Independent publishers have to be smart to find the gaps in the market the big boys can't exploit

<p>Alison Bone</p><p>There are probably few places in the world where electron beam welding, crop circles and pheasant plucking overlap. But the sheer diversity of independent publishing, and the eclectic membership of its trade body, the Independent Publishers Guild, mean that publishers on all these topics swapped tips for success at the organisation's annual conference in Le Touquet earlier this year.</p><p>The conference was a remarkably upbeat affair, given the odds stacked against independent publishers these days. Even their larger compatriots are bemoaning the difficult nature of the modern book trade as the high street starts to consolidate and vicious discounts hit previously unheard of levels.</p><p>Despite the challenges, new independent publishers are springing up regularly. From last year's new entrants Alma Books and The Friday Project to long-established houses such as Piccadilly Press and Bradt Travel Guides, the sector is still a vibrant, passionate alternative to corporate publishing.</p><p>But mere passion for the job can no longer cut it in today's market. The downsides to independent publishing are obvious, say publishers. "It's coping with cashflow and finance," says Arcadia m.d. Gary Pulsifer. "One of our biggest expenses is printing costs. It is much more expensive per unit for us. A conglomerate will get the same unit cost if they do a 1,000 reprint or a 250,000 print run--they are extended that courtesy. For us, it would be far more expensive to do a 1,000 print run."</p><p>And returns can be crippling for a publisher on a tight rein: "If you print it, you have to pay for it, and if it comes back as returns it's very difficult," says Crown House sales and marketing director Caroline Lenton. "It's very, very hard to suddenly get big returns because you've already reinvested the profit from that title into the next one," adds Accent Press founder Hazel Cushion. "You don't have a cushion to accommodate large returns."</p><p>Small is beautiful</p><p>Independent publishers are also forced to be masters of all trades: "You need to know the full range of employee benefits, tax regulations, toy safety regulations--you have to be aware of all the ramifications," sighs Jolly Learning m.d. Chris Jolly. Jenny Ertle of Ransom Publishing says that independent publishers can have great difficulty achieving credibility with booksellers' buyers, and indeed even getting to see buyers: "A large proportion of the book trade, particularly buyers, simply assume that big, and not small, means beautiful." </p><p>Indies are using their ingenuity to get round this through new partnerships. Faber kickstarted the trend with its sales alliance of independent publishers including Canongate and Atlantic; Carcanet, Alma Books, Oneworld Publications and Pushkin Press have formed a consortium that shares resources to cut costs.</p><p>Alma co-founder Elisabetta Minervini says that, at the moment, the group is mainly using its increased clout to get better terms from printers and designers, but that the publishers are also considering buying advertising space together, and offering special discounts to certain clients from their lists.</p><p>"Publishing is a very collegiate kind of industry," says Pulsifer, who recently ran a "Bloody Foreigners" tour for two of his authors in conjunction with two authors from two fellow independents, Serpent's Tail and Bitter Lemon. "We all know one another and we all share things. We are in touch with so many independent publishers all the time."</p><p>Jolly urges independent publishers to find a specialisation and stick to it. "If you have a niche you can be very effective. We can focus on a [specific] market rather than feeling obliged to cover the whole market." Priscilla Hannaford from Brilliant Publications agrees: "We can cherry-pick areas of the curriculum and choose ones that we really believe in, rather than feel we have to cover everything."</p><p>Bradt claims a niche in the travel book market for unusual, emerging destinations; Pluto Press' niches are international relations, politics and the Middle East; Quiller sticks to books about country activities such as shooting, horse riding and game cookery; Jolly Learning concentrates on selling its phonics books to primary school teachers.</p><p>"As a trade publisher or a children's publisher you are competing against the bigger multinationals," says Quiller m.d. Andrew Johnstone, "and so you have got to focus on a particular market or genre. You've also got to make sure you know who you are selling books to. There is no point selling our books [on country activities] to Waterstone's in Croydon."</p><p>Time and again, independent publishers stress that their great strength is their ability to move quickly. "We don't need to wait for a mission statement to be approved at all 52 levels of corporate bureaucracy," says Anne Beech, m.d. of Pluto Press. Johnstone--formerly of both Random House and Penguin--extols the joys of "not having meetings to decide on meetings".</p><p>Hazel Cushion says her feisty Welsh independent Accent Press can react very quickly to the trade's demands: "We react to what's said, to what the trade wants. It's an advantage of being small that we can react and tailor our range, and we can do this very quickly."</p><p>Indies are adamant that they are closer to their readers than their conglomerate cousins, and are more able to react to readers' desires for particular new titles. Many speak of the numerous phone calls and emails they receive from readers; Quiller is planning to set up an area on its website for readers to send queries on books and authors, to give it "a much better idea of what people want". Beech says: "Readers will look to us to see if we have published on a particular topic. If the m.d. of a publisher can sit at a conference and say to their customers: 'What do you really want to read?', then they can just go back to the office and say: 'Let's do it.'"</p><p>With little or no budget to set aside for marketing, indies are forced to use their ingenuity to let potential readers know about their books. "Because we are small we don't have a big marketing budget, so we have to make our money work wisely," says Bradt marketing director Caroline Mardall. "We have just launched a travel writing competition with partners the Independent on Sunday and Stanfords. We also work with tour operators, trying to join with them to promote what they and we do."</p><p>Direct to readers</p><p>Pluto Press uses viral marketing to market its books, targeting campaign groups with mailings. "We can afford to do e-marketing, and we can do it effectively," says Beech. "We do an electronic newsletter every month and we are beginning to do quite targeted e-shots to specific groups who are interested in particular issues. We're doing a book on genetically modified food and we will be working with a number of campaign groups on that to reach supporters here and in the US."</p><p>Recent start-up Think Publishing says it spends no money on marketing, apart from a few trade promotions with W H Smith. But it is fortunate to also publish 18 magazines, with a total readership of around three million people, in which it can promote its titles.</p><p>It also works with other magazines on promotions, and has just done a deal with the Spectator, whereby one of the books it publishes for the Royal Horticultural Society is being promoted through the Spectator's Book Club every week for three weeks. "From their point of view they get a kickback on sales. From ours, we're selling directly to people so the margin is much greater," says publishing director Ian McAuliffe.</p><p>Think has an autumn promotion lined up with the BBC's Homes&amp;Antiques Magazine, which has a readership of 130,000, for its title Portrait of England. "As part of the deal we are giving them content and access to photographs. In return, they are doing a big promotion in the magazine where we are selling direct to the readers." Lenton adds: "It's all about making links with people who will market our product and not charge."</p><p>Crown House sells directly to its customers at educational shows, and has also built up a mailing list to let readers know about upcoming titles. It recently produced 25,000 bookmarks in packs of 30 for classrooms, with tips for parents on how to get their children to read. "Everyone is a potential customer," says Lenton. "It's about being creative."</p><p>Relationships with the press are all-important. "Editorial is definitely a way we can compete with the big boys," says Cushion. "We do everything we can to get articles in newspapers and magazines about the company. We've been featured in all the broadsheets and all the women's magazines. It markets the brand of Accent Press as a dynamic company."</p><p>Arcadia says it relies on the press for a lot of its marketing: "We have excellent press relations--we have worked hard on them," says Pulsifer. Jolly says there is a "very active press" for reading schemes "which will take PR features. There are more educational magazines in the UK than almost anywhere else."</p><p>Believing in the books you are publishing is all-important as an independent publisher, says Beech. Johnstone qualifies this: "You've got to be able to ensure the projects you believe in are the ones others believe in as well. It's very easy if you're a train or aviation enthusiast to think it's terribly important to have a new book on an obscure subject. If there hasn't been a book on the subject before, though, my question is: why not?"</p><p>However, he admits that "it's a wonderfully positive way of life. It's so nice to get a book delivered to your desk and think: 'Without me as an individual, this wouldn't exist.'" The sense of personal satisfaction is immense, adds Mardall. "I feel being independent allows innovation and creativity through. And it's more fun."</p><p>"When people come up to you at conferences and say: 'Thank God you're still going', you can't help but smile," concludes Beech.</p>