our writers’ work can find a home. We are part of the ‘supply chain’ of the industry, along with small and independent presses, increasing the range of voices and stories we get to read and hear.

Very soon after lockdown happened, it was apparent that small and independent presses were disproportionally affected. We realised that more information was needed to assess the impact of Covid-19 on the small and independent press sector in the UK and Ireland. The survey into the state of the UK and Ireland's Small Presses, co-run with The Bookseller, has revealed the extent to which a key part of the literature and publishing eco-system is at risk.

It is clear that small and independent press are bearing the brunt financially. The majority of them are completely reliant on printed formats and public facing engagement to keep them viable. With the breakdown of distribution networks and the postponement and cancellation of events, 75% reported an immediate loss of sales of 50% and over, and, 20% an immediate loss of sales of 80% and over. This is compounded by loss of rights sales, returns and unpaid invoices. Critically, 57% had no cashflow to support the business going forward.

The financial circumstances for many of these majority micro-businesses mirrors that of many creatives who work in this industry – they have ‘fallen through the gaps’ of government schemes and are also ineligible for loans. Many are using personal finances to continue trading and paying the people they employ often on a freelance basis. Only 28% are optimistic that they will recover by March 2021.

The survey shows that small and independent presses play an essential role in the publishing ecosystem. They are at the forefront of publishing debut writers; promoting and finding audiences for literary fiction, translated fiction and poetry and actively launching and building the careers of writers of colour and working-class writers.

`Collective action across the sector is needed to ensure that small and independent presses can survive the immediate impact of Covid-19, including:

-       Running an indie press marketing and communications campaign;

-       Putting a finance intervention in place (for e.g.: a trade fund);

-       Investment for online selling and marketing.

In addition, the publishing industry needs to talk and listen with small and independent presses about what strategic and structural changes would be useful to support them to survive and thrive in the longer-term from new alliances in a similar vein to the Northern Fiction Alliance; greater involvement of the publishing trade bodies to champion the work of the indies; to wider co-ordination across the industry to support innovation and digital infrastructure that will ensure greater stability for all.

The world has already changed because of Covid-19. If we want to ensure the diversity and vibrancy of our literary and publishing culture, the industry as a whole must not let small and independent presses fall.