Feature Indie publishers’ challenges

Independent publishers face big challenges of scale, but they enjoy some unique advantages and opportunities too. Bridget Shine, chief executive of the Independent Publishers Guild, looks at five big issues facing the organisation’s members

Attendees at the Independent Publishers Guild’s

Conference network during a drinks break

Five go indie publishing... Discoverability

Whether winning shelf space in bookshops or getting noticed online, improving the discover- ability of books is a major chal- lenge for publishers. It is some- thing that independents have got much better at in recent years, partly because the growth of internet retail has gone some way to levelling the playing field between small and large companies. To increase online visibility, IPG members have become experts in areas such as meta- data, s.e.o. and social media. They have become much better at collaborating with retailers too—especially indie booksell- ers, 30 of whom were guests at the IPG’s Autumn Conference. They have also learned how

to build their brands. As Saat- chi & Saatchi chairman Richard Huntington told our confer- ence, it doesn’t require a big budget: “Anyone can achieve good branding with a bit of hard work and audacity.” Two good examples of this include Kogan Page, which celebrates its 50th year in 2017; and Edward Elgar Publishing, which has become a big brand in social sciences and law by zeroing in on the fundamentals of publishing: customer ser- vice, author and staff care, and a relentless focus on its specialisms.

Going global

Independent publishing is more global than people think. By comparison with the UK’s larger conglomerates, indies can be shorter on the resources needed to build a global profile, like international offices and rights teams. But many still punch well above their weight worldwide. The IPG’s Harbottle & Lewis Independent Publishing Report shows that nearly 30% of IPG members’ sales come from exports or rights. International sales are particularly strong for independents in academic and professional publishing, a number of whom have become world-renowned in their fields. The weakness of the pound since the Brexit vote has made their titles even more appeal- ing to overseas buyers. There is plenty of evidence

of the global appeal of inde- pendents on the IPG’s two stands at Frankfurt, in Halls 4.2 and 6.2. Our members rarely have blockbuster deals to report, but they do rack up a lot of small, cumulatively sig- nificant business. Flexible, focused and friendly to work with, it is easy to see their appeal to international partners.


After financing and cashflow, the issue of recruiting and retaining good staff is perhaps the biggest day-to-day chal- lenge for independent publish- ers. Some of our members, especially those outside Lon- don, can find it hard to attract talent—and when they do, many are later lured away to bigger publishers that they believe will offer clearer career paths. Brexit, and its potential impact on freedom of move- ment for EU nationals, has exacerbated the problem. But for young graduates in

particular, independent pub- lishing is a brilliant place to work. At bigger indies, capable team members can rise through the ranks quickly, while at smaller indies they have the chance to try their hand at many different aspects of publishing. It’s not unusual for staff to work across public- ity as well as editorial, for instance, or to add co-ordina- tion of rights to their sales roles. The challenge for indies is to promote themselves as great places for young people to get a grounding in publish- ing and shoulder responsibility early in their career. Joshua Brown, Young Independent Publisher of the Year at the lat- est IPG Awards, has just become m.d. of How2Become at the age of 26.


The principles of attracting staff also apply to authors. It is easy for writers to feel pulled to bigger companies, where they think they will get more exposure and, in the trade at least, higher advances. The big marketing and sales resources of conglomerate publishers are an obvious attraction. But independents have

things to offer authors that cannot be replicated by large firms. One is personal atten- tion: the sense that a writer is a true partner in publishing, rather than a small cog in a wheel—that’s especially valued among academic authors. At specialist publishers, another is focus: a deep understanding of a book’s niche and a close- ness to its target market. A third is loyalty, and the willing- ness to stick with authors in the long-term. Outside of the top tier of

brand names, many authors have a choice between sitting in the midlist of a big publisher or being a major component of a smaller one. There are plenty of sound reasons for writers to choose the former, but they shouldn’t overlook the unique strengths of independents.


The challenge of diversifying both staff and output is far from unique to independents. Despite some good cross- industry initiatives, publishing still doesn’t properly reflect modern society. Independents are well

placed to make headway on this, and the emergence of diversity-driven start-ups has been a welcome trend. It is particularly apparent in chil- dren’s books, where Alanna Books, Neem Tree Press and Otter-Barry Books are just three of the IPG members dedi- cated to importing stories from overseas and producing more books for BAME children. As Janetta Otter-Barry told IPG conference delegates: “All chil- dren should have the chance to see themselves in books, what- ever their cultural background.” Diversity in publishing takes

many other forms. The last three winners of the IPG awards’ Alison Morrison Diver- sity Award —cosmopolitan dou- ble-Man Booker winner One- world, dyslexic-children’s spe- cialist Barrington Stoke and Carcanet Press, a poetry pub- lisher with authors in dozens of countries worldwide—are all fine examples of how indepen- dent publishers widen the horizons of readers. There is much more to be done on diversity, but you don’t have to look far within the IPG’s mem- bership for inspiration.

24 12th October 2017

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