Manchester Review of Books has an agenda to try to help smaller publishers with coverage. It isn’t our entire remit, but it is a concern.
With this in mind, we decided to ask some indies about their struggles. It was an article we had planned before the COVID-19 crisis hit. In the middle of the crisis, we asked again; ‘what are the challenges you face?’
The answer; nearly everything. From cashflow, to sales and distribution. The crisis only served to emphasise the precarious position of small presses in both the old and the new normal.
One editor of a well-regarded publisher – with strong links to a university – explained the stresses well. This was in the middle of lockdown, and I think the tone reflects that:
‘We’re not as precarious as some but it has been pretty stressful having to redraw years of planning over a few weeks and with no real clarity yet on when things might return to some degree of ‘normal’ that won’t just mean having to redraft everything again in six months – meanwhile haemorrhaging salary costs and losing sales because of the blocked distribution chain, and simultaneously having to balance that against the confusion around rushed central funding freezes instigated by the larger institution in which we are partially – though also luckily, protectively – berthed…’
Across everyone we spoke to, precarious funding that needed to be balanced was an issue. ‘The books’ always came out as the top priority. A lot of this was tricky even before coronavirus, as Kevin Duffy from Bluemoose told us. I asked him ‘what were the struggles you faced before?’ ‘The tedious answer’ he replied ‘is cash flow’.
Nathan Hamilton at Boiler House Press said much the same:
‘Mostly the challenges are cash flow management, as resources are more scarce. Generally, the larger your budget, the easier your job is. When you’re managing small cash flows, it is more challenging, and also many smaller publishers might be less competent in that regard, or forced against disposition to have to be more competent than they would like, or than their larger house commissioning editors might have to be… so they feel the strain and responsibility far more readily and keenly than, for example, permanently salaried academics, or privately wealthy individuals, or others less precarious in the space, while simultaneously carrying greater responsibility.’
Perhaps the second most crucial aspect, as Kim Kremer from Notting Hill Editions (NHE) highlighted, was the importance of physical product in actual commercial space:
‘As a small publishing house, it’s always a challenge to get our books into the hands of readers in such a competitive market. It helps that reviews of our titles have almost always been immensely positive, but the majority of our books reach readers in the traditional way – through the personal recommendation of an impassioned bookseller or by simply seeing an NHE book on the shop table.’
Notting Hill Editions have a particular need for this aspect of trade. It is in fact part of their unique angle as a publisher:
‘Our linenbound books are tactile, they tempt the impulse buyer. The attraction of our books doesn’t convey well through online sellers where they cannot be picked up and handled. We’ve never tried to compete on price. We don’t strive to offer the cheapest book, but rather to publish meaningful books that are passed on hand to hand. For all these reasons, the closure of bookstores during lockdown hit us hard.’
Lest we forget – as they re-open – the chilled ambience of the bookshop vanished overnight. Without these calming spaces of ‘browsing and contemplation’ – part of the psyche of the serious reader – many small publishers were ‘rendered virtually invisible.’ Bluemoose also felt the impact:
‘One of the main issues is incredibly high discounts demanded by the main high street booksellers, so getting your books on tables and in front of browsers is very difficult and as everyone knows visibility is the key.’
When this is gone, publishers are suddenly put into a different game: ‘The closure of bookshops meant we were immediately thrown into survival mode’ Kevin Duffy explained, ‘90% of our sales suddenly fell off a cliff.’
But it’s easy to forget that presses have both internally and externally facing pressures too. I was reminded of this when a publisher added that throughout the crisis ‘editors and authors come to you for answers you can’t give’, because ‘no-one can… because even national governments have no idea what they’re doing.’ In a zone of confusion, people often look to others for ‘the answer’, when in fact, sometimes there isn’t one…
But what also came across, particularly from the people we spoke to as lockdown eased, was the creative journey many publishers have been through. Where there is no answer, you have to invent one. This is a very practical definition of ‘utopia’. The positives are there, as Kim from NHE outlined:
‘During the crisis we provided free content online with a different essay or short read each week. Our monthly newsletter became a weekly event for distributing content and promoting our books which fundamentally kept us solvent. I was overwhelmed by the loyalty of our readers who chose to order direct in greater numbers than before.’
However, Kim was packing and posting alone in an office. The scale of operations came over strongly through all the conversations we had:
‘We offered a discount which is difficult for us to do on such tight margins for anyone in quarantine or simply in need of a good read for relief from the news, yet virtually no-one chose to use it. A surprise hit was A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed by James Fenton. As the lockdown sprouted so many green fingers, we sold more of this title in three months than we had in the past three years. Going to reprint on any title during the crisis was unexpected.’
Bluemoose have also felt the upside of the challenges:
‘One of the great things about indie publishers is the cooperation and collaboration. I asked Ben Myers, our bestselling and multi-award winning author – he’s now published by Bloomsbury – if he would help us by writing a short story, which he did. So, together with Little Toller, a publisher of nature books based in Dorset, we published his short story as an eBook and it is available on their web site. Within 7 days it was launched and we sold 600 copies on the first day. The response was brilliant and the traffic driven to our own website was unbelievable. We had the best direct sales from our website ever, which basically saved us.’
Bluemoose are now ‘looking at books for 2023’, so, ‘despite the pandemic’ are ‘still committed to bringing the reader great new writers from working class and diverse backgrounds.’
Manchester Review of Books say bless our small presses and all who sail therein.
– Steve Hanson & Joe Darlington