Business profile: Salt Publishing

From “Just One Book” to 
a longlisting for the Man Booker Prize, the past few years have been turbulent for Salt Publishing. Facing bankruptcy in 2009, the publisher launched its now infamous sales campaign, asking people to buy just one book in order to help turn its fortunes around. Run by husband-and-wife duo Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, the company then managed to hang on, despite a few more “really tough” years, says Chris. “When the recession hit, it hit us really hard and we came incredibly close to going under.”
However, the Norfolk-based independent’s luck changed for good last month with the news that Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse had earned a place on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

It has been a hectic few weeks for Salt since the longlist was announced. Chris explains: “We’ve not really had a chance to digest it all, but it has changed everything. I think a lot of people had heard of us, and maybe knew us from the campaign, but we have now really been put into the public sphere and the people interested in us has completely shifted in just a few days.”  

The pair have been inundated with interest from foreign publishers and literary scouts, a job neither of them previously knew even existed. “We’ve never had to deal with the sale of rights before, so the whole process has been fascinating,” explains Chris.

After recovering from their initial shock, the reality of having a title on the longlist and the need for larger-than-ever print runs hit. “We’ve now got everything in place. The only thing that was missing was the cash and we’ve sorted that, so I think we’ll be okay,” says Chris. “It’s really now just about pacing for us and making sure we don’t make the mistake of drastically over-printing.”

“The good thing about not really having any money is that you don’t over-print,” says Jen. “The difficult thing for us is that we’ve got to plan for it being shortlisted, and we really hope it will, but we can’t think that. So we’ve got from now until September [when the shortlist is announced] to really sell and market the book like crazy.”

Not keeping their hopes up is a seemingly impossible task, with the pair knowing that “there is so much money involved, that for a tiny business like ours, it would capitalise us for a decade".

Moving away from tough times, Salt has sweetened its financial position in the past few years through cautious and clever repositioning. Starting life in 1999 as an extremely niche poetry publisher based in Cambridge, it is now predominately a literary fiction publisher—50% of its revenue is made from its fiction list, with 46% coming from poetry and the remaining 4% from non-fiction.

Making a “conscious decision to become a diversified fiction publisher” two years ago, Salt moved firstly into short stories, then genre fiction, before scaling up the number of novels it published. It now publishes between 60 and 80 titles a year, including 15 children’s titles. Another new key part of the business is its anthologies list, which includes The Best British Short Stories and The Best British Poetry, bringing in more than a quarter of Salt’s total income. In 2013, the publisher will expand the series to include The Best British Fantasy.

Chris says: “We stuck with the poetry niche for a long while, mistakenly thinking that if we used innovative techniques to reach consumers, we could make it work, but then we just had the realisation that it was never going to happen. Poetry just doesn’t make money.”

Looking ahead
A big part of Salt’s conscious decision to diversify was to invest in editors. Having scaled down on staff numbers during the recession, it now has four editors in the UK, as well as a core team in the US which is responsible for its Earthworks series, a list of Native American and Latin American titles in translation that has proved successful for the company.

“That’s done really well for us over there. It doesn’t sell as well here, but it has created lots of interest for us,” says Chris. “Part of what we want to do now is highlight all the different things we do. People probably don’t know that we have this really prestigious translation list and we want to change that.”

Despite all these changes, discovering and nurturing new authors remains a top priority. “What a press like ours has to do is commit to finding new talent,” says Jen. “The Lighthouse is Alison’s first book and that’s exactly what we’re about. We know we are a stepping stone as well and expect some authors will want to move publishers, and we’re fine with that. It’s all part of the role of small presses.”