‘Small presses are the coral reefs of publishing, attracting the most colourful fish’
Kevin Duffy of Bluemoose Books argues that independent publishers are vital but at risk
Kevin and Hetha Duffy, co-founders of Bluemoose Books, publishers of Ben Myers and Rónán Hession
I pronounced rather grandly recently that smaller publishers are the delicatessens of the publishing world. We don’t publish that much but when we do, it stays with the reader and lingers on the taste buds of the creative mind that bit longer.
Corporate publishing has a different economic imperative, and I understand that – it is a different business model, they have to satisfy the demands of shareholders. They are the supermarkets of the publishing world and have the heft to stack them high and sell them cheaper.
Of course, there are exceptions and they do publish some fantastic authors and books but within literary fiction it is the smaller presses that appear to be doing most of the heavy lifting and finding and developing new voices and writers.
Tramp Press in Ireland has a phenomenal record, publishing Mike McCormack and Sara Baume, among others. Galley Beggar published Eimear McBride, Preti Taneja and Lucy Ellman andBluemoose has publioshed Ben Myers and Rónán Hession.
At one time all publishing decisions were editorially led. Not so much these days. However, at the smaller presses this is still the case. The person reading the manuscripts, and we read a lot, will probably be the one making the publishing decision.
If you look at books in translation, the smaller presses really are leading the way, such as Sandstone, winner of the 2019 International Booker Prize with Celestial Bodies by Alharthi Johka, translated by Marilyn Booth; Fitzcarraldo Editions, publisher of the 2018 International Booker winner Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft; and Charco Press.
The world of publishing these days is consumed by the big book, the one that seems to take all the oxygen, all the advertising and yes, again I understand the economics of it, and its commercial necessity for booksellers and publishers but these successes used to fund the fledgling careers of new writers – not so much these days.
The big book pushes the smaller presses to the margins and the voices of our authors to the edges. It greets the casual browser with a big hello and says, you don’t really have to go anywhere else in the bookshop because it’s here, the book you want and need, stacked high on this table.
Prior to the demise of the net book agreement in 1995, when books could not be discounted, the publishing decisions were made by editors. Today, the most important decision makers in corporate publishing will be the sales and marketing people. They have lots of graphs and Venn diagrams but publishing and creativity doesn’t have a template.
Amazon may have the best marketing algorithm on the planet, but algorithms are not best placed in finding great new talent and stories. People do that. I once received from a marketing director, a fax, yes, it is that long ago, that slowly revealed the letters GFI Kevin.
It was like watching a Tom Cruise film when you see the fax paper roll under the computer table to be lost until….I had to ring him up and ask him what it meant. He’d been on a course and wanted to impress and inspire but it merely confused me. He told me what it meant. GFI Kevin meant GO FOR IT Kevin. Go for what, a brew, a pint, a run, a chat, a running jump off a cliff?
Publishing is simple. You read a manuscript and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you get excited and you get booksellers excited and they in turn get readers excited. Like all great art or music, writing is about how you make people feel.
I know sometimes in the postmodern world of literary fiction it is seen as crass to love stories but as we are seeing during this pandemic, it is to stories that many are turning to in their isolation and lockdown.
The smaller presses are a bit like coral reefs, tiny, delicate and existing precariously in a world of big corporate fishes circling us. But we attract the more colourful, smaller fish that may not immediately have the commercial heft and sales figures but these writers, whose books don’t fit the Venn diagram template of success, go on to be shortlisted and win some of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world.
If we find ourselves bleached out of existence by these dire economic circumstances, then the world of literary fiction will be a less colourful place and the diversity of literary fiction may take a permanent hit and then I will really have to GFI.
But going for it at the moment is simply keeping our heads above water but the good news, and there is always some good news, is that I have just read a new manuscript and I’ve already marked out a space for it in the Bluemoose Delicatessen and that truly is wonderful.