24 March 08 | Chad W. Post

The most recent issue of Publishers Weekly contains an interesting piece on the state and nature of independent publishing in the UK:

“Independents,” for these purposes, are U.K. trade publishers that are not one of the Big Four (Hachette, Random House, HarperCollins and Penguin) or the Not-Quite-So-Big Three (Pan Macmillan, Bloomsbury and Simon & Schuster). As in the U.S., there are plenty of them around. The U.K.‘s Independent Publishers Guild has around 460 publishing members with a combined turnover of £500 million, and they are gradually increasing, not shrinking, in number as technology lowers the cost of entry. But the premium layer is visible and influential in a way that most U.S. independents are not. [. . .]

Their size, however, does give them one more pertinent common feature, neatly summed up by a publisher who has operated at both ends of the scale. “The bigger you are, the more you’re affected by the market,” says Tim Hely Hutchinson, CEO of U.K. market leader Hachette Livre U.K. “If you’re small, you make your own success.”

Most of this article focuses on the “entrepreneurial attitude” of indie presses—the way they find new ways to be successful, even in the face of market obstacles, such as display space:

These three-for-twos and other promotions paid for by the publishers—mostly the big ones—now fill the front of the major bookstores. This forces independents to rethink how they publish, maintains Anthony Cheetham, chairman of fast-growing Quercus Publishing. “The entire front of the store, the face-out space, is sold to the books that have the largest mass market potential,” he says. That effectively means sold to the six largest publishers, who have 90% of the weekly top 50 bestseller list. “The midlist—good books on history, science, philosophy, books by good, new literary writers—is squeezed out. The front of the store can’t respond to market forces if something from the back takes off, because the space is sold. So the big chains have their hands around the neck of the trade, and independents must look elsewhere.”

There’s also a bit of info about the Independent Alliance, which is an intriguing set-up:

The most visible face of independent publishing is the Independent Alliance (sometimes known as the Faber Alliance), created in 2005 in response to the darkening retail climate. [. . .] The idea was to present a united front to retailers by sharing Faber’s sales and administrative muscle with a number of smaller but distinctive publishers. They learn from each other’s best ideas and have begun hosting alliance conferences on topical issues, mostly recently on the digital world.

What comes through loud-and-clear (and is even referenced in the title of the article) is the devotion of indie publishers to every book they publish. There’s a stronger sense of ownership, of taking responsibility for making a book a success, which really appeals to me. There are some indie presses—like Arcadia—that probably should’ve been included in this article, but on the whole it’s a decent overview of the situation and how these presses function.

Although hopefully one day the statement from the opening paragraph—“But the premium layer [of independent presses] is visible and influential in a way that most U.S. independents are not”—will be grossly inaccurate.

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