Friday, 1 May 2009

Publishers: Size Isn’t Everything

Publishers fall into several different categories.

Right at the top of the heap are the few big conglomerates like HarperCollins and the Random House Group. These houses measure their turnover in millions, and each publish thousands of books a year.

Then come the independents: smaller publishing houses with widely varying turnovers, which print fewer titles than the really big boys. This is a very broad category which includes established, relatively large houses like Canongate, which has a reputation for publishing more cutting-edge fiction than most (I thoroughly recommend Scarlett Thomas’s The End Of Mr Y, and Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle); smaller publishers like the gorgeous Snowbooks (which published Sarah Bower’s spellbinding The Needle in the Blood); and the very small publishers like Myrmidon (which is publishing Hope Against Hope by my friend Sally Zigmond later this year), which publish relatively few books but which nevertheless do very well with what they publish.

While many independents are likely to struggle in the current financial crisis, the big publishers aren’t having too good a time either: some of their smaller imprints, many of which were originally independent publishers, might well close as publishers contract and regroup (and some already have).

Independent publishers can be further divided into two groups: those with good sales and distribution in place, and those without. Small independents will sometimes ride piggyback on the shoulders of the bigger ones and borrow their sales and distribution services to get their books into bookshops, just as the independent Long Barn Books does: its books are sold by Simon and Schuster and distributed by HarperCollins.

Some independents, however, have no distribution deal in place and instead rely on online sales (from their website, and from places like Amazon and Waterstone’s website, which all offer for sale anything with an ISBN); and on the sales that their authors make. But without a sales and distribution deal in place, publishers find it almost impossible to get their books into bookshops: and as bookshop placement leads to sales, a publisher with no distribution will have low sales, low income and a worrying future.

While some of the independent publishers without strong distribution have an increasing reputation for publishing wonderful books, others are not so reputable and border on vanity publishing. The difference, here, has to lie in the quality of the books they publish. Because while some small presses publish some very questionable titles others publish fabulous books (and Salt Publishing and Bluechrome come first to my mind) which look gorgeous, and which deserve to sell as strongly as titles from any of the bigger houses—go and buy some books from them now.


Donna Hosie said...

I've just purchased Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle - the black edged pages are a standout.

Jane, with the smaller imprints struggling to get publicity for their books, what is the difference between their success rate and that of self/vanity publishers?

Jane Smith said...

Donna, I loved that book: I was a bit perplexed by it, but couldn't put it down until I'd finished it.

As for the sales, I'll check up on figures and get back to you but meanwhile, I'd bet that as usual, it depends. Canongate is so successful now that I bet its sales are approaching that of a mainstream imprint; smaller independents like Snowbooks might not sell in such great numbers but are probably approaching it; while the tiny independents will have much lower sales. The trick is to find out if they have a proper sales and distribution contract with anyone, which will get their books into bookshops: if not, then their writers will have to make the majority of the sales for themselves, and will be restricted in the same way that self-published writers are.

Anonymous said...

For a beautiful produced and excellent read, look no further than The art of being dead, by Stephen Clayton published by Bluemoose Books.

Nicola Slade said...

Good post, Jane. Couple more long-established and respected independent publishers are Robert Hale Ltd and Severn House, both of which sell to public libraries primarily.

I've spotted several ads purporting to be Indie publishers but that are actually vanity presses.

(Word verification: hyporb - global publicity)

Anonymous said...

Jane - what's puzzling is that of the two publishers you give links to, Salt Publishing isn't accepting anything except poems and Bluechrome says it isn't accepting submissions at all. Is this common among independent publishers or is it a sign of the times?

- Martin.

Sue Guiney said...

Jane, as a Bluechrome author myself, I thank you for the mention. They do indeed publish beautiful and interesting books whch is why I was attracted to them in the first place. But these are difficult times for all publishers, as you said. I'm sure some changes will have to be made across the board. I just hope that the indies survive. They are, after all, the publishers more likely to take risks with what they publish, not to mention publish poetry at all. And I, for one, believe that we all profit from as wide a choice as possible.

Jane Smith said...

Martin, I suspect that the embargo on submissions could have something to do with their having a lot of books in the pipeline already; and the financial implications that we're all having to consider right now (incidentally, I have a piece by Salt's founder lined up to appear in a couple of weeks).

I heard that Bluechrome had lost its Arts Council funding recently: I don't know how true that is, but if it is the case they must be struggling. I have no doubt that they'll do all they can to succeed but things are going to be difficult for them; and it especially grieves me when I consider all the money that has gone to support YWO and its vanity operation.

Sue, I've seen independent presses survive despite horrible financial pressures simply because their owners were too plain stubborn to give up. In many cases they plough their own money back into the business (probably in most cases) which is how they get by: it's an option that bigger publishers don't really have. Not that it's a good one, but at least it's there. My fingers are very tightly crossed that Bluechrome and all the others like it do not fail because of the current financial climate.

David Dittell said...


Thanks for breaking that down. Another way to look at "quality of the books" is "publishing standards," which helps to identify who might not have the best branding going on.

How does genre fit in to all of this? Genre imprints and publishers known for a specific market, if they meet the above criteria already, must be in a better position just because of the name recognition, no? I would think their target audiences would be the most stubborn in giving up the books they love in tough times.