Monday, March 9, 2009

On indie publishers - and custard

Winning team: Alastair Sawday, centre, is joined by colleagues, presenters and sponsors on the stage - and on screen - at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, at the IPG Awards

No one seemed more amazed by his success at last Saturday's Independent Publishers Guild Awards, held at the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the IPG Conference, than the eponymous publisher himself, Alastair Sawday. The Bristol-based house, famed for its green ethos, won three awards: the Quayle Munro/van Tulleken Independent Publisher of the Year, Trade Publisher of the Year and the Enviromental Award.

On winning Trade Publisher, Sawday commented "to be honest I'd forgotten we entered", while on collecting the overall Independent Publisher of the Year he said: "I don't really know anything about publishing and I come to conferences like this to learn how to be a better publisher."

As ever, the two-day conference was as much about conversations in the bar, as it was about the sessions. Overlook's Peter Mayer, above, was his characteristic rumpled self, still managing to smile despite the all-pervading gloom.
The only good aspect of the recession is that the focus isn't on any one particular company: it's on everyone.

The subject of the Net Book Agreement came up with Peter admitting that he had argued for its retention when Tim Hely Hutchinson, then at Hodder Headline, and HarperCollins' Eddie Bell and Random's Gail Rebuck conspired to see it collapse. Or rather, Peter argued strongly that it should not be dispensed with unless you had something in its place to ensure parity of discount for retailers. "I said to them that, otherwise, what will happen is that you will be forced to discount by the supermarkets." Which, of course, is precisely what has happened.

Given that this was a conference for independents, one rumour circulating concerned a once proud indie: Dorling Kindersley. The story going around is that it is for sale. But who would buy? Bloomsbury has the cash, but is more interested in academic than educational.

Some cynical views of the conglomerates' job cuts were aired too. One indie publisher, who used to work for such a major house, was of the view that "publishers are getting rid of ones and twos, then announcing that they are cutting 5%. The real figure is actually higher".

Among indies at the conference was Birmingham's Tindal Street Press. The house published the acclaimed novel What was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn in 2007, which won the Costa First Novel Award and has sold some 75,000 in the UK, as well as being published in numerous territories worldwide. The house has just received the manuscript of O'Flynn's second novel. That's the good news. The bad news is that agent Lucy Luck has, understandably, sent it to all and sundry, including to those majors which turned down the first book. So now Publishing Director Alan Mahar knows what will happen. "We may be able to sort out a co-publishing deal with one of the big houses, but obviously, with the offer, there's only a certain level to which we can go."

Perhaps he should bid for the memoirs of Business Secretary Peter Mandelson instead. Tindal Street's offices are in a former custard factory. The news may not have reached beyond these shores, but the minister was recently splattered with custard by an environmental protester. You can watch it here, if you like: It's a rather quiet, dignified, well-spoken, very British protest - and also has something of the independent about it, being magnificently fleet of foot.

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