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Are independent publishers surviving? We talk to Northern presses

June 8, 2020 Books, It's Not Grim Up North, Northern Soul writes..., Talks & Debates Comments Off on Are independent publishers surviving? We talk to Northern presses
Comma Press

Are you reading more than usual during lockdown? Are you consuming books at a rate of knots? While the COVID-19 pandemic may see us turning to big names to secure our latest reading fix, there are smaller businesses in need of our support.

With social distancing still in place, many Northern presses are having to re-think the way they do business – and survive. While some indies receive funding from Arts Council England’s £160 million emergency coronavirus pot, for many the grants are not a long-term solution. It’s simply a moment to breathe. So what can we do to help our small presses? We speak to a whole host of Northern publishers to find out.


Paul Neads, commissioning editor at Flapjack Press

Flapjack Press, based in Salford, publishes performance poetry and poetry theatre for adults and children and runs open mic nights and spoken word events in North West England.

Flapjack PressOne of the benefits of working with performance poets is that they’ve always had a good presence on social media and an understanding of its benefits. Transferring events onto live-streaming platforms hasn’t proven an issue. In fact, there might be an argument to say that people are happier to watch from their own sofas than risk Northern Rail and TFGM and then traipse across town to get to a venue. I’m running a few Evenings in with Flapjack Press Poets via Zoom on Monday evenings and we’ll be re-starting our open mic night, Word Central, online in a couple of weeks.

Flapjack’s always been a bit of a cooperative, so everyone’s been championing everyone else. Poets will always find gigs and there’s probably a Flapjack poet doing something somewhere online every day, whether as part of a live stream event or independently (for example, Henry Normal’s poetry epic tour continues online, Gerry Potter posts new vids daily and Thick Richard’s A Book at Bedtime ensures interesting dreams).

Of course, there’s been an impact on sales given that bricks and mortar shops are shut, and once online retailers have run out of stock there’s been no one to replenish them as the distributors, wholesalers and reps have also been shut. But every small press and independent would be in the same position. It’s just a question of keep plugging away on social media, reaching customers and reminding them to buy direct from our website for now, and then putting a few hours aside each day to stuff books into envelopes from the stock I have here.

Having knocked back several publications due this Spring and Summer till later in the year to ensure their best chance of success once the world re-opens hasn’t proven too much of an issue and, to be honest, if everything continues as it is for a while longer, they’ll be nothing wrong with more online book launches and events either. It’s simply a matter of getting on with it. Flapjack’s authors have been wonderful with sharing and promoting, as has Manchester City of Literature. And I’ve found that tagging Northern Soul also helps.


Zoe Turner, publicity and outreach officer at Comma Press

Comma Press is a not-for-profit publisher specialising in the short story and fiction in translation. The company is based in Manchester. 

Comma PressAs a small press, lockdown has posed looming financial threats with the cancellation of events and closure of bookshops. Working from home, we’re also separated from our stock in offices that have now closed and so fulfilling direct orders (the kind of sales from which we reap the most reward), while still possible, is a slower process.

However, we’ve thrown ourselves into the online revolution and are encouraging public engagement with our publications through Zoom book clubs, digital launches at emerging online literary festivals, a new string of affordable online short story courses, weekly eBook deals, free live-streamed author masterclasses, the launch of a second series of our successful podcast and more.

It’s been a joyful challenge to re-build our digital presence for a new kind of world. The best way for people to support us now is to join in and to order/pre-order books directly from our website or from platforms such as Hive and independent bookshops who can still deliver.


Hannah Bannister, operations manager at Peepal Tree Press

Peepal Tree Press is the world’s largest publisher of Caribbean and Black British books, based in Leeds, and a proud founder member of the Northern Fiction Alliance.

The Mermaid of Black Conch Peepal Tree PressWe already keep in touch with our writers, readers, colleagues and friends who are scattered across the globe, so the team adapted to working from home pretty well. Our website is open as usual and we are happily mailing worldwide. We’ve also continued our podcast, New Caribbean Voices, hosted by poet Malika Booker. 

On April 2, we published Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch. Not the ideal time but we are insanely proud of this book and so if you read just one…Coming up we’ll be releasing a series of eBooks, Dread Times, curated to transport, entertain and speak to these dread times. These fantastic fiction titles are newly-released as eBooks and also available in the original print editions.

In June, we’ll be publishing The Sea Needs No Ornament/El mar no necesita ornamento, an award-winning English and Spanish anthology of poems by 33 contemporary Caribbean Women poets. We’ll also be publishing our first ever audiobook, Kitch, the fictionalised autobiography of calypsonian Lord Kitchener by Anthony Joseph. 


Kevin Duffy, co-founder of Bluemoose Books

Kevin DuffyBluemoose Books is an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

On March 23 we saw all bookshops close and our sales drop by 90 per cent. A total disaster. But a non-fiction publisher contacted us and asked to have a chat and a plan was hatched with collaboration and cooperation.

I asked Benjamin Myers, a multi-award-winning author, if he would write a short story for us, which he did. Within seven days we’d edited A Stone Statue of the Future and it went on sale from the Little Toller website as an eBook. We sold 500 copies on the first day. From the increased traffic driven to our website we’ve had the best online sales ever.

We’re continuing with our women-only 2020 publishing schedule and sales of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, shortlisted for The British Book Awards and The Irish Book Awards, are going through the roof. If you can, please buy direct from our website.


Shane Rhodes, editor at Wrecking Ball Press

Wrecking Ball Press is an independent poetry and prose publishing company based in Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire. 

Wrecking Ball Press was founded in 1997. We publish high-quality, cutting-edge literature. We’ve built a national reputation that far exceeds our small size, based on a commitment to connecting the most innovative and accessible novels and poetry with a readership not traditionally associated with literature.

The biggest impact of the pandemic is that our publishing schedule has been knocked completely sideways. New titles that were planned for this year have been delayed. We’re still continuing to work with designers and typesetters and titles are ready to go, but our print suppliers aren’t in work right now. Even if we could get books to print, it’s hard for us to envisage book launches that don’t involve public gatherings. We’re big fans of physical books and create publications that are artefacts so, while it’s an option to release work digitally, it’s not our normal strategy.

Shane by Steve DeardenWe’re still selling books directly from our online shop and still getting books into the hands of readers, directly and via our distributors Inpress Books. We’ve been praised on social for fulfilling orders rapidly. We’re a small team but we’re all currently working remotely which is another challenge and we’re definitely missing the camaraderie, in-person creative conversations and endless amounts of coffee and cigarettes. Currently, we’re plugging our backlist like crazy. Sales of our books are lower than we’d like them to be. Along with our Northern Fiction Alliance partners we’re looking at ways of providing content to readers and we’ve been providing free content from our archives online. Recent funding from Arts Council England’s emergency response fund will enable us to develop our digital strategy, convert our backlist to digital editions, release more of our archive material and look at new, innovative approaches to independent publishing.

Like everyone else, we’re preparing ourselves for whatever the new normal might be when all of this is behind us. We’re concerned about the future, but we’ve got 23 years of experience to draw on and we’re in a sector that’s keen to share different approaches. Solidarity among independent publishers is the way forward. Simple advice: support independent publishers. Buy books.


Javerya Iqbal, sales and marketing executive at And Other Stories

And Other Stories is an independent Sheffield-based publisher known for its prize-winning literary fiction.

And Other Stories

It’s business as usual here at And Other Stories. Well, as usual as possible, though of course we’re facing a big dip in income like everyone. We’re still working with bookshops who are fulfilling online orders. Thankfully, our warehouse is still shipping books out to bookshops. Meanwhile, for anyone who orders direct from us, we’re delivering from a home attic post room instead of our usual office in Sheffield’s (now closed) Central Library.

Bookshops are integral to our work and so we have set up a bookshop-donation pledge (find out more here); a way that we, readers and bookshops can work together to make sure we still have great bookshops and great new books when this difficult time is over. This has only been possible thanks to the support of Arts Council England, our subscribers and book-buyers.


Jamie McGarry, publisher at Valley Press

Valley PressValley Press is an independent publishing house based in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.

At Valley Press, we’ve been able to keep our online shop open during the crisis and we’ve seen a lot of orders, particularly since we started a half-price sale on 46 of our titles – everything that we had a comfortable stock of when the lockdown began. If your readers would like to support us and get a superb deal on some great literature, they can see the list of sale titles here.


Sara Hunt, publisher at Saraband 

Saraband, based in Salford, is an award-winning independent publisher of fiction, nature writing, environmental issues and memoir.

Saraband Lockdown-picTransitioning to homeworking was straightforward because we already had flexible homeworking capabilities. By mid-March, our Spring and early Summer books were already in the warehouse or in distribution just waiting to meet their readers, so we couldn’t realistically postpone releases. Instead, we decided to get creative with digital initiatives while trying to troubleshoot supply chain issues.
 
Within two weeks we had launched a podcast, relaunched our website, tried out various online launches, uploaded videos, conducted live Q&As and other events on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere, and put a lot of extra time into social media. We’ve previously sold physical and digital books from our site, but subsequently focused efforts on supporting bookshops with exclusive content, author visits, events and signings. In lockdown, though, there was no choice. So we reopened our online shop and went looking for readers. And they came.
 
We’ve now relaunched our newsletter, too. Meanwhile, we’ve kept in contact with bookshops, authors, fellow indie publishers and journalists. Sales have taken a huge hit, of course, but we’ve escaped the worst by engaging with readers, bookish colleagues and our local community, including donating some books to a care home. And we are all safe and well, thank goodness.

 

By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor

Main image courtesy of Comma Press

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