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Are small independent publishers doing the work for big publishers?
While the giant firms sink huge sums into fleeting fads, the commitment and passion of the smaller imprints leave a larger impression in the long term
Here’s an observation: it sometimes feels as though smaller independents are the research and development departments for the big publishers, where literary fiction is concerned. We find great writers, nurture them, wipe their brows, polish their work and buff it until it shines. Then we send them out, readers love the books and they get shortlisted and win major literary prizes.
Then the big money imprints swoop in; whisking them away to put them in a sparkly marketing jacket and present them in their new package to the world. A few recent examples: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, originally published by Galley Beggar – subsequently taken up by Faber and Faber. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, published by And Other Stories – and now by Penguin.
Why are independent publishers managing to get more of their authors’ work on to prize shortlists and win more awards than the bigger firms? Two of the last three Man Booker winners were published by independents. How could that be?
Well, we read unsolicited manuscripts. We read more stories. Big publishers only use agents, who have their own economic imperative, and they miss out on a host of brilliant books every day, every month, every year. Like John Murray, part of Hachette, which called Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney “the modern classic that we all missed” when it was shortlisted for the Costa first novel prize this year. They plucked it from Yorkshire publisher Tartarus, secured it a film deal, and it became one of the best-reviewed debuts this year.
Big publishing has tried to monetise creativity, kneeling at the altar of the pie chart and Venn diagram. And for new literary fiction it isn’t working.
I have been told on numerous occasions by agents and editors: “But Kevin, you’re not a London publisher,” as if geography has anything to do with finding cracking stories. This chiding does give you an insight into another problem for big publishing: the issue of “unpaid internships”, class, and a narrowing of the social backgrounds of people entering publishing, their limited life experiences, reading tastes and how this influences their acquisitions. They are missing out on millions and millions of readers because of a business model that isn’t really working.
Read the full series on theguardian.com.
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