My local indie bookshop Mostly Books had an extra member of staff yesterday. Courtesy of an initiative by the Independent Alliance – a (now defunct) collective of ten independent UK publishers founded by Faber, Toby Mundy the CEO of Atlantic Books worked in the shop during the afternoon, and stayed on to give a talk about independent publishing in the evening.
I popped in during the afternoon to see him in action, and he did recommend a book to me for that last Christmas present I had to buy – and it was a good choice – a quick flick through Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World (a Faber book) suggested a good fit for the recipient I had in mind.
Later I returned to a packed bookshop for the talk by Toby who proved to be a fascinating speaker.
He started off by discussing what does independence in publishing mean? It implies ownership; editorially led; no pressure to make ever-increasing profits; a state of mind and spirit – some or all of these things. Also he believes that independent publishers are able to make the journey from original to proven books in a way that the big firms can’t – he used Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger as an example here – Atlantic took a risk on this debut novel, and word of mouth grew, and then it won the Booker, hence the book and its author have become proven and will continue to have a life.
He then talked about the demise of the Net Book Agreement, (which had fixed the prices at which books could be sold in the UK), in 1997. This changed everything. Supermarkets piled into selling best-sellers and category led books. Hundreds of indie bookshops closed, but the independent publishing sector had something of a renaissance as niches developed in ‘non-category’ titles. The big publishers were losing confidence in selling any ‘books they had to explain‘ – they diverted into genre books e.g. crime where productive authors churn out new titles regularly as variations on a theme, and brand-led books e.g. Jamie Oliver, which rarely move on to a paperback.
Toby then talked more about the different business models for genre and literary fiction. Taking Jonathan Franzen’s novels The Corrections and Freedom as a model, there are ten years between them – yet lovers of literary fiction know about Franzen as he fills the gaps between books with literary festivals and appearances which gives him the time to craft his books, which because they are good will continue to have strong backlist sales. Publishers are increasingly marketing lit fic towards the ‘neophiles’ and early adopters. Contrast that with genre fiction, where the authors tend to produce a book every eighteen months (or in James Patterson’s case, nearly one a month from his factory). They have a strong readership who will devour every book, so don’t need to do the festival tours to keep interest up. Going back to lit fic, he said that literary prizes like the Man Booker are great levellers, as each publisher regardless of size can enter two books, plus subsequent titles by previously short-listed authors etc. which is really in the indie publisher’s favour.
He then answered varied questions – including telling us he reads about four books a week, how even smaller publishers can do deals with discounters like the Book People (they screw you down on price, but there are no returns – they buy quantity up front and tag on to the end of print runs or take excess stock). Finally he tackled the e-reader question ending with a statement that ‘Book is the only medium of thick description left‘, if you want depth, you need a book and we forget that at our peril.
Atlantic happened to have published one of my favourite books from last year – The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. Afterwards I asked him if he was going to publish more from this exciting young author. It’s delivered, he said, due out next year – but he couldn’t remember the title! That’s the book I’ll be looking out for.