The great leveller

<p>Less than a week away from the announcement of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist, and the 13 publishers and imprints on the longlist are gearing up to rush through 30,000-odd print runs and to field calls from retailers desperate to get their hands on stock of the shortlisted titles.</p><p>The Booker (as most continue to call it) is still the most coveted of literary prizes and, along with the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, the one most capable of providing a substantial lift in sales. Last year&#39;s winner, Kiran Desai&#39;s <em>The Inheritance of Loss</em> (Hamish Hamilton), has sold 119,314 copies to date; John Banville&#39;s <em>The Sea</em> (Picador), triumphant in 2005, has life sales of 179,291.</p><p>For larger publishers, getting on to the shortlist is a matter of literary pride, guaranteed further sales and widespread publicity. True, it can be tricky to negotiate some of the pitfalls of print runs and stock availability: at a meeting for longlisted publishers last month, both Random House and Simon &amp; Schuster were keen to get more support from prize organisers when deciding print runs, for example, through embargoed news about the shortlist.<br /><br /><strong>Test of nerve</strong></p><p>For smaller publishers, the impact of a shortlisting, or a win&sbquo; can be seismic. Myrmidon and Tindal Street Press, longlisted this year with Tan Twan Eng&#39;s <em>The Gift of Rain</em> and Catherine O&#39;Flynn&#39;s <em>What Was Lost</em> respectively, each employs only three people. Myrmidon&#39;s longlisted title is the third it has published; Tindal Street had to see its backers to meet the &pound;5,000 fee for being shortlisted. Both have maximum average print runs of around 2,500, so how do they judge the scale of future print runs, deal with the flood of media enquiries, and make sure bookshops are supplied with enough copies of winning titles?</p><p>At Tindal Street, publishing director Alan Mahar is readying himself for what next Thursday (6th September) will bring. &quot;We&#39;d already put through a 6,000-copy reprint last week, but we&#39;ll probably need more now,&quot; Mahar says. &quot;We&#39;re moving close to doing another reprint. We have to decide how brave we can be. It doesn&#39;t feel like we&#39;ve reason to be overcautious&mdash;but as far as the outlay for a reprint goes, it&#39;s a lot of cost.&quot; Working closely with its distributor Turnaround, Tindal Street is determined to keep on top of demand.</p><p>Myrmidon&mdash;the youngest publisher to make it on to a Booker longlist&mdash;is taking a huge step into the unknown with <em>The Gift of Rain</em>. It has just ordered a 14,000 print run of the title: &quot;Our biggest yet,&quot; says editor Anne Westgarth nervously. &quot;It&#39;s pretty huge for us. It&#39;s nerve-wracking. We&#39;re confident this is a great book, even if it goes no further than the longlist. Because of word-of-mouth and the response from the blogging community, everyone is going to be recommending it to someone else to read. We&#39;re confident it&#39;s the right choice&mdash;now we&#39;re hoping the judges will smile favourably on us.&quot;<br /><br /><strong>Shortlist in the shops</strong></p><p>Tindal Street, of course, has been through what Mahar describes as &quot;the Booker road show&quot; once before, with <em>Astonishing Splashes of Colour</em> by Clare Morrall in 2003. The novel has sold &quot;something like 60,000&quot; since its shortlisting. &quot;Bear in mind that our usual print run is 1,500 to 2,000, so 60,000 is absolutely huge,&quot; Mahar says. &quot;We publish contemporary literary fiction, not especially with a commercial edge, but with a literary edge, so we wouldn&#39;t normally be expecting sales in five figures.&quot;</p><p>There was talk in the book trade at the time, Mahar says, that it would be impossible for such a small publisher to manage such a step up. &quot;But we were determined we would manage it&mdash;and we did,&quot; he says.</p><p>Canongate, another independent publisher the Booker has worked its magic on, was among publishers criticised last year for failing to ensure adequate quantities of its two shortlisted titles, Kate Grenville&#39;s <em>The Secret River</em> and M J Hyland&#39;s <em>Carry Me Down</em>, were available. Chair of Booker judges Hermione Lee attacked Waterstone&#39;s as she announced Desai&#39;s win, saying: &quot;I had difficulty finding the shortlisted books. As I searched for my shortlist in various Waterstone&#39;s, I started to feel like an organic farmer in a supermarket.&quot; But Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the Man Booker Prize Foundation, pinned the blame on publishers, saying that the presence of a book on the longlist should be an indication to them to provide a healthy supply.<br /><br /><strong>Canongate&#39;s cash cushion</strong></p><p>Canongate m.d. Jamie Byng is unrepentant. &quot;Occasionally we were caught short&mdash;a couple of times. But sometimes book stores put in small orders, and expect you to have stock on hand as if it were magically created and didn&#39;t have to be printed. [Booksellers] need to be a little more intelligent in terms of the quantities they order.&quot;</p><p>Lack of availability is an issue the organisers are keen to address this year, and they have already started to tackle it by shortening the longlist to 13 titles. &quot;We don&#39;t want a repeat of a couple of years ago when for two weeks two of the books were not available,&quot; prize administrator Ion Trewin told longlisted publishers last month. &quot;It seems such a waste given the massive amount of publicity.&quot;</p><p>Possibilities to be considered in the future include publishers receiving information about the shortlist early and under embargo, or for the shortlist to be released on a Tuesday rather than a Thursday, to enable publishers to have books in stock for the weekend. This year, it will once again be a question of good judgement&mdash;and luck.</p><p>Yann Martel&#39;s win with T<em>he Life of Pi</em> in 2002 rocketed Canongate from a small Scottish independent to an internationally recognised publishing brand. After 1,153,765 sales, Byng is forthright about the difference Martel has made to Canongate. &quot;It brought a lot of cash into the company at a very quick rate. It was highly profitable&mdash;and it gave us an enormous cash cushion for a period of time.&quot;</p><p>The sales have enabled Canongate to invest in an array of opportunities, from new authors, staff and marketing to the acquisition of Text Publishing in Australia. &quot;It&#39;s had a huge impact. It&#39;s amazing where we&#39;ve gone since then,&quot; Byng says.</p><p>But success in publishing one year can be hard to replicate in another. In 2003 The Life of Pi accounted for 45% of Canongate&#39;s turnover. Its latest set of accounts show that operating profits fell to &pound;103,000 in 2005, less than a quarter of the &pound;454,000 recorded in 2004. Turnover in 2005 slipped 3.5% to &pound;5.81m, in line with the drop-off in sales of Martel&#39;s bestseller.</p><p>Byng is sanguine. &quot;We&#39;d love to have another book that sells as many copies as Pi, but that&#39;s in the lap of the gods. We have to enjoy our fortune when we get it and be philosophical.&quot;<br /><br /><strong>Overnight popularity</strong></p><p>For Mahar, Astonishing Splashes of Colour&#39;s success&mdash;although not in the league of <em>The Life of Pi</em>&mdash;also proved something of a challenge to live up to. &quot;We determined it wasn&#39;t going to be a fluke,&quot; he says. &quot;It was quite a challenge. We had to prove ourselves with our next books.&quot;</p><p>The success meant that the Arts Council England-funded independent publisher was in the running for literary titles that might otherwise have passed to competitors with more marketing clout. Following its Booker shortlisting in 2003, Tindal Street was asked to pitch for UK publishing rights in Austin Clarke&#39;s <em>The Polished Hoe</em>, winner of Canada&#39;s Scotiabank Giller Prize for fiction. &quot;<em>Astonishing Splashes of Colour</em> did give us financial security, and allowed us to take advantage of Austin Clarke,&quot; Mahar says. &quot;And it allowed us to promote books more strongly.&quot;</p><p>It also increased the publisher&#39;s profile with the book trade and the media&mdash;something Myrmidon is just starting to experience. &quot;We had spent a long time trying to persuade Waterstone&#39;s to put [The Gift of Rain] on core stock,&quot; Westgarth says. &quot;Before the longlist they had put it on B, which meant it was in about 150 stores.&quot; Since the longlisting, &quot;Waterstone&#39;s has been in touch&quot;, and Myrmidon has a lot of orders waiting to be filled.<br /><br /><strong>Publicity all good?</strong></p><p>Publicity, meanwhile, has been spiralling. &quot;We haven&#39;t got the highest profile,&quot; Westgarth admits. &quot;We&#39;re a new publishing house with no reputation; Tan Twan Eng is a new author, with no reputation&mdash;that&#39;s a double challenge. Also, we&#39;re outside London. All these things mean it is difficult for us to get books seen by or reviewed by the broadsheets.&quot; Since then, the longlisting requests for review copies have been flooding in, along with interview requests <br />for Eng.</p><p>Westgarth is hoping the selection of her title will mean that the press, and the bookshops, will take note of future Myrmidon titles. But Mahar says that despite the increased attention, &quot;what it doesn&#39;t produce is a sales uplift for individual titles much above our residual level of 2,000 copies&quot;. In Tindal Street&#39;s case, it also meant that Morrall caught the attention of larger publishers who had failed to notice her before, and she departed to Sceptre.</p><p>Notwithstanding Tindal Street&#39;s prize success, it remains Arts Council-funded. &quot;At the moment we couldn&#39;t manage without them,&quot; Mahar says. &quot;We&#39;ve a huge reprint and lots of other activity scheduled on top. We have to be very flexible and adapt to the circumstances.&quot;</p><p>But despite the tricky decisions and negotiations that await, Mahar is positive about what Thursday will bring. &quot;We determined last time to enjoy it. It is nerve-wracking, but being on the longlist and not the shortlist is still a win situation. We will have had plenty of good publicity.&quot;</p><p>&quot;The Booker has a greater impact than any other prize,&quot; Byng agrees. &quot;Whether you are big or small the impact on you can be enormous.&quot;</p><p>&quot;The beauty of the Man Booker Prize is that it doesn&#39;t take into account all the money spent on promotion, or the reputation of the publishing house, or the celebrity of the author,&quot; Westgarth concludes. &quot;It does look at the book on its own merits. It&#39;s a levelling of the playing field and it works to our advantage.&quot;</p>