I don’t wish to set tongues wagging, but at the British Book Industry Awards next week (9th May) a number of the prizes will be bestowed not, as you might expect, on the corporate giants, but on the smaller players who liven up and continually refresh the publishing landscape. I’m not suggesting there will be a Leicester City-like reversal of the accustomed order, but the awards will once again showcase how big and small operate competitively and collectively across a sector that ought to cherish this "diverse" ecosystem.
The standard view of publishing pundits is that the agglomeration happening at the top of publishing will continue until there are two or three massive publishers surrounded, perhaps, by legions of smaller presses. But actually, the book business seems to me to be more complex than that: even Penguin Random House, which knows a thing or two about scale, allows its publishing imprints a degree of latitude that might not be tolerated in other sectors.
Quarto c.e.o. Marcus Leaver, interviewed for this week’s Lead Story, takes a similar view of his business: allowing the imprints to make the publishing decisions but supported by the infrastructure built around them. The Faber-led Independent Alliance, which we featured in the magazine a few weeks ago, is an attempt to replicate the advantages of bulk outside of the corporate environment. Waterstones’ opening of locally branded shops in Rye, Harpenden and Southwold might be another spin on the same idea.
We can now add a new sub-category to this small parade: the micro-publisher, as defined by Little Toller’s Jon Woolcott in his comment piece as those publishing businesses with a turnover of less than £500,000, a spirit of defiance and, perhaps, an office dog. The serious point is that new technologies (be they around printing, distribution or funding) do not always just benefit the large: as the piece on the London Radical Book Fair in my colleague Natasha Onwuemezi’s new independent publishing section in the magazine indicates, the barriers to economically viable publishing have been lowered, just as the ability to reach both niches and mass audiences through social media has grown. The surprise is that this is relevant in the print world, as it was perhaps always expected to be in digital: Little Toller does not produce e-books.
We shouldn’t overstate this: the odds are stacked against smaller players, just as a year ago they were against Leicester’s remarkable journey from the bottom to the top of the Premier League (their striker Jamie Vardy’s memoir is to be published by Ebury, not Pluto Press). But the point still holds: you do not need to be big to have a big sway in this sector.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.