Culture Editor Emily Hay talks the nitty gritty of the books industry with four of the UK’s most exciting indie publishers: 404 Ink, Galley Beggar, Sandstone and Charco.
On 14 October, Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood shared a win of the most prestigious award in literature - the £50,000 Booker prize. A huge moment on the literary calendar, the build up to the ceremony saw palpable anticipation, with the aftershocks of the controversial split decision reverberating across the book world and dividing opinion ever since.
But leaving that aftermath aside, the shortlist saw another landmark achievement which received somewhat less press – namely that Lucy Ellmann’s thousand page long Ducks, Newburyport, came not from one of the typical all-encompassing London publishing houses like most of the shortlisted books, but from Galley Beggar Press, a small indie publisher based in Norwich.
Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon, the past few years have been particularly exciting for followers of indie publishing in the UK. There seems to have been something of an explosion in the industry: not only have exciting new publishers been gaining more and more attention, but they’ve been picking up some of the biggest awards in the game. 2019 alone has been a big year for indie presses – and not just with Galley Beggar making the Booker shortlist. Back in May, the English translation of Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, published by Inverness’s Sandstone Press, scooped up the Man Booker International Prize; and Tayari Jones’ Women’s Prize winning An American Marriage was first published in Britain by another indie press, Oneworld.
This success has a lot to do with the fact that small presses, despite their size, can certainly match up to their larger counterparts with the risks they’re willing to take in their publications.
“I think we are more able to take risks in a way” says Sam Jordison, co-director of Galley Beggar Press. “Every book we put out is a financial risk, and a huge risk in terms of time and energy and emotional dedication. But the fact that it all feels precarious is also quite liberating. If you’re going to take a risk, you might as well take a big one and you might as well do it because you care. I like to think that readers respond to us because they know that we put out things that we think really matter. That we’ve done it (sorry to sound all Disney) with love. And there are many indie publishers like us who are the same.”
Whereas a larger publisher might hedge their bets on an experimental novel by a new writer in favour of an established name, indies are more able and more willing to let passion drive their editorial decisions. Particularly when a voice lands in their lap which seems to be missing from the output of traditional publishing houses.
“[We] tend to start from a passion to make a change, a sense that there are interesting and important voices that readers should be exposed to, that currently they are not offered” asserts Samuel McDowell of Edinburgh based Charco Press. Samuel and partner Carolina Orloff started Charco (meaning “puddle” in Spanish) as a means of bringing the best in contemporary Latin American literature to English-speaking readers who couldn’t otherwise access it.
“Editorial decisions at indies are based more on this passion than, say, commercial justification” he continues. “And yes, there is probably less aversion to risk in smaller publishers, but also greater agility to take a chance when one appears. I think that all this translates to a more interesting overall mix for readers to choose from, across all publishing, and readers appreciate this. Combine all this with a dose of that indie passion - it seeps through, and can be contagious.”
Smaller publishers have the benefit of bringing a personal touch to their publications – with the huge financial and emotional risks they take with every book it would be hard not to. And in an era of faceless corporations controlling and constricting our every purchase, that labour of love appears to be paying off amongst readers, at least Sam seems to think so.
“I think there’s a large number of readers out there who care about where books come from – and also in enabling more writers to write what they want to write by supporting companies like ours. The generosity we’ve experienced over the years is pretty incredible, in fact. I’m going to go all Disney again, but I find it really moving. We’ve been very fortunate in our readers.”
Samuel points out that you only have to look at the recent resurgence in independent book shops nationwide to see this trend for more personality in the book-buying experience.
“People appreciate a curated selection, and the ability to converse with someone knowledgeable in store that might be able to direct them to a new author, to expand their reading list. I think a lot of readers are interested in exploring, and the combination of indie bookstores and indie publishers are the perfect enabler for this.”
Unfortunately, this consumer loyalty can only really go so far. As grateful as they are for their customer base, Heather McDaid and Laura Jones, co-founders of Edinburgh based 404 Ink, are careful to point out that this idealistic portrayal doesn’t apply to the entire book consumer base.
“It’s easy to forget it’s a bit of a bubble and the average reader doesn’t know about publishing houses or the intricacies and challenges of indie publishing” explains Heather. “In general there’s more awareness about buying direct and more ethical buying (and the working conditions in Amazon, for example), but in terms of bookshops and buying direct, that knowledge is still within its own bubble.”
In other words, your average reader may take the name of the author into account when they pick up a novel, but which publisher or retailer they purchase from? Not so much.
A point which Robert Davidson, managing director at Sandstone Press, would be inclined to agree with.
“Though there is a rise in consumers thinking about how and where they shop, it seems that price and convenience still take priority in the majority of book buying decisions.”
This is the harsh reality small presses are having to contend with in the publishing industry: price and convenience.
Robert continues “Sales is the most challenging part of publishing. However wonderful our authors and books might be, the public generally likes to buy what it already knows and understands. That, deep discounts, and booksellers’ need to fill their shelves with books that will fly off means that we are constantly pushing a large stone uphill when it comes to sales.”
Heather sums the point up pretty well: “Increasing costs, increasing books being published, decreasing shelf space, decreasing space for coverage. It’s harder to stand out and the margins are only getting tighter.”
That shelf space isn’t just decreasing, its decreasing rapidly. 300 new books are published every week in the UK alone, and at a rate like that it’s fair to say that the casual consumer is probably only interested in what they can see in front of them or what’s immediately available to them. Although more books being published feels like a good thing for everyone, it makes it increasingly difficult to gain recognition in a market as oversaturated as this. Particularly when you’re competing with bigger brands with seemingly infinite resources.
That goes not only for their bigger publishing competitors, but sales outlets which should be making them money – like Amazon. In the battle for visibility to the consumer, if your book isn’t listed on Amazon or stocked in Waterstones then you really have no chance of winning that uphill sales battle Robert discussed. The problem is, when it comes to books Amazon like to undercut their retail competitors not by a little, but by a lot – a price cut which they make happen by demanding massive discounts from publishers for often brand-new books.
For example, the most recent release from Charco, Brenda Lozano’s Loop launched on 8 October this year retailing for £9.99. By 12 October, Amazon had the price down to £7.19 – a discount of 30% for a book which was no more than 3 days old, and from there that price is only going to go down. Add that to the fact that other retail outlets have to try to compete with those miniscule margins from Amazon, and what you inevitably end up with is even more retailers clamouring for larger discounts. The figures just don’t seem to add up.
“On the face of it, this might all seem great for consumers—cheaper books!” Says Charco’s Samuel. “But in reality those discounts come straight from the publisher’s bottom line. Not only does this make it very challenging to operate a viable business, it restricts the publisher’s ability to go out and bring new books to market. Fewer publishers only publishing mass-market books is not, we feel, in the best interests of the reader.”
Which is a point Robert feels describes the industry exactly as it stands: “the whole thing has evolved to favour giantism.”
Creatively liberating it might be, but getting into the indie publishing game is financially tricky to say the least. Yet, in the midst of so much outwardly perceived success – and tangible idealistic success in the work they publish – it can be difficult for consumers to fully grasp the hurdles faced by small presses when things appear to be going so well. Indeed, one wonders how the publishers themselves manage to equate the two.
“By keeping ourselves grounded” states Heather. “We’re very honest between ourselves about the reality of publishing and we never get carried away by the success of an individual book, or receiving funding – we’re always looking at what next, and how to reach sustainability as it’s a long way off. We’re never comfortable or complacent. We’re also quite open about it publicly, which has likely helped bridge the gap between that assumption – people can see our successes, but they can also see – quite honestly – the difficulties we face and that we’re still truly a while away from financial success.”
That honesty has helped to open up a dialogue and understanding about the difficulties of the industry to those outside of it. Team 404 shocked their readers and Twitter followers in March this year when they posted a rundown of two and a half years of the company’s finances. Detailing their income with a breakdown of everything from raw material costs, to printing, author royalties and event expenses, the post served as a reminder that running a publishing company is hardly all glamour and award ceremonies. Whilst priding themselves on paying double the industry standard in royalties to their authors, co-founders Heather and Laura only paid themselves a total of £5356 between the two of them in one financial year – using their award-winning company as a means merely to help pay their bills, whilst their main income came from other freelance jobs.
The revelation that the 404 Ink team aren’t even paying themselves a full wage may shock those new to the financial woes of the independent press, but to other small publishers the idea of working round the clock at their brand whilst working other jobs to financially support themselves is an all too familiar reality – as Samuel states.
“Charco has achieved a lot in terms of profile and attention since launching, and that has been fantastic. But this success does not necessarily equate to the commercial success that people assume. I can quite openly say here that we are not making ANY money from it! In fact, like many small publishers, we also have to work on other things alongside Charco to pay the bills. How do we equate the two? We believe in what we are doing, and we went into it knowing it was going to take time and hard work to get established.”
In the face of rising costs and growing competition, one might wonder how presses like Charco and 404 Ink are publishing at all, let alone staying positive in such trying circumstances. It would seem bravery in the face of crippling uncertainty is a quality shared by most indie presses – it could be described as the beating heart of the industry in the UK today.
Speaking of uncertainty, there’s one glaring elephant in the room for all of these publishers: Brexit. For three years now the country has been plunged into confusion regarding the future of trade, exports and import costs, none of which have become any clearer the closer to the everchanging deadline we crept. Even the date, which was originally the only detail set in stone, has been fluid – last month we were due to leave the EU, deal or no deal, on 31 October, but now that’s been pushed to the 31 January. At this point the future seems murkier than ever – unideal circumstances, it would seem, in which to grow and sustain a business.
In fact, when faced with the B-word each of these publishers had more or less the same one overarching concern: how do you prepare for something when you have no idea what that thing entails?
“We’re getting a lot of emails saying to ‘Prepare for Brexit’ without an ounce of information on how to, or what that even means” explains Heather. “In real terms, print costs have already been increasing, production costs increase. We expect people may spend less on books so are bracing ourselves for potentially tougher sales, but ultimately we’re such a small fry that while there is uncertainty, we don’t have too many tangible links in the EU that will be directly affected, but suspect the industry as a whole will feel the margins tighten further.”
Compared to the bigger players in UK publishing, it is true that indies, whose exports are limited, may take comparatively less of a financial hit. But when margins are already so tight, these smaller presses don’t have a cushion or a fallback plan like the bigger companies; and they also don’t have the same time and resources at their disposal to plan for the unknown.
“The effects to Charco itself are impossible to fathom” says Samuel. “Will paper, imported mainly from Scandinavia, become massively more expensive? Will EU bookstores still buy our books? Will there be new tariffs to factor in? For now, our only plan, like most businesses, is to try to keep our heads down and weather the storm.”
Weathering the storm, as Samuel put it, seems to be the general consensus. With little to no information to go on, each of these publishers are expecting things, which are already tight, to worsen in the months to come. Rising costs of raw materials, inflating export tariffs, and decreasing sales are all things which the book industry is very really facing at the moment, and all also happen to be things which could cripple independent publishing in the UK as we know it.
So states Galley Beggar’s Sam. “Brexit is a nightmare. It’s awful. It’s dreadful for our industry for all kinds of reasons. It’s already cost us a fortune thanks to rising print costs. It’s going to make it far harder for us to do business and export. It adds all kinds of complications when it comes to contractual rights. The potential for recession is frightening… And it’s also cost us respect with our buddies around the world. Our industry partly operates on a basis of friendship and trust and sharing. Coming from a hateful racist island led by lying charlatans and poshboy thugs from the Vote Leave campaign does not help with that at all.”