I once asked Bloomsbury chief executive Nigel Newton how he could justify the multi-million pound publishing group being a member of the Independent Publishers Guild. He replied that independence was a state of mind. He was right. Having independence in thought and deed is one of the best things about working in the publishing business, and can be as true of big publishers as it is of smaller publishers. Nevertheless, there is something unique about being out there alone, vulnerable and living on your wits. A typical independent will lack the broad publishing base that insures so many of big publishing’s bets; many will also lack the backlist. You can get knocked down relatively easily as an independent, but the joy is getting back up again.
And this week has shown them at their fighting best. Canongate overturned a legal ban on publishing James Rhodes’ memoir Instrumental; Alma scored its first ever Official UK Top 50 number one, with Travelling to Infinity; while Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai picked up the Man Booker International for his work, published in the UK by various independents, most recently Profile Books.
It hasn’t always felt so rosy. Three years ago, with fiction hurtling into the digital future, supermarkets focused on brands and Waterstones destocking, one might have feared more for the sector. The losses of Quercus, Constable & Robinson and Mainstream each told their own story, as did the very public problems at Atlantic. In 2013 Granta owner Sigrid Rausing admitted that it had to address its losses and build a leaner structure.
More recently, Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page, announcing eight redundancies, said: “Changes in the UK market have impacted on our publishing and it has become necessary to reduce our expenditure.” Two weeks ago Bloomsbury, explaining the exit of editor Bill Swainson, said it was necessary to “reduce the costs of its trade editorial department”. No publisher is immune from this, and one can draw parallels with the management consolidation at Orion and Little, Brown.
Yet for indies the questions have been fundamental: how to survive in markets now dramatically different, and not necesssarily supportive of idiosyncrasy. That they keep going is vital. As Booker Prize foundation chair Jonathan Taylor remarked, almost all of the finalists for its prize were originally published by very small publishers or university presses. Similarly, Canongate lawyer Martin Soames questioned whether a bigger publisher—where executive is detached from editorial—would have been prepared to put as much at stake as Canongate did over Rhodes’ right to publish.
Things have changed since that conversation with Newton. Independence of mind, resilience of body, ingenuity of spirit. These are the minimum requirements!