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.