What is an independent publisher?
Lordy, Getty is unimaginative. (Try fotolibra or istockphoto instead.) Searching for inspiration for a picture to go with this post, I put 'independent' into its search engine, and what does it come up with? A blinking great eagle and US flag. Pah. Still, the picture stays, just for the eagle. I half-heartedly tried to animate its eye so it follows you around the room, but gave up. Roll on PSCS3.
Not doing a good job of getting to the point on this post so far, am I? Stick with me (stick with me, stick with me, stick with me, as The Caterer would say). So a few things have come up of late which have got me thinking about what, precisely, is an independent publisher - not to mention a small publisher. One of the things that sparked off this thought process was a comment the gorgeous DGR made about how nice it is that indies support each other. I wondered whether that's true, and if it is, why? We're all in competition, in theory.
You only have to look around the room at any IPG meeting to get a sense of just how diverse this sector is. Its membership spans tiny one-man bands and 80 year old relative giants. Independence doesn't have to mean small. Neither does independence mean that there is any consistency across genre. To use the IPG membership as an example, again, publications range from specialist maritime history and spot-welding books to books that go head to head with the massive general fiction houses. Independence does not have to mean 'local', 'young', 'confined to the UK', 'niche', 'small', 'without shareholders' or 'unprofessional'. Yet it can also mean all these things. It's a miracle that the IPG manages to exist at all with such a wide range of interests to meet.
What else? It doesn't necessarily mean 'struggling'. Last week I found myself, absolutely not to my credit, getting huffy about other independents who are better capitalised, growing more rapidly, and have more literary prizes than us (in fact, any literary prizes would be one up on us. Bah. See, there I go again with my uncharitble and jealous huffiness. I am a witch). I found myself thinking that it wasn't fair - that being a small independent publisher somehow meant undergoing some sort of rite of passage where you have to struggle to stay in business, where you have to sweat about cash flow and fight for every sale. On reflection, of course, that's idiotic and I'm a berk for thinking it. (Berk - people don't say that anymore, do they?)
I have to be truthful - one of the reasons we got off the ground is that the bar was set quite low on certain aspects of independent publishing when we started out. Some publishers were always way ahead of the pack, like Tindal Street, Portobello - oh, you know, loads of publishers - but still, there were enough awful cover designs and strange anti-retailer ranters out there to make us look like an incredibly professional outfit. The bar has really been raised since then by the likes of Salt, Old Street and Quercus and I feel that Snowbooks has to try very hard to get near the front of the pack (but then fear is a powerful motivator, and since I found my new osteopath, who has stolen my carefully-hoarded tension which used to keep me going, I need all the sources of vim I can get.) But back in the day we found it easy to be way more professional than even the big publishers. Lots of publishers still have a way to go, but increasingly being small means being even more attuned to what readers and retailers want - and being nimble enough to give it to them.
It seems to me that to be successful in independent publishing, you have to be conscious of this very wide spectrum of size, competence, performance, and structure, and you have to make sure that you're as near the top of the list as possible in as many ways as possible. I see some independent publishers grouping together to form collectives (and again I get jealous, naturally: being excluded from any party is never good for the ego) and good on them. By combining their strengths they are protecting their interests. Rob was talking about how Salt have positioned themselves firmly and brilliantly in the poetry space. I think that Snowbooks does a really good job of listening to retailers and striving to give them what they want. But how to be successful is not the question, here - the question seeks a definition of an independent publisher. I think to try to answer this demonstrates beautifully why the sector is so important and precious - it can't be pinned down. The variety is tremendous. Independent publishers span a whole spectrum of competence, success, innovation, longevity, size, output, age and geographical coverage. It is so exciting to be part of a sector where there is such breadth and such opportunity to continually raise the bar. Yet there is one thing that all independent publishers share, without exception - and I think this extends to independent retailers, too. It's absolute passion and belief in the cause - in the books. No wonder we stick together.