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Small presses: a vibrant sector with lessons for all of us

Abbie Headon runs Abbie Headon Publishing Services, and offers a range of skills including writing, editing and commissioning, alongside social media, website development and publishing management. She champions fresh approaches to solving the industry’s challenges and can be found mingling at most publishing events. Abbie’s also BookMachine’s Commissioning Editor and sits on the BookMachine Editorial Board

Last night’s packed gathering at The Library Club in London brought together a crack team of small publishers, ready to discuss how their companies began and how they continue flourish in an industry seemingly dominated by the Big Five and London. The panel was chaired by Thea Lenarduzzi, a commissioning editor at the TLS and the co-host of Freedom, Books, Flowers and the Moon, the TLS’s weekly podcast, and the panellists were John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound, Sarah Cleave, Publishing Manager at Comma Press and Cécile Menon, founder of Les Fugitives.

Origin stories

Each of the publishing companies represented on the panel has a very different origin story. The idea for Unbound arose in 2011 when John and his co-founder felt that publishing was losing touch with its audience; they were inspired by British authors of the eighteen and nineteenth centuries to reintroduce crowd-funding to the book industry – updated for the digital age.

Cécile described herself having started Les Fugitives ‘a bit by accident – as you do’. Having translated a book (for which she was awarded the 2016 Scott Moncrieff Prize for Translation, with Natasha Lehrer), she couldn’t find the right house for it, and then planned to found a company with a friend. The friend dropped out, so she decided to start a company by herself, and Les Fugitives was born.

Sarah has only been with Comma press for a year and a half, but spoke proudly of its foundation in 2003 with a clear mission to publish diverse thematic collections of short stories and support writer development.

Owning your niche

One of the great pleasures of running a small publisher is that you can pursue the subjects and books that matter most to you, with no hindrance from the glacial decision-making processes that come with bigger organisations.

Although Les Fugitives is true to its name, publishing books that resist categorisation and that can’t be pinned down to well-known genres, it has a clear mission, to publish award-winning French literature in translation. The books Cécile has published so far could be defined as ‘feminist writing’, but instead of being a tightly-focused list, ‘each new title is engaged in a form of dialogue’ with the other titles she has published to date.

For Comma Press, a not-for-profit company, the commercial perspective is not the only one that matters: they have broader goals to support and develop the writing community in all its diversity. Sarah mentioned that one of the things small publishers do best is building up a committed audience of people who’ll stick with them, even investing in books before they’re published.

While Unbound doesn’t focus on a genre niche, John described how, in the years since it was founded in 2011, certain themes have emerged, such as a set of anthologies covering contemporary issues (The Good Immigrant, Repeal the 8th, Common People, for example), and a list of ‘old rebels’: writers such as Jonathan Meades and Raymond Briggs, who are no longer being published by the bigger houses they used to work with but who still have stories to tell.

Publishing outside the norms

One theme that recurred throughout the discussion was the idea of a form of publishing that takes place outside the norms of the mainstream publishing world. When Sarah left London to take up her job at Comma Press in Manchester, she was interviewed by The Bookseller, and the not-quite-spoken judgement was that to move north was more-or-less to end her career. (I could feel every non-Londoner in the room identifying strongly with this sentiment – we’ve all heard this kind of thing far too often.)

Thea suggested a surprising – but surprisingly relevant – analogy between publishing and farming: the farming world includes giant monolithic agribusinesses and small family-sized producers, and while the former benefit from their economies of scale and their hold on the market, the latter are freer to experiment and diversify. The panellists agreed, with Sarah describing how her job enables her ‘to build things from scratch’, rather than buying them in as finished manuscripts, John pointing out that ‘change always comes from the margins’ and Cécile (playfully) comparing small-press publishing to the organic farming movement.

If we had a crystal ball…

Thea rounded off the discussion by asking if the panel feel optimistic about the future. John seemed to sum up the general mood, pointing out that many of his favourite reads of recent years have come from small publishers. Putting an eternal truth into words, he said, ‘It’s a great time to be an independent publisher… though it’s never a great time to make a lot of money.’ Cécile agreed: even if the risk of failure is ever-present, ‘we’re still doing it for the love of it’. And the love of books – those special, unique books that only we can bring into the world – is something we can all agree on.

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