Navigating the modern business of book publishing

2012 Booker Shortlist and 3 Small Publishers on the Big Stage

The Man Booker Prize 2012

The 2012 Booker shortlist is out and the big winner this year seems to be Small Independent Publishing. This year there are three novels from publishers that have never before had a Booker shortlisted title to boast about. Amazingly, this is the first time that this has happened since the third annual Booker Prize way back in 1971. (Scroll down for the full 2012 Shortlist)

While we can’t draw any big conclusions from a single shortlist, in the wider context of the digital publishing revolution it marks yet another example of small independents holding their own against the established publishing giants. The three new publishers in the list, Salt Publishing, Myrmidon Books and And Other Stories, have all approached independent publishing differently and it’s worth looking at how each of them distinguishes themselves from the traditional publishing houses. (Two other publishers in the shortlist, Faber & Faber and Bloomsbury, are also independent companies but they are both large and well established, with multiple Booker Prizes, and are definitely part of the traditional publishing landscape.)

The Lighthouse - Alison Moore

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore
Salt Publishing

Salt Publishing – Founded 1999

All publishers are on the lookout for talented new authors and each has their own favoured networks and strategies set up to find them. The methods by which a publisher is able to attract new authors is sometimes called their ‘pipeline’.  Established publishers are in the box seat because their higher profile and ability to pay out large advances automatically attracts authors and agents, making their pipelines very large. To compete, independent publishers need to be very proactive in picking up authors before they get sucked up by the big guys, and this involves creating a well targeted author pipeline.

Salt Publishing has a very well developed author pipeline. They are what I would call a ‘grass-roots’ literary publisher—they publish a large amount of poetry and short fiction and run their own literary competitions, which helps create a pool of high quality unpublished authors that they can choose from and develop further. They do not accept unsolicited manuscripts but encourage new authors to participate in the writing communities and magazines that Salt’s editors pay closest attention to. By proactively helping to build and contribute to the literary community at a grass roots level Salt are able to enhance their reputation as a publisher of merit, and a Booker Prize shortlisted title will only help lift their profile higher.

Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng

Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng
Myrmidon Books

Myrmidon Books – founded 2006 (?)

One of the advantages of being a small publisher is having fewer books and authors to compete for your attention. While business 101 dictates that a company needs to grow over time, this growth often comes with a cost. In the case of large publishing companies, the constant process of rationalisation and consolidation in their editorial, production, marketing and sales departments inevitably reduces the amount of personal attention and service given to individual authors and their books. Many authors accept this as a fair trade off for the benefits of being associated with a top publishing house, but there are many who value the more personalised attention and tailored service that a small independent publisher can offer.

Author-focused publishing is the main selling point that Myrmidon Books uses to distinguish itself from other publishers. Investment in authors and their books is Myrmidon’s stated highest priority and they back this up by minimising overheads in other areas of the company, such as having a de-centralised office and lean operating costs. While their website could arguably do with a little extra investment for the sake of digital promotion, one way to gauge whether their author-centric approach is working is to see how many of their authors have stayed on board with follow up books. My quick survey of their list showed that 50% of Myrmidon authors have released follow up books with the publisher, which is a good indication that they are happy with the service.

Tan Twan Eng, their Booker Shortlisted author, is a great case in point. His first book, The Gift of Rain, was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2007 and would no doubt have brought him to the attention of bigger publishing houses with deeper pockets and larger marketing departments. Tan, however, stayed with Myrmidon and it appears that his loyalty has paid off, going one step further this year and reaching the shortlist—perhaps he’ll even go all the way.

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy
And Other Stories

And Other Stories – founded 2010

Two very exciting concepts to evolve out of the digital revolution are crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, both of which use the internet to draw resources from all over the world to contribute to a single project. Many publishers already use crowdsourcing to a limited extent in their publishing process. For example, (Random House & Orion) and (Harper Collins) both invite a community of authors and readers to submit and rank unpublished manuscripts, with the highest ranked books being considered for publication. And Other Stories takes the concept much further, building their entire business model and book selection process around crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to uncover hidden gems, in any language around the world, and then help pay for translation and publication in English.

Here’s how it works:

Crowdsourcing: And Other Stories invites readers, translators, editors and other literary minded people to start or join reading groups wherever they are around the world. The purpose of the groups is to introduce and discuss high quality literary works in any language that have yet to be published in English. If the group decides that a book may be worth translating or publishing they pass it on to the And Other Stories publishing team for consideration. If the book is accepted the person who first introduced the story may take part in the translation or write an Introduction to the book.

 Crowdfunding: And Other Stories uses a subscription system to help pre-pay for the translation and publication of its books. Subscribers pay annually and receive special numbered editions of the new release books, which are delivered 1-2 months before they are available in the general trade (yes, the books are also available through bookshops and online retailers). Crucially, only subscribers are invited to take part in the reading groups and so joining gives you the opportunity to contribute both financially and intellectually to the publishing programme.

It’s important to point out that And Other Stories also holds true to the core social values of other crowdsourcing and crowdfunding projects. They are a not-for-private-profit company with ecological and ethical minded businesses practices with a stated goal of working for a more diverse literary culture. This sets them apart even from the small independent publishers and gives them enormous credibility. The inclusion of Deborah Levy’s book in the Booker Shortlist is only the latest critical success that this young publishing house has won in its very short life and it should surprise no one if similar ventures begin to pop-up around the world.

The full 2012 Booker Prize Shortlist:

Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng

Garden of Evening Mists
Tan Twan Eng
(Myrmidon Books)

The Lighthouse - Alison Moore

The Lighthouse
Alison Moore
(Salt Publishing)

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy

Swimming Home
Deborah Levy
(And Other Stories)

Narcopolis - Jeet Thayil

Jeet Thayil
(Faber & Faber)

Umbrella - Will Self

Will Self

Bringing up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

Bringing up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel
(Fourth Estate)

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Categorised in: All Posts, Literary Awards, Publishing News

5 Responses »

  1. So risk taking in publishing isn’t a dying art, the bigger publishers should take note. Really thorough contextualising, thanks Richard!

  2. Very interesting subject, appreciate it for putting up.


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About Richard

Richard Bilkey has been selling, marketing and distributing books for over ten years, managing independent bookshops, a major online retailer and, most recently, one of Australia's largest Independent Book Distributors, Brumby Books.

Contact Richard directly at
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