advances, the rule of the money-men: mainstream publishing is in trouble.
Andrew Franklin examines the alternative world of those who go it alone
BIG-TIME publishing is in serious difficulties. Last year Penguin and HarperCollins each made more than 100 employees redundant. Profits are falling, lists are being trimmed and the corporations - following the instructions of American owners or parent companies - are being "re- engineered" or "downsized". With the collapse of the Net Book Agreement there is open warfare with booksellers and W H Smith. It all looks pretty gloomy for the large London publishers.
But at the other end of the scale - the small houses - good books are being published and risks are being taken. While the big houses struggle with ever less interesting books to find new ways to pay vast author advances, huge salaries for the managerial caste that sits on top of the editors, and the Concorde flights to the New York head office for the Chief Executives, the small publishers are going their own way.
Serpent's Tail is a fine example of a small company carving out its own space. Pete Ayrton, the publisher, says: "I start by having a clear idea of what can be our distinctive contribution: to give a voice to writers who have been outside the mainstream - whether for political, sexual or racial reasons. We are a reference point for outlaw culture. The larger houses have no clear identity, no vision in terms of editorial profile."
Ayrton's most successful writer, Walter Mosley, creator of the black LA detective Easy Rawlins, is now a major bestseller, but not in the striking Serpent's Tail trade paperback editions. He sells in big numbers in Picador's mass-market edition which is pounds 2 cheaper. This sums up the paradox of the small publisher. They are small because they cannot sell enough books, and so major authors will always tend to gravitate towards the big players with their large advances, powerful marketing departments and ability to buy shelf space.
There are no easy answers to keeping authors when they are attracted by the deeper pockets of larger companies. Ayrton complains: "You sometimes feel like a second-division football team. At the beginning of each season the fat-cat managers of the premier league come round with their cheque books."
As in all small businesses, working out how the next bill will be paid is a constant worry. Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, after 30 successful years at Hamish Hamilton, lasted only nine months as an independent before collapsing under the weight of excessive advances to authors. And Richard Cohen, whose company is one year old, is also finding it tough going: "There are no cushions. There's always a shortage of money and worries about cashflow. But the whole feel of it, the connection of people together, is all different. There is no circuit of meetings. If I want to send a memo I simply raise my voice." Without a strong backlist of established authors and books in print, expensive mistakes can spell disaster. Richard Cohen has "taken on half a dozen books with authors' advances at over pounds 20,000 and the risk of them going wrong outweighs the chance of them going right. For them to work, certain things have to go right to produce a healthy profit. It is asking a lot of God for that to happen."
Not all the money to pay authors has to come from selling books. Bloodaxe, the Newcastle-based poetry publisher, is greatly assisted by regional Arts Council funding. This is money well spent. Bloodaxe has grown into the most interesting and innovative poetry publisher in Britain, filling the gap left by Chatto & Windus and other larger houses. Bloodaxe publishes Tony Harrison, Brendan Kennelly, Irina Ratushinskaya, R S Thomas, Miroslav Holub and many of the best poets of the younger generation. Unlike novelists, poets tend to stay loyal to their publishers because the advances are always meagre anyway, and sales generally predictable. It is ironic that poetry, so central to the British literary tradition, should seem to be in safest hands out of London and away from Britain's noisiest literary houses.
For Harvill Press, the distinguished publisher of fiction in translation, the available grants are useful but never a deciding factor in taking on a book. Although 50 years old, Harvill has been independent only since last year when the management bought themselves out from HarperCollins. Harvill is famous for its European fiction: The Leopard, Solzhenitsyn, Georges Perec, and most recently the spectacular success of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. The company's distinctive character and importance comes from being, in the words of their publisher, Christopher MacLehose, "a bridge across cultures".
How has independence changed them? As MacLehose says: "Under HarperCollins the marketing was shared. Now it is more focused. No time is wasted persuading a vast marketing department what to do. You cannot sell Ismail Kadare at the same time as Mrs Thatcher." In its first seven months the independent Harvill sold more than in its last 12 months with HarperCollins. Now, as it launches its new paperback series, "Panthers" - most of which are books in translation - it is well funded by private investors and looks set to be paying dividends in its third year: a healthy blend of business and literature.
It is not all roses for those who work at the small presses. Some publishers yearn for financial security and the long, lavish lunches which are supposed to be the hallmark of the literary life. Virago is a case in point. It had all the virtues of an exceptional small press: it made a distinctive, perhaps unique, contribution to British literary culture. Singlehandedly it changed the reading habits of a generation of British women. Last year - just when Harvill was being liberated from HarperCollins - Virago sold itself to Little, Brown, an avowedly commercial (and extremely successful) American-owned Big Boy. Perhaps Virago, the lone voyager, needed the comfort of the Mother Ship. As the publisher, Lennie Goodings says: "It is simple: now we can buy bigger books and bring them to the list. We can reach more women. The difference is in the resources we have."
Another well-funded company is Fourth Estate, half-owned by the Guardian who are willing to put heavy resources behind it. As a result, they hope to quadruple in size in the next three years. As their turnover is already pounds 3 million, that will take them out of the small and into the middle-sized bracket. Victoria Barnsley, the dynamic Managing Director, is explicit about her ambition for the company. "I hope we never behaved like a small publisher. I've always fought like anything to keep authors when they become big. The thing I fear most is becoming a nursery for large publishers. Fortunately the big houses are in such a shambles it hasn't been as much of a problem as it might have been." She insists that what defines Fourth Estate is not its size but the way it publishes books - the author care, the stylish jackets and the attention to detail.
Bloomsbury doesn't have a benign owner, but it does have the track-record of a decade of successful publishing, which always inspires investors, and its shares are now traded on the stock market. Bloomsbury's originality lies not in the special character of its list, but in the exceptional quality of its design, book publication and innovative marketing. It is now middle-sized (pounds 10m turnover), but it places a shrewd limit on expansion. As Nigel Newton, the MD, puts it: "Our intention is to publish only the number of books to which the senior staff can still give detailed attention. There is no top layer of management not publishing books."
In the 1930s there were a plethora of independently owned publishers named after their founders. Victor Gollancz, Michael Joseph, Jonathan Cape, Hamish Hamilton, all achieved rapid success, and after the war refugees from Nazi Europe like Andre Deutsch and George Weidenfeld followed. If such people exist now, they are working, probably deeply frustrated, inside large conglomerates. The consumer shift from hardback to paperback, the growth of chain bookstores and big author advances all make it much harder to create new literary houses now.
Next year will see the launch - or relaunch - of just such a house, Granta Books, which enjoys the patronage of Rae Hederman, an American media mogul and publisher of the New York Review of Books who has bank-rolled the literary magazine Granta for years). Granta Books is already making bold claims that it will offer something completely new.
New publishers are born - and collapse - at a startling rate: Whitaker's Books in Print lists 28,000 publishers. But many of them are not even micro, they are miniscule, frequently only publishing one or two books before disappearing for ever. But many of these tiddlers persevere, providing a distinctive service as "niche" publishers. On the whole the more specialist the subject, the easier it is for tiny publishers, but, however the odds are stacked, successes like Bloodaxe, Mainstream and Canongate in Scotland, or stalwarts like John Calder, Peter Owen and Marion Boyars show that general lists can survive.
Ultimately what matters is editorial taste and skills. As literary agent Caradoc King says, "What it all comes down to is talented, energetic people. As agents we have to trust people. We need editors with vision." The large companies all too often demand a crushing conformity. Accountants and managers who never read books bear down on editors, muttering about margins and gross profit. Risks are discouraged, new ideas stifled. Scale can be an obstacle to success, and it can certainly be a barrier to the human contact vital to all authors. With the book trade changing so fast, and the giants finding it hard to adapt, this just might be the right time for the independents and small publishers.
! Andrew Franklin, formerly Publishing Director of Hamish Hamilton, has just launched his own company, Profile BooksReuse content