By Marleen Reimer
When I think of American indie publishing, I think of Akashic Books, Graywolf Press, Grove, Melville House, Other Press, Seven Stories, the former Soft Skull Press. They might be different in scope and focus, but what they have in common is that they publish what big mainstream publishers don’t publish: books in translation, short story collections, poetry, left-wing oriented non-fiction, out-of-the box fiction. In music and movies the indie scene is even stronger and more easy to define. As a Dutch woman working in US publishing, I am always fascinated by the differences.
Dutch society is relatively non-hierarchical, something that’s reflected in the publishing landscape. Dutch indie publishing is much less of an established concept, in part because the “independent spirit” has been part of the DNA of many publishers going back throughout history. Descartes and Spinoza were published by the Dutch largely because of the publishers’ independence; in the modern era Contact (VBK) was founded in 1933 to publish works opposing Nazism and De Arbeiderspers (WPG) opened in 1929 as a socialist press.
So, is there a Dutch indie publishing scene?
Roughly, the publishing landscape in the Netherlands consists of three categories.
First, there are the large conglomerates: Veen Bosch & Keuning (VBK), Weekblad Pers Groep (WPG), Standaard and Lannoo, among others. They each own a variety of publishing houses that operate relatively independently and are often located in different buildings. These firms can’t really be called “imprints,” but they do ultimately report back to the CEO of the group. Second, there are a dozen or so independent publishers who operate professionally within mainstream trade publishing. The third group consists of hundreds of very small publishers who often specialize in narrow subjects and don’t use traditional distribution networks.
Among the second group — the dozen or so “mainstream independents” -– are De Geus, Podium, Prometheus, Cossee, Van Oorschot, de Harmonie, Nieuw Amsterdam, Van Gennep, de Wereldbibliotheek.
After speaking to a few publishers, it became clear that they’re not a coherent bunch by any means. Few have such a specific focus as the aforementioned Americans. They don’t group together for distribution purposes, like some of the British independents do. And there’s a great difference in size among them. I spoke to Prometheus, De Geus and Podium, who publish approximately 250, 90 and 30 books a year respectively. There are also at least three publishers from conglomerates who would match these three in that respect: De Boekerij (Lannoo), Contact (VBK), and Mouria (VBK) come to mind.
Below you’ll find their take on indie publishing. What they share is an independent mind, but to try and generalize about them would be contrary to the point.
Joost Nijsen founded Podium in 1997 and always had the ambition to play in the majors. “I wanted to be a professional publisher, not someone who works from his attic.” Thirteen years later, Podium has had its share of bestsellers, among which Ronald Giphart, Joris Luyendijk’s People Like Us (also published by in English by Profile/Soft Skull), and Kluun’s novel Love Life, which sold over a million copies in total, was translated into 27 languages and made into a movie.
“The Dutch situation is different from the US and the UK. Publishers in the UK -– Profile, Faber, Canongate and Portobello among others — have formed the Independent Alliance to share sales forces and a distribution network,” said Nijsen. “That doesn’t exist in the Netherlands. Some of us get together to share experiences and ideas, but those meetings are informal.”
Do the Dutch independents face difficulties getting books into stores?
Nijsen: “Retail operates in an increasingly American way and I feel that the threshold for smaller publishers is getting higher. While a bestseller helps, negotiations are probably easier when you’re part of a big group.”
Eric Visser, owner and publisher of De Geus doesn’t entirely agree. “Bookstore chains are very cautious, but I believe that every publisher faces similar problems,” he said. “What matters is that buyers know about the quality of our books. Obviously I do agree that a bestseller helps. We sold 300,000 copies of Kader Abdolah’s The House of the Mosque, and that strengthens our position.”
Abdolah, who fled Iran in 1985, is an example of an author who grew up along with the company. Visser founded De Geus in 1983. His goal was to publish as many male as female authors, and to publish authors from many different cultures (“multicultural”, as the Dutch are fond of saying). Visser has published both Le Clezio and Herta Mueller from the start of their careers. “Ten years ago, we used to speak to forty book buyers from the high quality bookstore chains, like Selexyz. Now we speak to maybe six, and they are under increasing pressure to be selective. Oddly, we see a new trend that our books get good pick-up from the AKO and Bruna, the more ‘accessible’ chains that can be found in railway stations and airports -– probably because our books are recognizable. We’re also a favorite of independent bookstores, again because of our focus.”
In the US and UK it’s quite common for an author to begin his or her career at an independent publisher and get scooped up later by a big house. One recent example is Benjamin Percy: his first two books were published by Graywolf Press and his new novel was just bought by Grand Central, part of the Hachette Group. Similarly, in the Netherlands, Tommy Wieringa had his breakthrough with Joe Speedboat at De Bezige Bij, after beginning his career at In de Knipscheer. But smaller publishers aren’t necessarily seen as a breeding ground, and there certainly isn’t the quiet acceptance of American and British smaller publishers when authors move.
Paul Sebes, one of the few primary agents in the Netherlands, mentioned to me how he once moved an author from a small indie house to a big publisher. “That first publisher was furious and has been mad at me for at least eight years!”
For anyone who’s followed Dutch publishing, it’s evident that during the last few years there have been numerous mergers and acquisitions among the large groups. PCM has ceased to exist and only recently Foreign Media Group (mother company of Foreign Media Books) was declared bankrupt, and its book division sold to Dutch Media Group. In that respect, it must seem like bliss to be independent…
Mai Spijkers is someone who has experienced both. He founded Prometheus in 1991, after having worked at Bert Bakker for many years. Shortly after, the two houses joined forces. They became part of PCM, until three years ago when Spijkers bought Prometheus/Bert Bakker. He is thrilled to be independent again.
“It’s motivating and inspiring to be solely responsible,” he said. “Less meetings, less pressure from ‘above’ and I can focus on what I love: to acquire and publish books. We’ve prospered since we became independent. We’ve focused more on Dutch authors and have had great success with Franca Treur whose novel has been on the bestseller list for 35 weeks now. Ultimately, I don’t know that it makes a difference whether you’re independent or not. It might be a matter of size, smaller publishers resemble smaller imprints.”
I suddenly think of Herman Koch who was published modestly with small publisher Augustus (of VBK). He moved over to bigger publisher Ambo Anthos (also VBK) with his most recent novel, The Dinner. It immediately landed on the bestseller list where it has been for 90 weeks now. Translation rights were sold in 16 countries.
Indies Increasingly Attractive
Both Joost Nijsen and Eric Visser noted that more authors are opting to work with independent publishers. “Recently we welcomed an author who’d published two novels and had worked with four different editors,” said Nijsen.
Visser added, “We offer a strong identity. We are based in Breda and far away from the publishing crowd in Amsterdam. Our authors can use a writer’s space, and we organize events for translators to discuss their work. We have everything in-house and we’ve worked with the same team for many years, which is reassuring and appealing.”
Nijsen is confident for the future. “Ten years ago, everybody announced that independent publishing would disappear,”he said. “But we’re lean and mean, and can change course more easily. I predict that it will become easier for smaller publishers to distinguish themselves and publish big authors.”
The Future of Indies
It’s public knowledge that Nijsen had been approached to become Robbert Ammerlaan’s successor at De Bezige Bij. They’re still looking. Likewise, Visser has been asked to sell De Geus, but has politely declined. “We’re doing well and there’s no way I’d sell De Geus.” Spijkers, too, is thriving in his role at Prometheus.
Given the tough market, the independents hold up nicely. Of course, even the “big” Dutch publishers aren’t the mammoths that US or UK publishers tend to be, so it’s less urgent to join forces or partner with other independent houses to survive. Independent publishers can do as well or better than houses within a conglomerate –- something that is in line with the Dutch sentiment that bigger isn’t always better.