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Daniel Hahn: On Independent Publishing

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on January 30, 2017
This article was updated on September 17, 2017
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Daniel Hahn is an award-winning writer, editor and translator, with some 50 books to his name. His translations from Portuguese, Spanish and French include fiction from Europe, Africa and the Americas, and non-fiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé. He is a former chair of the Translators Association and the Society of Authors, and on the board of many organisations that work with literature and free speech. Recent books include the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature and the translation of José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. He is a judge for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

This is a piece about independent publishing.

At the risk of this being one of those tiresome openings that feels the need to define terms, I hope you’ll forgive me just a brief clarification: what I mean by independent, for the purposes of this article, is not quite the same as ‘small publishing’. Some indies are only small if you take that to mean ‘relatively small compared to Penguin Random House’ or ‘relatively small compared to Belgium’. The indies I’m talking about are simply those publishers independent of the large conglomerates. They may or not be small. (Some of these indies publish hundreds of books a year, many have non-executive boards of directors and plenty even have shareholders.)

So, now that we know where we stand…

I’ve published about fifty books in my career so far, as a writer, translator, or editor, and I’d estimate that slightly over half of them were with indies; so what I have to say is informed by my own experiences more than anything else. And informed also by the fact that, being a bit of a hack, I have no problem taking such a relatively tiny pool of experiential data and using it to generalise wildly. So… But no – first of all, a doubt I feel I ought to share with you: while I love working with independent publishers, and I’ll be enthusing about them at length below, I want just slightly to resist the clear-cut opposition between the independents and the corporate/conglomerate publishers. There are ways in which they’re operationally different, but everybody I know in a corporate publisher is interested in the quality of their products and everybody I know in an indie would be delighted to be making more money – the distinction is not one between craven single-minded money-chasing and idealistic, literary qualitative purity, even if that shorthand might seem to simplify things.

In the coming twelve months, I’m publishing books with the following houses: Scribe, Harvill Secker, Oxford University Press, Tell a Story, Gecko Press, Oneworld Publications, Archipelago Books, Alma Books and probably a couple of others. They’re based in the UK, US, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. They have, truth be told, very little in common, from a corporate or structural point of view, and they operate on dramatically different scales. (As far as I know, Tell a Story are publishing only one book this year; Harvill Secker are part of Penguin Random House UK, who publish 400 books a month.) They are mostly, only Harvill Secker excepted, ‘independent’ in the broadest sense, but that doesn’t tell you an awful lot, either. The only thing I can say for sure is that they’re all interested in the same kinds of books I am, and they aren’t afraid to publish them. Which is more impressive than you might realise, as my professional tastes really don’t tend towards the more obviously commercial end of the market…

What is an Independent Publisher?

Now, independent publishers – the ones I know, at least – do all have certain things in common, though, and those things are all tied to that very ‘independence’. The distance between the editorial assistant who looks after the slush pile, and the chair of the board who oversees strategic budget decisions (which ultimately affect the assistant’s work) is a whole world if you’re in Penguin Random House, and not so in an indie. This isn’t just about scale per se; because while even the larger indie publishers are minnows compared to New York’s Big Five, even the larger of these ones have fewer levels of organisational hierarchy – the buck, in short, has to stop a lot sooner; it doesn’t usually stop in a boardroom or a trading floor on a different continent.

While it’s obvious that the best of what happens in the independent sector is not unheard of in the conglomerate world, in one of the areas in which I work (translated literary fiction) there’s certainly a disproportionate showing of small or medium-sized indies compared to some of the big commercial stalwarts you might more often see on the bestseller lists.

Here in the UK, we used to have a long-standing prize for the best translated novel, called the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (which last year evolved into the new Man Booker International Prize). Take a look at the long-lists for 2011-2015 and you’ll find five appearances by Peirene Press, who only publish three books a year, and none at all from Simon & Schuster, who publish a zillion books a year (that’s not an exact number – I’m just estimating).

This isn’t because S&S UK aren’t capable of publishing high-quality literary fiction (even in translation) – they clearly are, and sometimes they do just that. But different publishing houses have different priorities, and different financial constraints, and different decision-making processes, and most crucially different attitudes to risk. And pretty often, these are the fault-lines that separate the corporate conglomerates and the indies.

But that’s not to say that even the smallest, most idealistic indie publishers are immune to, you know, basic capitalism; because they have wages to pay and overheads to meet and the same expenses as the rest of us. Even those publishing houses that are not-for-profit have to remain solvent, and even those without shareholder obligations have to keep an eye on the bottom line if they want still to be doing business next year and the year following. And even if they didn’t, it would be a strange publisher that wanted to produce books, but didn’t care whether or not they were ever read – that surely goes against the basic motivation, doesn’t it?

While no publisher, big or small, can afford unlimited risk, different publishers do approach it, and measure it, differently. And certain risks are easier to take than they once were. Economies of scale used to make a much bigger difference to things like printing costs, so printing or re-printing small runs could be prohibitively expensive; the differential is far smaller now. Online marketing and social networks mean that, while marketing a book well has never been more important, the barrier to entry for marketing a book has never been lower. That helps a smaller house mitigate risk, too.

(Though make no mistake: any kind of publishing is about risk, one way or another.)

I love doing books with independent publishers – I should say that very clearly. But not just from an ideological point of view, but because of the attitudes to risk that they are able to take, and because of the consistency of their commitment to their individual books. What I really mean, then, is that I love doing books with good independent publishers. (And, for that matter, with those branches within the corporates that are able, at least in part, to behave like those independents. They do exist. I wish there were more like them.)

A good publisher does not just buy the rights to a book, typeset it, and then print it. A good publisher – indie or conglomerate – attends to every aspect of every book, making it the best product possible and then devising a campaign to get it to its readers. And I do mean devising a campaign, not merely putting it onto a conveyor belt: a page in the catalogue, copies to all the usual reviewers, submit to the usual prizes, pitches to all the usual festivals, a hopeful e-mail to the usual producers on Radio 4.

Independent vs Conglomerate Publishing

Each publisher can offer its writers and translators different things. Sure, the best conglomerates build campaigns easily as well as anybody, at least for the small proportion of books they have chosen to focus on. And yes, scale can be useful, but it isn’t always; I remember hearing a major corporate publisher talking about how great it was for their authors that they had active social media teams and a newsletter with tens of thousands of subscribers, far outstripping anything a small indie could ever offer its authors; but if the newsletter is of necessity going to focus on a handful of titles of that month’s hundreds, it’s irrelevant for most of us. When I publish a book with And Other Stories or Pushkin Press or Archipelago Books (all of them at the smaller end of publishers), I know every book will be promoted via all their channels, including a newsletter that doesn’t go to 30,000 people but also doesn’t have to choose other more commercial names to feature over mine. Getting my book in front of one thousand people is more useful to me than not getting my book in front of thirty thousand…

So often success for an independent publisher seems to happen against odds – the playing field isn’t anywhere close to level, when you look at bookstore discounts, at the cost of promotion, and so forth – and yet thrilling successes, both critical and commercial, happen all the time.

Deep Vellum Publishing, based in Dallas, published Carmen Boullosa’s Texas, translated by Samantha Schnee, which won the 2014 Typographical Era Translation Award; Contraband, an imprint of Glasgow-based Saraband, was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize for Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (the prize ultimately won by Oneworld, another indie); this very week, the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation had a six-strong shortlist of books, every single one of which came from an independent press, ranging from newcomers Tiny Owl or Darf, up to the long-established Walker Books; Comma Press, a Manchester-based house specialising in short stories, beat a strong field in 2014 to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright. What do they have in common? (Apart from the fact that, you’ll have noticed, many of them are based outside the usual publishing centres of London or New York?) They’re publishers who took risks on books that other publishers would have considered difficult or uncommercial or quirky or “quiet” (that’s a terrible publishing insult), and their independence was vindicated.

This does mean that independent publishers, especially the smaller ones, often act as proving-grounds for commercially unlikely writers, only to find themselves outbid by a larger house as soon as they’ve helped to make that writer a success; plenty of agents are happy to encourage their writers to follow the money into the mainstream. It’s regrettable (for obvious reasons), and probably unavoidable (also for obvious reasons); but each time that happens it’s also a reminder that, so often, it was an independent, with great dedication and nerve and probably the smallest of budgets, who got there first. Speaking as a writer, it’s particularly these brave discoveries that make indie publishing an exciting place to be.

Daniel Hahn


Posts on this profile were created by members of the Bookwitty team. Here, we discuss books, authors, publishers and other literary-related topics. You’ll find our writers based between our ... Show More


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