Independent publishers are "crucial and critical" for literary fiction writers, Costa-winning author Monique Roffey has said, enabling them to take risks no mainstream publisher would allow.
Speaking at the IPG’s Spring Conference, Roffey, who won the Costa Prize for The Mermaid of Black Conch (Peepal Tree), detailed the differences between being published by a big company, compared to an indie.
The writer, who started out as a journalist before being picked up by an agent while studying an MA in creative writing, initially published with Simon & Schuster, releasing five books over 12 years. She left to publish The Tryst with Dodo Ink, after her editor at the time decided not to release it.
“A big company is very well resourced,” she said. “The literary imprint isn’t expected to make that much money, we are being bankrolled by Jackie Collins, or the big chefs." Literary writers, meanwhile "are the risk inside a monolith, inside a monster" she said, "but at the indie we’re at the forefront, we’re treated as the core of what they’re doing".
Commenting on her first book to be published with an indie outfit, she said: “Dodo Ink so artistically and aesthetically committed, they probably paid more for the cover designer than they did for me. They did deals with people they knew at Waterstones and W H Smith. I didn’t have a publicist for The Tryst, so I had to do it all myself, which I didn’t enjoy.”
Roffey subsequently published her magical realist novel The Mermaid of Black Conch with Peepal Tree Press, a Leeds-based indie specialising in Caribbean literature.
“Again they didn’t have the money to pay for a campaign, so I asked them if I could crowdfund for the publicity,” Roffey said. She ended up raising just over £4,000 and securing Top Brass to organise the campaign; the book went on to win the £30,000 Costa Prize.
The novel has since gone to Penguin Random House for its paperback edition, but Roffey said she had ensured Peepal Tree is set to benefit from each sale of the novel. “We’ve struck an honourable deal with PRH,” she said, “an unprecedented deal for Peepal Tree.”
“Independent publishing is crucial, its critical to the world I inhabit, which is literary fiction," she added. "Without indies, I think our world would look very grim, very monolithic. It sets the cat among the pigeons, and means the big publishers do have really interesting competition.”
Commenting on the strengths of the indie sector, she said two friends had designed the original cover of The Mermaid of Black Conch, something “no mainstream publisher would ever allow”.
“You can take more risks creatively and artistically with the indie sector,” she said. “The most frustrating thing with the mainstream is you don’t get any say in the cover design—it's happened many times. We get ringfenced in the mainstream.”
PRH has redesigned the cover of the paperback, but Roffey is happy with the the outcome. She urged larger publishers to consider building “relationships with the authors over the whole project”, and to “trust writers more”, involving them in every element of the process.
Touching on the representation of Caribbean literature in the UK publishing industry, she said: “We are seeing a trickle of Caribbean literature being published by Faber, Penguin, Hamish Hamilton—but it’s a trickle. I’ve been lucky. Yes, we’re seeing more and more writers coming, but its still a trickle. Peepal Tree is still the home of a whole canon of work across 40 years, from 10 or 15 islands. But only a handful of us are being taken forward into the big world.”
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