Turning the pages

independent publishers are flourishing in the north, says Richard Smirke

The publishing industry is undergoing a period of profound change. Like the printing press before it, the advent of ebooks and digital publishing has revolutionised the very way in which we buy and consume books, leading over-excited doom-mongers to proclaim the death of the form.

At the same time, traditional publishing powerhouses such as Penguin, Random House and HarperCollins are reining in costs, acquiring fewer titles and favouring work with obvious commercial appeal. Even celebrity memoirs – a mainstay of the best-seller charts for the past decade – are no longer flying off the shelves in the numbers they once did. As with its creative cousins, the music, film and television industries, a combination of game-changing technological advances and recession has rocked the book world to its core. Not that everyone is lamenting the fact.

The new landscape contains as many opportunities as it does pitfalls

For independent presses, the new landscape contains as many opportunities as it does pitfalls, claims Sherry Ashworth, co-founder of Manchester-based Hidden Gem, one of the many indie imprints operating in the north’s once again thriving literature scene.

“It’s a very, very exciting time to be a publisher,” she says, likening the current flowering of start-up presses to the dawn of punk. “Big publishers aren’t investing and there is a sense now, because of the internet, because of ebooks, that this is a time where if you have got something to say and the ability to say it then you can find a platform to do so. That’s not always been the case.”

“The internet has changed things in many ways,” agrees Ian Daley, founder of Pontefract-based Route Publishing, which produces screenplays, novels, short stories and poetry. “All sorts of technological and distribution revolutions have happened and nowadays there are all sorts of outlets for writers. But that also creates added pressure because it’s harder to get stuff out through the noise. And there is a lot of noise out there.”

There are over 100 independent presses trading in the north

There are over 100 independent presses trading in the north, with many smaller DIY outfits producing irregular or one-off works, novels and anthologies. Manchester-based Carcanet, which was founded in 1962, is one of the oldest publishers in the area, while organisations such as Arc Publications (Todmorden), Bloodaxe Books (Northumberland), Commonword (Manchester), Peepal Tree Press (Leeds) and Pomona (Hebden Bridge) are just some of the many labour-of-love endeavours contributing to the region’s strong literary output.

“We are very different in the north because the independent publishing scene is the publishing scene, whereas in the south or in Scotland there are major commercial players there so the indie publishing tends to be the more fringey. In the north, this is it. This is who we are,” says Daley.

But he dismisses the notion that the region is experiencing a boom in its illustrious literary history and instead views the north’s abundance of standalone presses as merely the latest manifestation of an ever-changing scene.

“We really have to punch above our weight to make ourselves known.”

“If you did a survey in, say, 2002 you would find another bunch of publishers that are probably not there anymore,” he says.

“You get a lot of people starting up and then they find out how difficult it is and they don’t continue. We really have to punch above our weight to make ourselves known.”

One independent doing just that is Manchester’s Comma Press. Formed in 2002 and specialising in short stories, the Arts Council-funded not-for-profit organisation has found success via a series of critically acclaimed European translations, with the Guardian hailing one of its authors, Hassan Blasim, as “perhaps the best living writer of Arabic fiction”.

“We created a Venn diagram of things that are impossible to sell and short stories and foreign translation are right in the middle,” jokes Comma Press founder Ra Page. “The path of most resistance is always a useful motivation criterion for getting up in the morning, precisely because it is hard and no one else is doing it.”

“The biggest challenge is getting books into Waterstone’s.”

Despite the digital revolution, one of the largest hurdles for indie presses remains constant, says Page, namely getting books into bookshops.

“The biggest challenge is getting books into Waterstone’s, which is increasingly centralised and the way that it buys books increasingly formulaic,” he admits, citing in-store promotions where publishers pay large sums to display their goods as one way that independents are at a disadvantage to big publishing houses.

The less cost-prohibitive alternative of selling online has arguably closed the gap between small and large publisher, but the high costs that services such as Amazon charge – 30 per cent, according to Page – bring a different set of pressures to already cash-strapped organisations.

“If you’re not being shafted by Waterstone’s, you’re now being shafted by Amazon. It’s just being beaten by a different rock,” comments Page.

“We are coming very much from a story background.”

New companies are, nonetheless, springing up to take advantage of the new publishing options that technology has brought. One is Bolton-based Persian Cat Press, which specialises in interactive picture book apps for touchscreen devices, with its first title, The Gift, to be published later this year.

“We are coming very much from a story background and we’re using technology to make new stories,” says creative director Jos Carlyle. “The big publishing houses are big because of their traditional print background, but this is really a completely different discipline and they are having to learn it from scratch as well. It is very much a level playing field in terms of apps.”

Contrary to fashionable opinion, publishing giants such as HarperCollins are not staffed entirely by faceless money-obsessed suits. The majority of people who work there do so because, like their indie peers, they love books.

“My goal is always the same – discovering new writers.”

“I think it is massively important to have a variety of publishing options just to keep literature as varied as possible,” agrees The Big Issue in the North columnist Emma Jane Unsworth, whose debut novel Hungry, The Stars And Everything was recently published by Hidden Gem. “From really, really small indie companies right up to the big conglomerates, they all have their place and it’s a great thing that there are lots of different opportunities for writers to get their work out there.”

“My goal is always the same – discovering new writers,” says Page, who counts publishing Blasim and Adam Marek, winner of the 2011 Arts Foundation Fellowship in Short Story Writing, among his proudest achievements.
Those sentiments are echoed by Daley. “We’re in it for the long haul. All the fluctuations that happen with the economy, all the challenges in front of you, you just have to keep your nerve and steer a path through it.”

Ashworth adds: “Independent publishers are the romantics. We meet a book, we fall in love and we get married, and long may that continue.”

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