The Welsh independent publishing industry is a thriving ecosystem consisting of established players and younger presses, with new entrants hitting the market with regularity. This year, while new indie Panther Publishing is still in its first 12 months, Welsh Academic Press is celebrating 25 years in the business.
Ashley Drake (pictured below right), founder of the Cardiff-based Welsh Academic Press, had early exposure to the business: his father was a director of Blackwell’s. "I remember a copy of The Bookseller being delivered to our home every week. I also remember, as a boy, shaking hands with Sir Basil Blackwell when he welcomed his staff’s children to the annual Christmas party at Oxford Town Hall. I was there so often that the Norrington Room in Broad Street felt like a second home and, as a teenager, I worked for a summer at Blackwell’s distribution arm, Marston on the Cowley Road [in Oxford]." He is quick to thank his parents, and says that "with that background, working in publishing seemed a natural thing to do."
In 1994, after two years covering the north of England and Scotland for a range of scholarly and academic publishers as a sales rep, Drake noted that the genre of books he wanted to read were not being published, and so decided to start his own company while continuing to work as a rep. The press initially focused on Drake’s personal interests and knowledge of Welsh, Scottish and Irish history and politics, as well as of the stateless nations of Europe.
Drake also established two Welsh-language imprints: trade list Y Ddraig Fach (meaning "The Little Dragon"), and educational list Gwasg Addysgol Cymru ("Wales Educational Press") to enable him to publish children’s books in Welsh. "As someone who learnt Welsh at university, I was passionate to see children in Wales have access to bestsellers in their own language, so sought out and acquired the rights to publish the classic Ladybird/Disney mini-hardbacks in Welsh with Y Ddraig Fach, and The Diary of Anne Frank for Gwasg Addysgol Cymru.”
New press on the scene Panther had a different route in. With a background in photography and admin, founder and "big fiction reader" James Griffiths made the decision to launch his press in 2018. "I enjoy novels, I love authors, and it made sense to me to put both of my interests together and form Panther Publishing," says Griffiths.
"I knew of authors who were struggling to find publishers for all sorts of reasons. There are so many writers, and so many publishers not willing, or not able, to take a punt on new talent, so a lot of voices go unheard, which is a shame, both for the writers and the publishers. We also found that there didn’t seem to be a Welsh publisher specialising in crime, mystery, thriller, horror and paranormal fiction, which is what we publish. S
o our decision to launch Panther was one of wanting to find new talent, wanting to nurture Welsh writing and Welsh settings in novels, and also wanting to publish in those genres."
Panther has signed two authors: J S Strange and W D Jackson-Smart. Strange’s first novel, Murder on the Rocks, is based in Cardiff, and features a gay male detective. The story centres around a murdered author in a prestigious writing group, and how the detective’s mother’s death is related to the killing. Panther is publishing two of Jackson-Smart’s DI Graves series, The Demons Beneath and From Inside the House. The first book follows Graves tracking a killer, and From Inside the House, features brutal murders, a murderer on the loose, and body parts being taken from each scene.
For Drake, the 25 years his press has been operating for have "really flown by". He says: "The Welsh Disney books were hugely popular; we sold over 60,000 units in just two or three years, but as our sales were primarily outside the mainstream UK trade (via Welsh independent booksellers, and we were the first publisher to sell Welsh-language books direct to supermarkets such as Tesco and Safeway) those sales figures unfortunately never featured in The Bookseller’s bestseller charts I had read avidly as a boy. It was all ‘under the radar’."
The journey has not been without its challenges. Over the past 25 years, Drake has only published full-time for seven years, so he says finding the time to manage the business while working for another employer has always been a struggle. In 2003, Drake was offered the opportunity to become director of the University of Wales Press—the youngest in its history. "Understandably, my company took a back seat for the next five years and many projects I’d been working on were either transferred to UWP or acquired by other publishers, including Mainstream. Effectively the core publishing programme was removed from the business, so when my five-year tenure at the university came to an end in 2008, it was tough having to effectively re-start the company from scratch."
While Drake has had trouble juggling workload among other commitments, Griffiths says the biggest struggle for his business has been promotion. "Bloggers are life-savers," he says. "Those who participated on our first blog tour really made me happy, because they gave Panther and they gave J S Strange a chance. That’s a big thing for us. We’ve also found some great bloggers for the new W D Jackson-Smart novels. But without massive budgets, I am struggling to keep pre-orders coming in and to get the books seen as much as we’d like them to be—and as much as I know they deserve. Obviously I knew this would be a struggle from the start, but it’s something I’m willing to face and keep looking at different avenues."
Promotion and visibility of titles is a problem shared by many indies. Drake says: "It’s never going to be easy. It’s a matter of selecting the right projects and marketing them as strongly as you can. Independents are usually more passionate and dynamic than the corporates, and that can make a big difference."
Ultimately, both are positive about the future of independent publishing. Griffiths says: "I see opportunities for new talent to be seen and heard. I see great opportunities for more independent publishers to be found and to be developed. I also see great ways for independent publishers to work together, and to be recognised by the publishing industry."
This piece is part of The Bookseller's country focus on Wales. For more in the series, click here.
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