With commissioning editors at mainstream publishers increasingly under the corporate cosh, any literary submissions calculated to sell less than 5000 copies are turned down regardless, which leaves the field open for independent publishers to come in and have a go at the roulette table imagining winners that might come their way.
Independent Publishing vs. Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing
An experienced commissioning editor may be able to spot high-quality writing and know their target readership, but s/he is no less a gambler than anyone else playing the publishing game. Their gut instinct counts for little in the corporate boardroom nowadays, even though the way in which advances are calculated is an inexact science, and tales of legendary rejections make for juicy water-cooler chat. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected 12 times before being picked up; Gone with the Wind got the thumbs down 32 times; Under the Frog 22 times; Dune 20 times; and The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected so many times it was self-published.
Smaller publishers generally avoid formulaic writing for the genre market, provide greater personalised support, and – as opposed to a vanity press – do not ask the author for money. Added to which crowdfunding has become a more than viable option, not only to raise funds, but to develop a community of readers ahead of publication (Peirene Now! No. 3, Shatila Stories was recently successfully funded with 327 backers pledging £13,350 via Kickstarter). Best not confuse authors self-publishing their own books only – generally via a digital platform such as Amazon or Kobo – with indie publishers; the term indie authors would be more accurate.
According to a recent report in The Guardian, “Independent publishers have unleashed a boom in sales,” and “turnover across the Arts Council England-funded portfolio surged above its budget by almost £100,000 this year, reaching £277,930.”
Visibility remains an issue. As I wrote in February 2016 when BookBlast® first began its celebration of independent publishing, “SO MUCH is published! How can avid book readers, students on publishing courses, Media researchers and stumble-upon book browsers find the good stuff amidst the avalanche of words available online and piled high on bookshop tables? To separate the wheat from the chaff is becoming ever more essential. The need for well-informed curated recommendations is growing and growing . . .” The range of books being published by small presses is broad and the quality extremely high.
One form of advertisement which plays a vital role in the overcrowded marketplace is the literary award. In the US, the Best Translated Book Awards set up by Chad Post via Three Percent, the University of Rochester’s translation-centric website, flags up the all-important contribution independent publishers make to maintaining a high quality diversity of voices in literary publishing.
The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses
In the UK, the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses is now in its second year, with The Times Literary Supplement as the prize’s official media partner for the first time. Its founder, author Neil Griffiths, believes that the best innovative fiction is coming from small presses, since “they enable stories, characters and experimentation not found anywhere else in British publishing.”
Writer and occasional reviewer, James Tookey, who works with Neil Griffiths, answered five questions about the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses:
How many judges read the books submitted; are they writers, or journalists, or publishers themselves?
We tried something a bit different with the judges this year; we had twelve of them! We had four booksellers, from bookshops in Birmingham, Edinburgh, London & Manchester; and then a number of reviewers and readers, from Goodreads reviewers to a TLS contributor. All of the judges are people who we knew to be serious reader of small presses, and we wanted to have a large pool of opinions and ideas.
What are the criteria; and what genres?
Basic criteria is a work of literary fiction, published in the calendar year, by an independent press with less than five full-time employees. We throw in English-language and translated works, novels and single-author short story collections, all into the same pot. No genre restrictions, apart from the basic idea that what we’re looking is books that represent the best of “hard-core literary fiction and gorgeous prose”.
How big is the pool of publishers the books are shortlisted from?
We had dozens of submissions; this is a remarkable time from small presses in the UK and we’re delighted that so many of them submitted. There may be some fabulous small presses who didn’t hear our call – we hope our partnership with the TLS, our media partner, will amplify our call so that next year there are even more submissions.
Did anything leap out at you while reading and assessing; what stood out for you?
I’m not a judge this year, just a lowly administrator. However, I have gleaned from the judges that it was remarkably strong field. I ask the judges to give me a list of their favourite books, and of the twelve lists I received, there were ten separate books at number one. Only two books received two first place votes (no telling, I’m afraid). Every book on our longlist has fierce supporters among our judges. We’re having a meeting to finalise our shortlist in the new year, and I predict a wonderful debate. I just hope we can all remain civil.
How diverse is the longlist; and where are the publishers based?
The thirteen publishers represent London, Sheffield, Hebden Bridge, Edinburgh, Manchester, Norwich, Stroud, Cromer and Dublin. It’s 2017, and you can live outside the M25 and still be part of the conversation. The books and authors represent all sorts of writings and writers, and it’s important to note that being diverse isn’t difficult. The best writing comes from all over the place, and it’s just about keeping your eyes and ears open. Small presses have a better record on representation than bigger publishers, and we simply took their lead.
Aaaargh! Press Playing Possum by Kevin Davey “Kevin Davey’s stupendous brain-teaser of a novel – his first, following a career in teaching and journalism – offers a stream of reflections on the life, work, thought, and mythology of TS Eliot,” New Statesman
And Other Stories Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell “In her extraordinary debut, Patty Yumi Cottrell gives her 32-year-old narrator Helen Moran the impossible job of figuring out why someone kills themselves . . . a highly unorthodox detective story that forces a young woman to revisit her past,” Irish Times
Bluemoose Books The Gallows Pole by Ben Myers “He grapples with poverty, injustice and human suffering. His writing packs a visceral punch and is not for the faint-hearted. His descriptions of beatings and murders are to be relished — fan that I am of Richard Allen and Quentin Tarantino — and are beautifully rendered in poetic, unrelenting, muscular prose bringing alive acts of savage desperation.”
CB Editions An Overcoat by Jack Robinson “H.B. is Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, the author of The Charterhouse of Parma and The Red and the Black; ‘Jack Robinson’ is a pen name of Charles Boyle, the founder of CB Editions. Stendhal described his own fiction as a kind of super-realism: that of the mirror along a road, reflecting sometimes sky, sometimes puddles. In An Overcoat, the mirrors face each other, and the images go off into infinity,” The Guardian
Charco Press Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, tr. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff “Rural France is the backdrop for this stark tale, translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff, of a woman driven to the brink of insanity by marriage and motherhood. Rural France is the backdrop for this stark tale, translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff, of a woman driven to the brink of insanity by marriage and motherhood . . . There’s a touch of David Lynch to the best moments,” The Guardian
Dostoevsky Wannabe Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner “Though only eighty pages along there is so much behind almost each sentence, even each symbol, that this is the sort of novella about which whole theses could be written – and indeed Waidner has written her own based around the book, in particularly explaining her new idea of transliteracy, combining the avant-garde (she acknowledges Ali Smith as pretty much the only mainstream novelist in the field) and the notions of gender identity and fluidity,” amazon.co.uk
Fitzcarraldo Editions Compass by Mathias Enard, tr. Charlotte Mandell “Compass, in its relentlessly discursive impressiveness, embodies an uncompromising vision of the novel as relatively static political and cultural essay – at least until the final few pages, when, miraculously, real-time events intrude upon Franz’s reverie, and the book concludes with a surprisingly upbeat, if not sentimental, flourish,” The Guardian
Les Fugitives Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefevbre, tr. Sophie Lewis “A contemporary novel of angst and high farce, Blue Self-Portrait unfolds among Berlin’s cultural institutions but is more truly located in the mid-air flux between contrary impulses to remember and to ignore. The inner monologue of a woman haunted by German composer Arnold Schoenberg’s portrait, following a complex romantic encounter with an American-German pianist-composer in Berlin. As the irresistible, impossible narrator flies home she unpicks her social failures while the pianist reaches towards a musical self-portrait with all the resonance of Schoenberg’s passionate, chilling blue,” reviewbookshop.co.uk
Galley Beggar Press We that are Young by Preti Taneja “Thanks to publishing’s conservatism, fiction set in modern India can too easily be pigeonholed: post-colonial, Raj-nostalgic, focused on slum dwellers or a globetrotting elite. We That Are Young, the doorstop debut novel from Preti Taneja, a Warwick academic and human rights activist, ignores and subverts these stereotypes by turns. A recasting of King Lear in today’s Delhi, the family at its centre consists of ageing patriarch Devraj, head of the multi-tentacled India Company, his daughters Gargi, Radha and Sita, right-hand man Ranjit and his son Jeet,” The Guardian
Influx Press Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams “The conflict between reaching out and curling up is what absorbs the characters of Attrib. and other stories, an elegant debut collection from the young writer Eley Williams . . . [She] has crafted her fictions to be miniature and sparky, concentrating on the implacability of details, no matter how small or brief,” The Guardian
Little Island Press Darker with the Lights on by David Hayden “Darker With The Lights On, by David Hayden, is a collection of twenty short stories written in captivating, modernist prose. The language is lyrical, in places magical, the plot progression often surreal. There is a dreamlike quality to many of the tales which explore loneliness and reactions to lived experience. The agitation in the telling adds intensity to even the mundane,” Jackie Law #neverimitate
Salt Publishing In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie “The whole book is largely a matter of qualifications, of trying, in tightened and tightening circles, to get to the essence of what it is to be alive in a contemporary city. And of course it is also a joke about the very nature of the detective’s search for clues. For here everything is of equal significance: that is, immensely significant on its own terms, and yet, when placed against the wider backdrop, of absolutely no relevance whatsoever,” The Guardian
Tramp Press The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo “Although it is set in postwar Scandinavia, Arja Kajermo’s debut novel, The Iron Age, could as easily be the story of a poverty-stricken family in 20th-century Ireland. There are former soldiers turned disgruntled father figures, a la John McGahern, the displaced people of Hugo Hamilton’s novels and the ‘ordinary miserable childhoods’ of Frank McCourt’s – although a vicious minus-30 climate makes the rain-sodden streets of Limerick a virtual paradise in comparison,” Irish Times
For readers who want to know more about independent publishers, Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide covers nearly 600 independent literary presses and journals operating right now in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
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