More than half of the UK’s small publishers fear they could be out of business by the autumn as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to research by the Bookseller, which warns of a “whole tranche of writers that either will not write, or will be unable to see their work published”.
With author events cancelled, titles delayed and bookshop sales severely hit by lockdown, the survey of 72 small publishers reveals almost 60% fear closure by the autumn. The Bookseller said that 57% reported they had no cashflow to support their business, and 85% had seen sales drop by more than half.
According to the Bookseller’s editor Philip Jones, the survey shows that the outbreak threatens many small presses, including some of the UK’s best-known independents.
“These are not big publishers, or even the bigger indies, but the very smallest, many of them Arts Council-funded, publishing into areas often overlooked by other publishers, with a particular emphasis on debut writers, and those from BAME or working-class backgrounds,” said Jones. “There’s a whole tranche of writers that either will not write, or will be unable to see their work published, if these fears come true, and it is incumbent on the publishing sector, arts funders and governments to look at how the situation can be resolved.”
Independents often take risks on authors that mainstream publishers shy away from: Norwich-based indie Galley Beggar Press published Eimear McBride’s award-winning A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing after it was rejected by a string of major presses, while independents dominated the longlist for this year’s International Booker prize.
After winning the London category of the small press of the year award at the 2020 British Book Awards, the founder of Jacaranda Books, Valerie Brandes, had been looking at her “strongest, most ambitious year of publishing”, including a commitment to publish 20 black British writers.
“The pandemic and the resultant crisis has not only decimated our plans for these new authors, but has also impacted our publishing programme in every aspect overall, from future acquisitions to sales and distribution,” said Brandes. “We have had to adapt, as small presses have to, turning to our website to sell directly, making changes to our publishing schedule and connecting more with our community. This is all compounded by the industry-wide uncertainty; we have no idea how far we will fall or for how long.”
Jacaranda has teamed up with Knights Of, another publisher specialising in diverse authors, to launch a crowdfunding campaign, administered by independent writing charity Spread the Word. It is looking to raise £100,000, 80% of which will be split between the two presses, with 20% to go to other diversity-focused independents. The money raised will be “vital to ensuring that our shared work can survive this crisis and come out strong and together at the other end”, said Knights Of publisher Aimée Felone.
England’s literature development agencies warned in a joint statement that small and independent presses are “at the forefront of discovering new writers and opening up reading choices through publishing titles often ignored by mainstream publishers” and “if we want to continue to open up writing as a career choice, particularly for under-represented writers, and to develop new audiences for books, we need a healthy independent sector”.
The agencies, who include Literature Works, the National Centre for Writing, New Writing North, New Writing South, Spread the Word, Writing East Midlands and Writing West Midlands, added: “The impact of Covid-19 has revealed the fragility of the sector. We would call on the industry as a whole to review how business is done – from supply chains through to returns – and for funders into the independent sector to open up a conversation about how investments could be made to ensure small presses and independents continue to thrive.”
At West Yorkshire’s Bluemoose Books, Kevin Duffy said the impact had been devastating, with sales initially declining by 90%. But the small publisher moved quickly, and teamed up with fellow independent Little Toller to publish a new short story by Benjamin Myers, A Stone Statue in the Future, as an ebook. “We sold over 500 copies on the first day and it has driven traffic to our own website, increasing direct sales by 300%,” said Duffy. “Collaboration and cooperation with other indies and with bookshops is the only way forward.”