Peter Florence and Lucy Ellman attend the The Booker Prize 2019 party (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Books Columns

Independent minds

Small local publishers are putting out the brightest and best new work

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

What do the following titles, all published in the past dozen years or so and all highly rated by the Secret Author’s acquaintance, have in common? The books in question are The Wake, a novel by Jeremy Page, Next Year Will Be Better, a memoir by John Lucas, Ducks, Newburyport, a novel by Lucy Ellman, Murmur, a novel by Will Eaves, The Book of Sheffield, a compilation edited by Catherine Taylor, and The Ballad of Syd and Morgan, a novel by Haydn Middleton. All of them were well received by the critics, several of them won prizes and one, the Ellman, was shortlisted for the Booker.

There are tens of thousands of graduates scheming to get their first novels into print

The answer is that all six were issued by a small, independent press: The Wake was sponsored by Salt Publishing from Cromer, Norfolk, Next Year Will Be Better by Five Leaves in Nottingham, Ducks, Newburyport by Norwich’s Galley Beggar, Murmur by the London-based CB Editions, The Book of Sheffield by Manchester’s Comma Press and The Ballad of Syd and Morgan by Propolis Books, also based in Norwich. None of these firms employs more than a handful of people — at least two have husband-and-wife co-proprietors — and for all of them a six-figure turnover would be a more or less impossible dream.

How to account for the UK’s burgeoning independent sector, its glut of practitioners (something over 700 at the last count) and the acres of space its products now take up in the review sections of broadsheet newspapers? One explanation, naturally, lies in the vast number of aspiring writers out there desperate to get published. What with the remorseless expansion of Creative Writing MAs, there are tens of thousands of graduates scheming to get their first novels into print, and the mainstream firms can’t possibly accommodate them all.

The second reason, alas, is the complete uselessness of the UK’s publishing mainstream, an industry that delights in presenting itself as bold, forward-looking and zeitgeist-bestriding, but is in fact characterised by timorousness, lack of imagination and propensity for fad-chasing.

Back at the start of his career, the Secret Author was privileged to hear a publishing insider dilate on the secret of his art. Let us say, that gentleman began, that the public was keen on books about wok cookery. If so, your sharp operator would have the knack of being able to predict that the eighth such book would see the bubble burst and make sure that he himself published the seventh. Not much has changed.

Proof of the pudding comes in the unfailing regularity with which big houses turn good stuff down, and the cruel ironies that accompany these oversights.

The case of Lucy Ellman’s novel is particularly instructive. Bloomsbury, who had published her for 20 years, rejected the manuscript (700 pages long, admittedly, and written in a single sentence) and allowed Galley Beggar to step into the breach. Having discovered that the book trade was raving, they then tried to buy it back. Happily, Galley Beggar declined to be intimidated and are supposed to have, literally, told Bloomsbury to fuck off.

All this might make the independent sector sound like a paradise full of sharp operators bravely supporting left-field talent. In reality, the trade is precarious.

Indy firms, though more creatively astute than their commercial rivals, rarely make much of a killing. There isn’t the capital, there isn’t the distribution and the wider commercial landscape is weighted against them.

Even if the Tendril Press of Skegness, Lincolnshire, with its two employees and £37,000 annual turnover, fancies it has hit upon a bestseller with Sadie Blackeyes’ Winter on the Wolds, the prospect of a printer offering 30 days credit and a book chain insisting on 90 usually requires a bridging loan from the bank.

Indy firms, though more creatively astute than their commercial rivals, rarely make much of a killing

On the other hand, with mainstream publishing turned increasingly sclerotic, there is money to be made out of talent-spotting and selling your discoveries on to firms with greater commercial clout, as Galley Beggar, at an earlier stage in their existence, did with Eimear McBride and CB Editions have done with Will Eaves. In case this should sound like an exercise in corporation bashing, the Secret Author has every sympathy with the big firms who, especially in the field of fiction publishing, have an almost impossible task.

Until about 20 years ago, although contending fashions in the novel came and went, there was general agreement not only that writers wrote about “society” but there was still a society for them to write about. These days, terrified of straying into cultural quadrants beyond their immediate experience, aspiring novelists generally confine themselves to an extremely limited personal territory.

And so the vibrant, diverse, multicultural fictions the modern reviewers get so excited about usually turn out to be exercises in claustrophobia. Judging the merits of this kind of thing is a nightmare. In the circumstances, it’s not surprising that the small press tail continues to wag the mainstream dog.

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