‘It’s been a rollercoaster’: how indie publishers survived – and thrived – in 2020 | Publishing
S.Six months ago, independent publishers Jacaranda and Knights Of publicly warned that their income had dropped to near zero. They weren’t the only small publishers in trouble. A survey by the bookseller at the time showed that almost 60% of small publishers feared the closure by autumn. No bookstore meant that no knowledgeable, passionate booksellers were bringing new books they loved to customers. No events and no travel meant that crucial avenues for introducing new writers were gone.
The stars had been looking for Oneworld very happily in March. The independent publisher had three of its biggest books planned for the month – a novel by women’s award winner Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow; a new thriller from bestseller Will Dean, Black River; and Damien Love’s older children’s novel, Monstrous Devices. It had printed POS materials, invested in marketing, advertising, and printing.
Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow. Photo: Antonio Olmos / The Observer
Then came the first national lockdown. “Silver Sparrow came out Thursday and bookstores closed on Monday,” said Juliet Mabey, the editor whose impeccable taste led Oneworld to win two consecutive Booker Awards for novels by Marlon James and Paul Beatty. “It was incredibly frustrating and stressful.”
Events for Love’s debut novel, in which a 12-year-old boy receives a potentially fatal toy robot in the mail, have been canceled. Dean, who lives in the wilderness of Sweden, could no longer visit the UK for publication and sign the hundreds of copies of his novel that were reserved for business.
“The kind of support that publishers rely on – in-person events where booksellers sell books by hand just disappeared overnight. Yes, you have social media, but so does the whole world. We said we can actually do remote events for Tayari and save the airfare, but so can everyone else, ”says Mabey.
She estimates that Oneworld is facing “a few hundred thousand pounds of lost sales”. Things have improved since then – stores reopened in July, Oneworld shortlisted Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, and Richard and Judy chose Silver Sparrow for their book club.
“It was a roller coaster,” agrees Francis Bickmore in Canongate. “How do you bring light and warmth to new voices? The job of publishing, in many ways, is to convince someone that they want something they haven’t heard of. And without that incredible power of individual booksellers’ retail sales, without the power of the brilliant literary festival scene, and without the writers walking up and down the streets and going to the stores to sign, there was a real void. “
Bickmore particularly mourns what this has to do with “an extraordinary Hawaiian novel”, Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn, which “certainly suffered this year.” Conversely, Canongate had great success with Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, “a book that unwittingly foresaw exactly what people want Lockdown to do by taking you from a place of darkness to a place of hope and is very good about loneliness and isolation ”.
Things looked pretty apocalyptic at Bluemoose, a small independent company in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, in April. Sales were “off the cliff” and co-founder Kevin Duffy warned that “losing 90% of sales could be catastrophic and affect business.”
Then Duffy innovated with another small publisher, Gracie Cooper of Little Toller. The couple asked award-winning writer Benjamin Myers (whose career began at Bluemoose) if he would let her publish a short story. Myers agreed, and A Stone Statue in the Future was made available exclusively on the Little Toller website as an e-book, with all proceeds shared between Little Toller, Bluemoose, and the author.
Benjamin Myers photographed near his home in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire. Photo: Richard Saker / The Observer
Independents across the board have been forced to find new ways to reach readers. Granta built anticipation for Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings by getting BookTubers to record reaction videos to the “amazing” end of the book, with the video viewed “tens of thousands of times.” At Carcanet, employees put together a social media campaign for the very first Ethiopian Amharic poetry collection, Songs We Learn from Trees, broadcast several of the poets reading from the book, and then added blog posts and interviews with editors and poets. It was, says editor Michael Schmidt, extremely popular.
“We find different voices from working-class writers, writers of color, and independent bookstores to be our ambassadors,” says Duffy. “It all went out the window on March 23rd, but strangely enough, we’ve had the best sales ever in the past seven months. Ben Myers’ book just absolutely flowed. It got so many people to the Bluemoose website, and we sold so many physical copies of books, that I think our average sales increased 54% in the three months it was banned. “
Bluemoose isn’t the only small publisher to find light in the darkness of the lockdown: when readers learned the plight of Independents, they stepped forward. In May, Knights Of and Jacaranda, who both publish different books, launched a joint crowdfunder to survive. They had raised £ 164,561 by June 10th when donations rose following the murder of George Floyd.
With the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, attention was drawn to our fiction list and almost every track sold out by June. David Stevens, Knights Of
“In May we had some really difficult conversations and we had to plan what worst-case scenarios would be,” says David Stevens of Knights Of. “But with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, attention was drawn to our fiction list and almost every title sold out by June.” he says. “Since then, readers, retailers and organizations have redoubled their efforts to make sure this inclusive children’s book publisher goes as strong as possible into 2021.” Sharna Jackson’s High Rise Mystery even won a Waterstones Children’s Award, which was “a big moment for a tiny publisher.”
For Jacaranda, the emergency funding from Arts Council England helped fill the gap, as it did for many small indies. “Without all this financial support, things would be dramatically different at the moment,” says founder Valerie Brandes.
The independent Norley Galley Beggar decided to postpone one of his titles, Insignificance by James Clammer, until next summer, but continued Alex Pheby’s murder. “It’s the kind of book that is really based on word of mouth,” says co-founder Sam Jordison. “Then we got help from Arts Council England, which took a lot of stress out of what would happen if we were printing and all shops were closed.”
Since the stores reopened in July, independent print shops have pounced on themselves to support booksellers, offering signed copies to seduce readers. Although many offered call and collect, click and collect, and home delivery, and the launch of Bookshop.org allowed readers to buy, The Booksellers Association warned that England’s second ban in the lucrative holiday season to independent businesses was “potentially ruinously commercial” while assisting her local independent bookseller and raising more than £ 600,000 for indie bookstores in the UK. “Your livelihoods and that of your employees have been in jeopardy since the first lockdown, and your chances of survival through 2021 would be greatly improved with a solid Christmas sales season,” said CEO Meryl Halls in a letter to MPs calling for bookstores to be essential Retailers are classified.
“We’re just desperate to see these companies can advance into the post-pandemic,” says Canongate’s Bickmore. “The more you can support local bookstores, the better.”