Independent publishers are increasing their focus on events, social media and developing a strong identity through their output to boost sales and build communities of readers, a range of indies have told The Bookseller. The moves help them combat challenges such as getting into the bigger chains, high discounts and large numbers of returns.
While indies say they are well supported by independent booksellers, some publishers have said the risk-averse nature of the larger chains means that for indie presses, who often focus on niche works or début authors, their titles are ordered in smaller quantities, if at all.
"We had a bit of a shock with some of the chains not supporting our lead titles in the past two years. It’s only once the book has done well elsewhere that some of the chains will take more copies," Saqi publisher Lynn Gaspard said. "It is as though the customer has to prove that there is a demand for a particular book before the retailers commit to supporting it."
Similarly, London-based publisher of African writing Cassava Republic said it is finding the UK retail environment "very challenging", arguing that the struggle to get stocked by bookshops could be seen as a reflection of chains’ unwillingness to engage with more diverse titles. "There is a lot of talk about needing to support publishers of diverse authors but we don’t see the follow-through from the trade in terms of ordering, and sometimes we feel that buyers think it’s easier to just ‘go with what they know’ from the major houses," said sales and rights director Emma Shercliff. "When we see our titles, books that we have commissioned and originated, selling tens of thousands of copies in other markets or overseas editions, it’s hard not to feel that there is something structurally amiss with the way in which the UK trade operates."
Manchester-based Comma Press saw its income from trade sales double year on year in the 12 months to 1st July, but while sales are up, the fiction market remains "massively overcrowded", said founder Ra Page. "It is more difficult than ever for small presses without significant publicity and marketing budgets to get their books into shops in large quantities," he said. "Bookshops and wholesalers are becoming more selective in what they promote or buy, meaning that initial orders have become smaller and smaller over the years."
However, not all indies are struggling to get stocked in the larger chains. In 2017, children’s indie Barringon Stoke experienced its "best ever year" with Waterstones, with the retailer taking a broader range of the press’ titles. Further, Chris Hamilton-Emery, director of Salt Publishing, said buy-ins are on the up, although he attributed this in part to the diversification of his press’ list, which now features a "great mix" of commercial and literary titles.
Despite an increase in the number of his titles stocked by chains, Hamilton-Emery said returns are threatening to cripple his business. Last year returns were operating at more than 50%, forcing the publisher to launch an appeal on social media for support. While things have now recovered slightly and the press has returned to growth, Hamilton-Emery remains cautious. "Returns hit us most significantly from January to March, and can easily erode all profits and exhaust cash reserves," he said. Hazel Cushion of Accent Press said the high level of returns with W H Smith Travel forced her to withdraw from promotions with the retailer.
Alongside high returns, increasingly steep discounts are a continuing issue for independent publishers. "The high discount culture obviously presents a disproportionate challenge for smaller companies and makes it that much harder for us to grow," said Penny Thomas of Welsh children’s indie Firefly.
Sam Jordison of Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press went so far as to say that the returns system, coupled with huge discounts, was a "nightmare". He added: "We are able to get books into shops and have had wonderful support from independent shops, Foyles, and from the buyers at Waterstones. However, the bigger chains and Amazon demand huge discounts. Combined with the returns system, it becomes very hard for us to make any money at all on the books that we sell in shops. So in that regard, it’s a nightmare."
Brexit uncertainty is also putting further pressure on small businesses, and this has eclipsed discounts and returns as some publishers’ biggest concern. Jordison said the issue is "going to blow up some of our biggest sources of revenue", with the publisher worried about suddenly finding that US editions of its books have become rival editions that can be shipped into the country from Europe.
Publishers have already seen huge print cost rises—and expect more. Eloise Millar, co-director of Galley Beggar Press, said: "A book that cost us £1.92 a unit back in 2015 now frequently costs us upwards of £3.50; once you factor in discounts of 50% and more, and a r.r.p. of roughly £9.99, you start to see how impossible the figures are."
All that said, the "real elephant in the room", according to Page, is the issue of regional diversity, which is affecting everything from representation in the national press to staff retention.
Page argued that as media coverage is dependent on relationships between reviews editors and publicists, northern publicists cannot hope to build relationships with such editors who rarely visit the north of England in a professional capacity. And with much of the industry concentrated in London, the opportunities for career development in the north is limited, so small publishers constantly lose staff to other, better-paying arts or non-arts employers in the region, or to bigger publishing houses in London.
Thomas, publisher at Cardiff-based children’s indie Firefly, agreed, and said that the argument for regional diversity needs to be extended beyond England. "There is still something of a battle in some quarters to explain that although we are based in Wales, our books are aimed at the whole of the UK—and indeed the world", she said. "We are proud that some of our books are by Welsh authors and some are set in Wales, but equally a great many of our titles are from other parts of the UK, and one is from Latvia, and the books are set anywhere from Pembrokeshire to Mars! Our key requirement is quality, in both writing and production, and we are certain that all our books are good enough to be read by readers everywhere."
Space for books in traditional media is shrinking, and with competition as fierce as ever, publishers are looking to non-traditional methods to reach readers, investing more in author tours, events and festivals. Saqi Books has chosen to concentrate on publishing fewer, but more "original, authentic and impactful titles", and to focus on building audiences for its writers by organising author tours. So far, the approach seems to be working. In 2017, three out of the 11 books published by the press were chosen as books of the year (in the Sunday Times, Guardian and Scotsman), and it has put on more than 100 author events.
"We try to keep costs as low as possible, relying on thinking outside the box to find spaces in the media and online for our books. Author events and festival appearances are key to building an audience and the author’s profile of course, so we invest a lot of time and energy on this," Gaspard said, adding: "We believe that literature should be visible outside traditional ‘bookish’ spaces, and in 2017, Saqi was the cultural programming partner to the Queen of Hoxton [bar] in Shoreditch."
Cassava Republic is also reaping the rewards of selling books at events, not all of which are directly book-related. In July, the publisher had a stall at the Africa Utopia festival, held at the Southbank in London, and sold more than £1,000 worth of books.
With engaged communities of readers key to the marketing strategies of many indies, publishers are increasingly using social media to connect with and cultivate audiences, and are investing in more robust e-commerce websites to handle direct-to-consumer sales.
Saqi Books is in the process of unveiling a new website, where readers will be able to order both print and e-books directly, while Salt Books, which has around 200,000 social media followers, has doubled customer visits to its website in the past year. Comma Press’ direct-to-consumer web sales are also steadily increasing, it told The Bookseller.
Independent publishers are also strengthening their publishing and exploiting gaps in the market, all the while keeping an eye out for new opportunities, such as in audio. According to Rik Ubhi, marketing and publicity director at ZED Books, it is a time of great opportunity for independent publishers who are interested in exploring
big ideas, with themes and subjects that might have been considered niche or controversial in the past, now finding larger, more mainstream audiences. Ubhi said the press was seeing interest in race identities, gender and sexuality, and post-capitalism titles, and added that there is also a big market for books around China and Chinese foreign policy.
Gaspard said that while e-book profits are falling, Saqi Books has started experimenting with audio, which is showing "overwhelming signs of growth". The press’ Middle Eastern history, culture and literature books remain steady sellers, and its humour books are enjoying good growth. Hunt also noted the downturn in the e-book market, but pointed to growth in Saraband’s non-fiction publishing, with particular success in nature and memoir.
For Irish indie Tramp Press, the market is "flying". The publisher has had success with Emilie Pine’s non-fiction bestseller Notes to Self and renewed interest in Mike McCormack’s International Dublin Literary Award-winning Solar Bones. Publisher Sarah Davis-Goff said: "The Irish market is growing quickly, particularly for fiction, and sales in the UK have been strong too. Watching people make those intimate connections with works of literature is what we’re all about, so it’s been a wonderful year so far."
In children’s, there is growth in middle grade. Thomas said the genre is one of Firefly’s most success strands of publishing, with titles such as Gaslight by Eloise Williams and the Alex Sparrow books by Jennifer Killick doing well. Likewise, Abdul Thadha, m.d. of Sweet Cherry Publishing, said middle grade is "growing and thriving" at the moment. Sweet Cherry is also focusing on exploiting the gaps in children’s classics, with new simplified Sherlock Holmes stories coming in 2019.
Rights and export sales are also currently healthy for indies. Cassava Republic has recently sold translation rights for Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms (winner of the $100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature) to French and German publishers, and the title will appear in a mass-market paperback edition with Folio, a Gallimard imprint. The press’ Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, is now available in five languages, including Danish.
All in all, despite a challenging market, independent publishers feel that there are opportunities to better engage with readers and to provide them with thoughtful, original titles with high production values. Davis-Goff said: "It’s really hard not to feel optimistic just now: we feel really well placed to build on the successes we’ve created over the past few years and to get more books to readers. It’s a really exciting time."