By Roger Tagholm
LONDON: Last week the Man Booker Prize judging committee surprised many observers by including numerous independent publishing houses on the 13-strong longlist for this year’s prize. The list included a trio of titles from smaller, lesser-known presses including Patrick McGuinness’ The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books), Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press) and Yvvette Edwards’ A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld).
The intervening days have been enjoyably crazy — but crazy nonetheless — for those lucky publishers with rushed reprints, foreign rights inquiries, global coverage. This frenzy is not only testament to the power of the prize, but also to the speed with which news travels in the age of the internet and Twitter. Coverage proliferates which increases inquiries which amplifies coverage, all in a kind of benign circularity that didn’t exist in slower, analog times.
Yes, the large number of independents on the longlist — which also includes books from Canongate, Atlantic, Serpent’s Tail, and Granta — may very well be the most ever, but there are at least two other firsts for the list as well. One of the publishers, Robert Davidson, founder and MD of Scotland’s Sandstone Press –- the rare MD who answers the phone since, after all, there is only one other member of staff (a part-timer at that) –- is also a published novelist and poet. In the award’s long, 42-year-history, has any other publisher of a Man Booker nominee themselves been a published writer?
Another publisher, Mick Felton of Seren Books his Brigend-based company is the first Welsh house ever to be represented on the list, another small landmark in the history of the prize.
Both houses have enjoyed an amazing few days, testament to the extraordinary difference a longlisting makes. “We’ve been inundated with requests for rights -– from Australia, the States, New Zealand, Spain, Poland, Canada,” says Davidson. “Unfortunately, we don’t have them. Charles Walker at United Agents in London is handling them. I’ve never been to Frankfurt, but I’m thinking maybe next year now. Our initial print-run was 3,000, and we’ve put through a 3,000 copy reprint. This is all about Jane and her book, but it’s been marvelous for the company –- one of our reps sent a lovely report where he talked about the ‘groundswell of good feeling towards Sandstone.’”
Felton is a Frankfurt regular and says that the longlisting has opened many new doors. “It’s certainly given us new people to see at Frankfurt. We’ve dealt with Penguin US before, but now we’ve had inquiries from other people in the company -– it opens the way for people to ask what else do you have that we might be interested in. The interest is worldwide -– from Romania, obviously [the novel is about the last days of Ceausescu], but also from the US, Canada, Germany, Holland, Poland. We’ve even had a Korean agent asking about rights.
“We’ve been shortlisted for the Whitbread before and won the Poetry Prize at the Costa, but this is one further step up the ladder of madness. It’s all-consuming.”
At Oneworld, the company does hold the rights to Edwards’ A Cupboard Full of Coats and has enjoyed a similar number of inquiries. “We publish separate editions for the US and export editions for India, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East,” says Publisher and co-founder Juliet Mabey. “We’ve had inquiries from big US publishers, and Canada too. It’s funny, because it’s a very British novel. They want to buy the rights and bring out the mass market edition to catch the thermal from the Booker. There’s no doubt that when you don’t have a high profile authors, these awards provide the sparkle to attract the attention.”
Sandstone’s Davidson may also very well have one of the most unusual backgrounds for a Man Booker publisher ever. A civil engineer by training, he spent 33 years working in the water industry, much of it in waste. He once crawled by torchlight through raw sewage beneath the streets of Glasgow, an experience which informs his well-received novel Site Works which his own company has published.
So what difference does he think being a writer makes to a publisher?
“I’m not sure –- I’ve only ever been me. I do engage very strongly with authors and some of them can’t take it. But editing Jane was a case of reading the manuscript and saying thank you.”
Working in the highlands of Scotland, he is geographically apart from the mainstream UK trade — but economically as well? Perhaps. He notes that while the economic climate is not easy for independent publishers, it is roughest on the high street chains and the printers. “Authors have always had it tough,” says Davidson, “but in the last three years I have seen a number of printers fold, and I’ve watched Hatchards go down, Ottakar’s be swallowed up by Waterstone’s and the disappearance of Borders. Many good people have gone.
“But I haven’t seen independent booksellers go in Scotland and I think the reason is: if you want to be a success you have to give customers what they want. The chains have been in thrall to high turnover, low price and TV and celebrity titles. If you go independents, each one will have a different selection.”
Ask Felton what it’s like being an indie and he says, understandably: “Well, this particular week it’s rather good! It’s our thirtieth anniversary and the longlisting has made a huge difference to us –- our reprint figures are going up by the hour.”
It has been very gratifying for Oneworld too. “Yvvette’s book is only the sixth novel we’ve published,” says Mabey. “It’s our 25th year, so it’s very nice. But it’s a tricky time for all publishers. You have intense price erosion at the same time as digitization, so we’ve all got to change our models so quickly.”
But for the time-being, these indies are riding an enjoyable storm and hoping that when the shortlist is announced on 6 September, they will be among the chosen few.