Publishing Against the Paradigm by Charlotte Webster
By Ian Evans, on 14 February 2020
UCL Comparative Literature’s Panel Event: Publishing Against the Paradigm invited guest speakers Alison Devers, founder of The Second Shelf, Gary Budden, founder of Influx Press, Brekhna Aftab from Pluto Press, and Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books, to reflect on their experiences in independent publishing and bookselling.
Large conglomerates like Amazon and Penguin Random House represent the vast majority of the market for print books. In this environment, how do small independent publishers and bookshops survive? Well, it’s hard, say the panellists of Tuesday’s discussion, but independents are thinking of new and increasingly creative ways to find their market and ensure long-term sustainability. Brekhna Aftab emphasised the importance of direct sales to readers, bypassing other links in the supply chain like Amazon. Pluto Press has re-launched the Left Book Club, originally founded in 1936 by Victor Gollancz, a subscription service which entitles members to either six or twelve of the ‘best radical and progressive’ political books a year. Left Book Club books are designed to be instantly recognisable, with standardised yellow and black covers and typography. Independent bookshops and publishers, the panellists agreed, must find their niche in order to survive. Social media is helping: publishers can communicate directly with their readers, build loyalty, and form a virtual community across potentially disparate geographies.
Alison Devers noted that Big 5 publishers focus disproportionately on ‘general bestsellers,’ to which they devote almost all of their marketing and PR spend. It is the role of indies, she felt, to answer to this by publishing and publicising books that don’t fit a ‘general audience’ – a term that she noted almost always means ‘white’. The controversy surrounding Macmillan’s publication of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was a topic of much discussion. Despite having no issue with writing about cultures other than your own, Devers felt that the marketing spend on American Dirt was outrageous, given that there are several other books that discuss similar themes, written by Latinx authors. The money was devoted to Cummins’ book, she felt, because it was more in line with the ‘general audience’ that publishers so often target.
Brekhna Aftab added that publishers will continue to prioritise white authors when the industry itself continues to be made up of an overwhelmingly white workforce. She noted the danger that diversity within the industry becomes a passing fad, and felt that structural changes are needed to address the issue long-term. Publishing continues to be a low-pay industry: salaries are often omitted from job advertisements, and many publishers offer internships without pay. To secure these internships in the first place, applicants must navigate informal networks, and the industry continues to be overwhelmingly London-centric. These issues have become deeply embedded, but should be confronted to ensure that publishers are producing books that are truly reflective of their readers’ lived experiences.
So what can readers do to affect positive change in the publishing industry? Buy indie, says Alison Devers. This seems like a simple solution, but the fact remains that people buy with Amazon because it is cheaper; it can afford to make a loss on books, while small indie bookshops simply can’t. New forms of direct sale such as subscription schemes might offer a solution, though; the Left Book Club for example offers a starting price of £4.99 a month. In a fiercely competitive and uncertain economic environment, independent publishers and booksellers are struggling to remain viable. Wherever possible, the panellists encouraged, readers should buy indie. We should consider the impact that the books we buy have on our society because, as Nicola Beauman reminds us, publishing is always political.