Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

We all know about the wonky finances of independent publishers. They may struggle on, decade after decade, in their own peculiar niche, admired by an eccentric coterie but ignored by the world at large. But, occasionally, a corporate fairy godfather will come along to take over, and put them out of hand-to-mouth misery. So what might some sharply suited saviour pay for such a charmingly creaky outfit? How about £572m?

This is not an outré seasonal folk-tale. The US academic giant John Wiley has just found rather more than half a billion pounds to buy Blackwell Publishing, the Victorian-vintage Oxford firm whose 800-plus scholarly journals and vast back catalogue of specialist books make it a golden cash cow of a durability that mere "trade" houses can only dream about. Blackwell sells high-value, state-of-the-science information to global networks of affluent professionals and affluent institutions - from Accounting and Finance to the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. It has also pioneered the online delivery of journals.

Here's the only way to make breath-stoppingly serious money out of 21st-century publishing. Current reports suggest that Nigel Blackwell and his Uncle Toby (who control three-quarters of the shares) will, respectively, collect £100m and £95m. Blackwell's humanities wing has recently released a little book on How to Read a Poem by our foremost literary Marxist, Terry Eagleton. Will he request a modest cut? Alas, Blackwell's famous bookstore on Broad Street in Oxford, and its offshoot in the Charing Cross Road, form a separate business. So don't rush in and demand a festive 100 per cent discount on all stock.

Back in the not-so-real world of novels, memoirs, histories and the like, indie publishers need to toil harder, and think sharper, than ever to keep the liquidity-crisis wolf from the door. Yet new entrants with big ideas and high principles regularly arrive - and, almost incredibly, flourish.

Last weekend saw the 10th birthday celebrations for Gary Pulsifer's always intriguing, always adventurous Arcadia Books. Earlier this year, Pete Ayrton's Serpent's Tail (now 20 years old) and Andrew Franklin's Profile (10) also marked not mere survival, but enduring success. The possessive apostrophe (and Profile, remember, published Eats, Shoots & Leaves) tells their story. These imprints draw strength from creative personalities with taste and vision of their own, not from the corporate accountant's urge to play copycat with last year's bestsellers.

Publishing, which retains the allure of a sort of highbrow showbiz, attracts dedicated wannabes. It also allows talented veterans ousted from, or unhappy in, conglomerate companies to set up as smaller, fiercer rivals to ex-employers. This year, the former Orion chief Anthony Cheetham has planted the acorn of Quercus Books, and Philip Gwyn Jones's Portobello has made a stylish bow. Alma Books has launched with a bold list, Friday Books has begun to transform blogs into paper, Snow Books settles steadily, and Old Street Publishing promises interesting new directions.

Foolhardy? Perhaps. Doomed to reach a final chapter soon? Serpent's Tail continues to offer exactly the sort of left-field, cosmopolitan fiction and non-fiction as in 1986. Show me a corporate imprint that can match such reckless continuity.

No one, publishers or writers, will ever make a mint out of general independent publishing. In the long run, the one sure route to riches will remain the narrow professional path taken by the Blackwells, their spectacular windfalls assured by Digestive Endoscopy and Plant Pathology. Well, we know what that passionate patron of boutique publishing (at the Hogarth Press) John Maynard Keynes said about the long run. And, just now, Britain's literary indies look the opposite of dead.