It has been a good month for independent presses. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, published by Dublin’s Tramp Press, won the €100,000 Dublin International Literary Award; Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole, published by Yorkshire-based Bluemoose Books, won the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize; and a self-published novel in Australia – Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He is Not There – has received good reviews in that part of the world and has been bought by Birmingham indie, Splice, which may yet lead to it going to a larger house.
In its ‘manifesto’ Bluemoose’s founder Kevin Duffy says major houses have become “so risk averse, they are merely following trends and aping what they think will work because it has worked before, for another publisher. Literature is nothing if it doesn’t invest in new writing…”
But the large houses will say they are investing in new writing, and point to their own ‘indie presses’ – the imprints that they have all started in recent years: riverrun at Quercus, Mantle at PanMacmillan, Trapeze at Hachette, Borough Press at HarperCollins… not independent in the same sense, of course, but able to create a similar mind-set in-house perhaps, and loved by agents as another shop front to which to pitch.
Major houses watch these small presses closely and often make acquisitions (providing welcome cash for the small publishers in question) – Faber with Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press) and indeed Canongate with Solar Bones. The other space publishers watch are the online writing platforms like Wattpad. The latter has just announced a partnership with German media company Bavaria Fiction which will give the latter first refusal on Wattpad Germany’s German language content. At the inaugural New York Rights Fair there was much talk of how community writing sites like Wattpad are providing content to feed the proliferation of channels in what you might call the ‘laptop’ universe: all those content-hungry series that are being watched around the globe.
From indie publishers to indie booksellers. In-coming BA President Nick Bottomley of Mr B’s in Bath, was passionate in his defence of bookshops in his speech at the World Book Day reception at the House of Commons. He called them “cultural assets [that bring] vitality to the high street at a time the high street is under constant threat”. He pointed out that if pubs can receive business rate exemptions because of their “community value”, then surely bookshops should too.
On the other side of the world, Rachel Eadie of Scorpio Books in New Zealand was also championing indies. In Booksellers NZ she wrote: “In time of political turmoil people often look to their local independent bookshop as a place of solace, just as they might a close friend…Good bookshops are the bastions of truth, offering books that can enlighten and inform, offering diverse and well-rounded perspectives”.
Physical bookstores remain strong in India, though Asoke Ghosh, chairman and MD of educational publisher PHI Learning and the ‘father of Indian publishing’, told The National Herald that piracy remains a problem, one that is so bad publishers have to decide “should we engage ourselves in publishing or pursuing?” What he would like to see is the creation of a government body “to address policy issues related to book publishing”.
In neighbouring Bangladesh publishing is having the darkest summer. There has been widespread condemnation of the murder of Bangladeshi publisher Shahzahan Bachchu in Kakaldi, near the capital Dhaka. Bachchu owned the Bishaka Prakashani (Star Publishers) publishing house, which specialised in publishing poetry. He was also a writer and activist and well known for his support of secularism. He was shot by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles as he sat in a tea-shop in his home village.
At the International Publishers Association the chair of its Freedom to Publish committee Kristenn Einarsson, said: “Publishers in Bangladesh are being intimidated into silence. The Government must prove that murderous acts cannot be carried out with impunity. They must counter such violent intolerance. If they fail to do so, then the beautifully diverse publishing culture of Bangladesh is at risk.”
On a happier note, aspiring novelists everywhere will be heartened by Lara Prescott receiving approaching £2m in deals in the US, UK and more than 10 other international territories for her historical novel based on the writing and publishing of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. ‘Lara’s Theme’, shall we say, has proved rather profitable for the author so far.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.