The news that both Penguin Random House and Hachette UK are considering opening new offices outside London is a welcome development.
It comes six months after the Northern Fiction Alliance (NFA) entreated London-centric publishers to “set up a regional office in one of the cultural hubs outside London”, as part of an eight-point plan for bigger publishing to better reflect where its readers are based.
In looking beyond the capital, these two big publishers could be hoping to follow the lead of the BBC, which opened an outpost in Salford in 2011, and more recently Channel 4, which intends to relocate its head office to Leeds in 2019. Both were cited at the Building Inclusivity in Publishing Conference, where Emma Wright of The Emma Press said: “You shouldn’t have to move to London if you want to change the world through books.”
Extending your footprint to diversify your workforce makes sense, but it is a misconception to think that publishing can’t take root outside of London: the NFA is made-up of many fine publishers of prize-winning works, including Peepal Tree Press, Saraband, Dead Ink, Comma Press and Bluemoose Books, while the Independent Publishers Guild this week revealed that it now has 650 members, spread all over the UK and Ireland. Publishing outside London has rarely been more visible, from micro presses such as Little Toller, to bigger indies like Barry Cunningham’s Chicken House, Canongate (which has offices in London and Edinburgh) or Welsh indie Graffeg, through to Bonnier’s Igloo, or academics such as Taylor & Francis and Emerald.
What Wright suggests, though, may still be true. Publishing well, and doing it at scale, can be very different things. You will rarely see a book from a press outside London in The Bookseller’s bestseller charts. The publishers that make up the NFA have sold just 30,000 copies of their titles through Nielsen this year. There is a sense that to make an impact, you still need to be in London.
When I met with some of these publishers at the Bradford Literature Festival earlier this year, I was told that without Arts Council funding, and the support of libraries, festivals and indie bookshops, their existence would be imperilled, and the writers that they nurture left on the sidelines. These presses feel overlooked (mainly by the London-based national media, but also by The Bookseller), and struggle to retain authors and staff when compared with the allure of the capital. Even to make a noise, they have to attend a London-based conference.
Could the arrival of a publishing behemoth change this? There is no simple, or indeed single, solution. The big publishers have the opportunity to support what already exists, either through partnership and/or acquisition, or to attempt to shift the centre of gravity through the opening of a new office, with local staff who can acquire and publish nationally.
We can’t expect the problems of regional representation and inclusivity to be solved overnight, but by recognising the issues faced by publishers in and outside the capital, we can perhaps begin to plot a route out of London and into the charts.