Why Independent Publishing Matters Spotlight

why independent publishing matters bookblast spotlight

“Why this promotion of independent publishing leading up to the London Book Fair in April?” asked one entrepreneur as she merrily jumped on to BookBlast’s celebratory bandwagon. Why indeed? Even the smallest trade publisher now has a website and a vital presence on social media, however visibility remains an issue. Added to which self-published authors riding high on the digital wave often call themselves independent publishers: confusion reigns!

Independent Publishers are the New Avant-garde

Daring, risk-taking independent publishers are filling a unique niche discovering talent, publishing authentic and offbeat books which add value to the cultural landscape. The independent sector is the home of experimental writing, poetic innovation and world writing in translation. Trailblazing authors, poets and translators who write from the margins of culture portray areas of life that the traditional mainstream often ignores.

But 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 and visibility is growing.

When I first came into publishing in the late 1980s, commissioning editors held sway (as they still do at houses such as Gallimard across the Channel). They were respected for their knowledge and idiosyncratic flair in spotting potential new talent, much as a wine expert can identify a promising wine. Now it is the sales and marketing teams that hold sway in the ivory towers of corporate publishing. They follow trends, play with pie charts and algorithms, and pray daily at the hallowed altar of The Market. Of course there are still superb editors at the corporates − they are remarkably adept at surviving with steely determination in an environment which commodifies and monetises creativity remorselessly. It is a different mindset.

Money makes the world go round

The primary obligation of a corporate publisher is to make money, regardless of how much a CEO trumpets the vision of the acquiring editor of this or that list. The balance between quality and commercialism has tilted dangerously. Indies ride that particular see-saw expertly. They are the life blood of the book trade, finding new voices and polishing them up . . . and then along comes a big boy – ‘Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?’ – and the author shimmies away to the tune of (hoped for) fame and glory. Little and large feed off each other: a bigger publisher has greater reach in terms of distribution, which can boost sales (and visibility) for the smaller publisher.

People I have asked about which publishers they know, or recognise, name Penguin, Harpercollins (the Murdoch factor), or Bloomsbury (the Harry Potter factor), but are generally vague. Added to this, the boundary between an independent publisher and a self publisher is blurred. To many people outside the book trade they are one and the same thing. But there is a big difference.


A self-publisher just publishes their own writing − more often than not in the hope of being spotted and picked up by a professional trade publisher. Self publishing online thanks to the likes of amazon has helped many talents find a happy home with a bricks-and-mortar publisher, however there is such an excess of poorly written, unedited work available, it is dispiriting. The Guardian is a champion of self-publishing and has launched a new monthly prize that aims to find the best DIY novels in collaboration with publisher Legend Times to support and showcase new voices. Recent figures from Nielsen’s Books & Consumers survey show that self-published books accounted for one in five of the 80m ebooks purchased in 2013.

Small is beautiful

An independent publisher releases a list of books by different authors, alive or dead. The founders are generally individuals passionate about books and knowledgeable about bookselling, having started their career working for a major and/or an indie, or at a bookshop, (though not always), before doing their own thing. Many imprints at the majors started out as indies and were bought up – Gollancz, Cape, Harvill, Virago etc.

An independent publisher expends time, energy and much midnight oil – and more often than not, their own money. If they can swing it they try to get sponsorship or funding or the backing of a philanthropist. Theirs is not a corporate structure with risk-averse suits in the back room running the show. Economic sustainability lies in the backlist – as big imprints allow their backlists to slide canny indies pick up the gems.

Porn pays

An independent publisher is a gambler. Usually they have some authors which sell well –  ‘cash cows’ – generating all-important income to keep the show on the road. When I was at Quartet back in the day, publishing the likes of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Simon Leys and Annie Ernaux, the company cash cows were Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, Nancy Friday’s The Secret Garden and Anne Dickson.

Serpent’s Tail Books did well with translated erotica – The Sexual Life of Catherine M and One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed – although it was Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin which really got the cash tills ringing.

Erotica bringing in the bacon is nothing new – Maurice Girodias kept the Olympia Press going in Paris with revenue from the sale of so-called ‘dirty books’ such as Nabokov’s Lolita, The Memoirs of Fanny Hill and Terry Southern & Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy. This enabled him to publish new up-and-coming writers like Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Laurence Durrell and J. P. Donleavy. Girodias specialised in financial chaos: when he had big money, he spent it lavishly; and he spent the money of his authors (royalties) as he hit skid row.

One category, or diversity?

An independent publisher might focus on one particular category – for Eland it’s travel; Grub Street it’s cookery and the military; Bitter Lemon it’s crime in translation; Aurora Metro it’s counterculture and women. Dedalus have invented their own distinctive genre, termed ‘distorted reality,’ where the bizarre, the unusual, the grotesque and the surreal meld in a kind of intellectual fiction which is very European.

Or the independent publisher might cover a range of genres as do Oneworld (winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2015 with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings), Europa Editions (who found success with Elena Ferrante), and Gallic Books (who found success with Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog) and have recently branched out from publishing ‘the best of French in English’ towards a more general remit with the launch of the Aardvark Bureau. Interlink Publishing has a particulary strong Middle East and North African list. Nosy Crow creates books and apps that encourage children to read for pleasure.

Gimme the dollars . . .

The author (or literary estate) is paid a nominal advance and is not expected to pay money to be published (as is the case with a vanity publisher, a whole other subject!). Royalties are regularly paid and accounted for (if not, it is a likely sign of financial trouble, or skulduggery).

The books (and ebooks) produced by an indie publisher are professionally edited, proofed, jacketed and produced. They are fed into the supply chain via Nielsen and the Hive network; indie booksellers like Daunts, Foyles, Waterstones and so on; and are not just sold on amazon.

The lonely crowd

Sometimes a self publisher begins to publish other writers, thereby becoming an independent publisher. The Hogarth Press was set up in 1917 by Leonard Woolf and Virginia Woolf to publish her books (hand-printed), and those of the Bloomsbury group. Works on psychoanalysis and translations of foreign, notably Russian, authors came later.

Although I have worked with publishers big and small be it as an agent, translator or editor, it is with free-thinking mavericks that I feel most at home . . . influenced in part, no doubt, by childhood memories of my mother’s and godmother’s publishers – André Deutsch and Jock Murray in particular.

A maverick life

Once upon a time, on an Autumn day, I turned up at 27 Goodge Street, a dickensian building in London’s West End, to start work. Back  in 1988, Quartet Books was avant-garde and innovative, a bit like  And Other Stories today. I was greeted at the head of the stairs by an intriguing and enigmatic individual, who disappeared into a small office piled high with books and manuscripts, making a remark as he did so about the bars on his office window and the Birdman of Alcatraz. This was the editorial director, brilliant and visionary Stephen Pickles. Publishers and readers of literature have much to thank him for — along with all those other maverick visionaries of yesteryear.

Pickles was a fierce but inspirational teacher, and a perfectionist when it came to editing. His mind worked twice as fast as everyone else’s. He had a phenomenal, internationalist vision of where he wanted to take the list. Over the years we worked to develop the Quartet Encounters paperback series of twentieth century European classics — publishing Aharon Appelfeld, Giorgio Bassani, Hermann Broch, E. M. Cioran, Stig Dagerman, Heimito von Doderer, Julien Green, Pierre Klossowski, Ismaïl Kadaré, Miroslav Krleža, Arnŏst Lustig, Osip Mandelstam, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fernando Pessoa, Fyodor Sologub, Abram Tertz, Boris Vian — which brought great intellectual kudos to the company.

thomas bernhard the loserPickles also championed the publication of translations of works by important authors largely unknown to the English-reading public — notably Thomas Bernhard, Per Olov Enquist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Annie Ernaux, Ernst Jünger, Eduardo Galeano, Hervé Guibert, Juan Goytisolo, Witold Gombrowicz, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Yves Navarre, Juan Carlos Onetti, Giorgio and Nicola Pressburger, Pascal Quignard — which attracted the attention and the praise of leading British and American critics of the day. A connoisseur of opera and classical music, Pickles also published biographies of grandiose figures such as Maria Callas, Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler. I was particularly involved with translations from French. In 1992, James Kirkup’s translation of Jean Baptiste-Niel’s Painted Shadows won the Scott Moncrieff Prize. That year also we won the Independent Award for Foreign Fiction with The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys.

Towards the end of my time at Quartet, I became managing and commissioning editor of an English-language paperback list, Robin Clark. We reprinted Lesley Blanch, Steven Berkoff, Alethea Hayter, Robert Hichens, W. W. Jacobs (a new collection of his stories, selected and introduced by Peter Ford), Emanuel Litvinoff and Thackeray’s Book of Snobs. I also began to find success with authors like Daniel Pennac, and a young black British author S. I. Martin, published on the general trade list; and with Peter Bush’s anthology of Cuban stories The Voice of the Turtle (later published in the US by Grove Press).

Anthony Blond, a once great publisher down on his luck, joined the company to establish his own imprint under the Quartet umbrella. I helped out on certain titles and with his own book, Blond’s Roman Emperors. He was shambolic and fun. Boozy lunches in Soho and visits to Ian Board running The Colony Room became a feature. Attending Frankfurt Book Fair with Blond was quite an experience.

Is publishing just about sales and money? Is that all that matters? Luckily not – borne out by recent successes of indie-published authors shortlisted for major prizes, and Oneworld’s  2015 Man Booker win. Every generation has its indies, and this current one is even more exciting now that we are riding the internet revolution. The likes of Orson & Co and The Pigeonhole are forging ahead with new ways of publishing. Money is a crucial tool not only for oiling the wheels of innovation and flair, but for promotion (being ‘underpublished’ is unfortunate for a writer) – however the end game is something entirely different.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.