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Small is beautiful: in praise of organic book publishing

Despite what the industry thinks, you shouldn’t judge a book by the size of its print run. Amelia Schmidt Follow

Small is beautiful: in praise of organic book publishing

With its mergers, high-flying authors and publishing houses, the publishing industry is placing ever more emphasis on “industry” and less on the quality of its produce. Not everyone at the high end is happy, as shown by the coordinated departure in recent weeks of five top editorial and design staff at Penguin Random House India (PRHI), the country’s biggest trade publisher in English.

According to Scroll.in:

Like every other trade publisher, PRHI too has been realigning itself aggressively to the market over the past couple of years. It is believed that this created a certain cultural conflict between an editorial team focused on bringing out good books and the management imperative for revenues and profits in a market threatening to flatten out.

Of course, there is more to publishing than the international behemoths.

Publishing is frequently a small-scale venture, comprising one or a handful of people with a vision for particular books that they want to see published. They might deal with poetry or a specialist area of knowledge or high-end art books. They might publish works by regional writers or those from different language or cultural and political backgrounds not able to prise open the doors of mainstream publishing.

Independent publishers, or “small presses”, are categorised by their autonomous editorial policy and freedom of content. In Australia, independent publishers are represented by the Small Press Network and the Independent Publishers Committee of the APA.

Internationally, independent publishers are represented by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers, although only one Australian signatory – of which I’m the co-founder – is listed.

All publishers are facing financial challenges – and margins are always tight for independent publishers. The challenges are not only to do with the bottom line.

We know that publishing industry has work to do on gender diversity. The 2013 Stella Count, which measures gender proportions within book reviewing in Australia, revealed that only two major publications reviewed more female-authored books than male-authored. This pattern is reflected globally, with the 2014 VIDA Count revealing a similarly low, and slowly improving, gender bias.

Racial and cultural diversity is another issue – although reliable statistics in this regard are harder to come by. A report released in the UK this month by literary agency Spread the Word found that only 30% of novelists were from black, Asian or minority ethnic groups.

The organic approach

It’s a tough business and for publishers like me, it’s easy to get disheartened by the challenges. If we shift our thinking about the industry a little, however, we might see these challenges in a new light. What I’d like to propose is an “organic” approach to publishing.

This approach, of course, brings to mind the environment. Indeed, thinking about the connections between the environment and publishing, one is struck by several similarities. The change in perspective also lets us see the strengths of independent publishers for what they are.

Organic farming has its best results when done on limited acreage. Staying small enables the farmer to produce something unique, a flavour or colour that can’t be reproduced industrially. In the mainstream, one hears big business arguing that organic is only for the rich, and by farming on an industrial scale agribusiness can produce food that the poor can afford.

But I have seen farmers in Bangladesh with few resources fight to be able to eat healthy food, food grown without pesticides and without the intervention of companies like Monsanto. Who among the small and independent presses is able to publish these days without the intervention of Apple, Google or Amazon?

MD. Hasibul Haque Sakib

In a very real environmental sense, there’s also the issue of paper. Most paper in the world is produced from plantation forests, most of which are made up of exotic species, clear-felled to maximise profits for the forestry companies.

Clear-felling wreaks destruction in a similar way to bombing. It is the destruction of forest ecosystems because not only are the large trees felled, but undergrowth, micro-organisms, and soils are destroyed too. The bigger the publishing company, the bigger the print runs.

Technology could help out here, by making it more viable to have short-run books, that is, books with print runs of 100-700 copies. Already, companies such as Blurb and Equilibrium Books are doing this.

The publishing industry is one in which it is possible for booksellers to return unsold books to the publisher, as “remaindered” copies. This is incredibly wasteful and is sometimes due to over-subscribing of books, especially to superstores and chains.

Unfortunately, statistics on the number of remaindered books are notoriously difficult to access, seeing as publishers are reluctant to admit that they are selling copies at a heavily discounted rate.

When remaindered books are deemed in excess and then pulped, it unnecessarily uses more oil and diesel in carting books back and forth along roads and other transport links.

Small independents are less likely to engage in excessive print runs, so their contribution to waste is significantly less.

Local flavour

How long will it take to notice the health effects of books that have lost all local flavour, where the language is globalised American and the characters float in a deterritorialised world with problems that only the well-off suffer?

Does that sound unduly harsh? Go to almost any book shop, barring some notable exceptions: market-demand publishing will be in full evidence at the storefront.

If that doesn’t appeal, take another look at the 2013 edition of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The cover brings to mind the story of a flimsy all-American girl rather than a young woman battling depression and anxiety in a time unfriendly to feminism.

To my mind that is – effectively – a breaching of the author’s moral right, and a distortion of her ideas.

Organic publishing takes time. It means treating every book and every writer of the book in context. It means taking account of the author’s intentions, not just throwing a cover at a book because it’s the latest design fashion: “chick lit” or “eco-lit” or plain old war for boys / romance for girls divide.

The options

There are two major ways to approach publishing: the first is editorial driven. This entails taking account of the particularities of the author and their book. Publishers and editors look for how a book is different from what has gone before.

The second approach is sales and marketing driven, in which publishers and editors look for how a book is most like previous successes. Once a model is found, the marketing and sales machine is set in motion. While there is an overlap between independent and multinational publishers, multinational companies tend to follow the second model and independents the first.

I believe that organic publishing produces better books. If readers understood a little more about the politics and economies of publishing perhaps more would take the risk of reading a book by an unknown author or an author from a place unfamiliar to the reader.

So what can we do?

Change requires both intention and follow-through. As a reader, venturing only to the front of the bookshop is a bit like visiting Europe or Asia or Africa in five days. Exploring ideas takes time.

I’d encourage you to venture among ideas and people you don’t already know, or you need to dig deeper among those you do. To live on the surface can be all very glamorous but at some point it becomes tiring, satisfaction is lacking, one becomes cynical and despairing.

The ecology of publishing is an issue that will stretch the minds of independent publishers in the coming decades. While mega-publishing will entail more and more mergers, increased digitisation, convergence of book retailers and book publishers, and massive multilingual homogenised publishing, at the other end will be the small-scale publishers: independents and self publishers.

A publishing industry that is sustainable is one in which books have more than a three-month shelf life, the standard length of a marketing campaign for traditional publishers.

The demands of ever more profits, highly mobile books, massive distribution warehouses, externalities of star author advances that need to be supported by star author international travel and national festival tours do not contribute to an ecologically sustainable industry.

Small is beautiful and so is independent.


Susan Hawthorne is the author of Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishers, published by Spinifex.