The Global Golden Age for Independent Publishers Has Begun

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

indie publishersA number of years ago, I predicted the publishing and bookselling industries would follow a boutique model, with the large and small and little in between. Note: this also applies to other industries, in most part due to the digital age and today’s customer.

Book sales would be split between higher priced print books, for which the margin would be found, and low price digital books, which would provide the mass quantities. Bookstores would be split between the large chains with the budgets and economies of scale, and a wide range of independent bookstores that successfully built and became indispensable to their communities. Likewise, publishers would consist of the huge conglomerates with the advertising and bargaining power, and a vibrant independent publishing sector in touch and adaptive to the book buying community.

As the market is finally showing signs of growth after a different last five to 10 years with so much change and evolution required, the large publishers are fulfilling that prediction: the big six is now five, with more consolidation expected to come. I also think the largest publishers have rapidly improved in terms of their adaptability and innovation over the last year, but, in my view, the most exciting sector in publishing currently is the independent one.

We are seeing independent presses featured regularly on the prize listings. For instance, Salt Publishing is on the Man Booker longlist and No Exit Press made the CWA Awards. This pattern is even stronger with the less traditional prizes. For instance, my publishing company, Legend Press, followed up two titles shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize last year with 10 titles longlisted this year for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg; there are some strong underlying reasons why independent publishers are thriving.

1. Customers run the business. Customers no longer waits for newspapers to tell them what to read. They decide how to spend their precious time ,and every industry catering to them must bend to their every whim to succeed. Successful independent publishers are best positioned to be close to the reader, through communities, group, events and today’s media in a way that is more challenging for the largest publishers. Just look at the number of large publishers that have launched imprints to appear like an independent publishers.

2. Trends appear, spread globally and disappear in an instant.
The Internet and social media have the ability to take a comment and make the world talk about it in an hour. And as a result, the market has never before been so trend-based and immediate. Independent publishers, through their set-up and shorter decision chains, are positioned best to react to trends. A good small business can scrap a whole strategy and implement a newer more successful one within a single morning.

3. Everyone wants to see a face.
Another impact of the internet and social media is that everyone wants to see the person behind anything, to get a sense they are in some way close to them. Good independent publishers work closely with their authors as well as having small, close teams and so can quickly deliver the personality rather than the corporate that today’s customer craves.

4. Business culture has grown. Disappearing is the nostalgic but delusional image of creative but disorganized independent publishers in offices swamped in piles of paper and discarded bottles. The best independents are now smartly run businesses with detailed budgets and a strong focus on the bottom line. This is backed by the entrepreneurial culture, with advice, TV shows and information everywhere on how to run a business.

5. Risk is in an independent publisher’s DNA. While moving in the right direction, in comparison to other business models, it is madness to start an independent publishing company. As a result, passion and an appetite for risk are required for anyone to take that leap. This is furthered by the fact that small publishers can’t afford to hope for five out of 50 books to be successful and highly profitable. They need 15 out of 20 books to work to balance the budget. Having to work around the edges, an appetite for risk combined with all of the opportunities above, is the reason why most of the exciting publications are currently coming from the independent sector.

I write this out of the UK, but this is not trend exclusive to my parts. If you look in the US or nearly any publishing market in the world, there is an exciting independent scene developing.

I have always been enraptured by what the Young British Artists achieved, through breaking from the mainstream, creating warehouse galleries, and building communities, from which they went on to achieve global success. By building communities, being close to the customer and taking risks, while running very smart businesses, expect history to look back on the coming years as a global golden age for independent publishers.


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4 thoughts on “The Global Golden Age for Independent Publishers Has Begun

  1. Susan Neuhaus

    Tom,
    This post beautifully outlines the strengths of independent publishers in the current environment, it accurately reflects the savvy and talented independent publishers we work with.
    What challenges are independents facing now?

    Reply
  2. Caleb Mason

    Great points and so much of this has to do with scaling business to the audience size for different types of books. I see this as history’s needed response to media consolidation and the narrowing of expression, now fully reopened. I contributed a recent post to Book Business with themes related to yours here. Enjoy the day!

    Reply

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