Before I begin, let's make sure we all know what we're talking about here. Independent (or horror of horrors 'indie') publishing here does not mean self-published, nor does it mean some guy in his back bedroom knocking out books without a clue about how books are edited, published, distributed or sold. Nor do I mean any purely digital publisher. Because that's a whole different ball game.
No - and remember I'm talking about British publishing here - Independent Publishing to me means any publisher not owned by one of the big 5 (or is it 6?) worldwide publishing conglomerates. Not that I've got anything against them in any way. I wouldn't say no to a publishing deal with the likes of Orion or HarperCollins etc. But in this frantic, scrabbling world, I believe strongly in a smaller independent press with brilliant editors with fresh ideas they can develop plus passion and vision and most of all, more time to concentrate on their authors. They don't have the massive overheads, a heavy corporate structure with its staff to pay and pension. They will tolerate authors who do not make millions for them. And that is why for the big boys, however much they seek excellence, their bottom line is always what can make them the largest amount of money with the least risk. Not that other publishers don't need to keep their heads above water as well but if they keep it small while knowing exactly which manuscripts to choose, they can retain more individual control and vision.
Of course, if a small company is successful it will become bigger and maybe even swallowed up by a bigger fish. It happens. So nothing stays the same. But there is no doubt that the like of Canongate, Faber, Alliance, Quercus and Granta are shining beacons. And as well as the names we know are plenty of other smaller publishers with very little money but plenty of that commitment and vision.
I recently featured Ninepins by Rosy Thornton. It is published by Sandstone Press, a small company based in Scotland that actively seeks high quality. Their website shows them to be professionally distributed and marketed as well. These are people who know exactly what they're doing. (A recent title of theirs, The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers was long-listed for last year's Booker Prize.) They're a publisher I would be more than happy to be involved with. Only they don't handle historical fiction or I'd be submitting like a shot.)
Profile Books was founded in 1996 as a mainly non-fiction publisher. You may well remember Lynn Truss's mega best-selling Eats Shoots and Leaves. They also now handle fiction, having acquired Serpent's Tail. a post on a book review blog led me to a quiet literary novel, translated from German. I love discovering new books and writers and I'm not sure whether a more commercial publishers would have handled it.
Alice by Judith Hermann (trans. by Margot Bettauer Dembo), like all literary fiction, is difficult to define. Simply it is a series of linked stories in each of which Alice's life is touched by death. This makes it sound depressing and dreary but, although the mood throughout is low-key, the writing, the imagery, the feeling of being in the moment makes it an uplifting read. It's not sentimental or sugary but key moments caused me to catch my breath. The simple observations of the way daily life continues, the way people can slip away unregarded by most but acutely felt by an individual is powerful. This is the kind of writing I love: Clear, uncluttered and devastating.
The Linen Press, also based in Scotland, is still very much a new kid on the block. I have written about it before and continue to be impressed by its titles. Run by Lynn Michell, it publishes new women writers and maintains a feminist agenda.
I have recently enjoyed two of its recent titles.
The Making of Her by Susie Nott-Bower is an ambitious novel which explores female body image, self-esteem and ageing. It concerns two old friends. Clara, a high-powered TV executive who, having eschewed love and children, is acutely aware that, as a woman, she is fast approaching her sell-by-date. A workaholic and perfectionist, she finds herself falling apart with the onset of the menopause. Jo is married to a selfish controlling man who over the years has squeezed from her any sense of self-esteem she once had. Whern Clara is forced, against her better judgement, to create a series of extreme makeover programmes and (unknown to Clara) Jo applies to be the guinea pig and subject herself to plastic surgery, the scene is set for a roller-coaster ride, testing boith women and their friendship.
This is a well-written and confident debut. The author is clearly very passionate about her subject and her knowledge of the TV industry shines through. If I have any criticism, it's that 'issues' tend to overshadow characterisation, which veers a little too close to stereotype on occasion.
Sophie Radice's The Henry Experiment is also issue-led. Are we turning a whole generation of children into passive and timid adults by wrapping them in cotton wool and preventing them from learning how to cope with life?. And should we take this even further?. Should mothers relinquish the care of their sons to their fathers after the age of seven? Celebrated child psychologist Professor Horace Henderson thinks so and brings up his son, Henry, in accordance with his beliefs. But Anna only sees a sensitive and frightened, vulnerable child.
I was very much torn between the two views and I liked the way that the author starts by keeps us guessing as to who of the two protagonists is the one with sense and vision and who is losing their grip on reality. However, I was a little disappointed that, as the novel progresses, the focus slips from Henry, who is the victim caught between these two forces and the narrative turns into a rather far-fetched chase to catch a psychopath before it's too late. It all ends rather abruptly too.
Having said that, I do think The Linen Press is developing into a publisher worth taking very seriously indeed.
Is there a true independent publisher you would recommend either as a reader or writer or both? Do let me know.