Small publishers in the UK and Ireland have had a “year of exceptional sales and profit growth in the face of Brexit and rising operating costs”, according to the chairman of the British Book Awards jury.
The independent press also told the Guardian that they are optimistic about the future, a very different picture from just three years ago, when the survey found that more than half of small UK publishers feared they could be out of business by autumn 2020. as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to the cancellation of author events, delays in title releases, and low bookstore sales.
These smaller publishers are “showing that even in a difficult climate, popular book production is alive and well,” said Philip Jones, chairman of the British Book Awards jury, which on Wednesday announced Small’s regional and national finalists. Press of the year award, which celebrates publishers that offer diverse, innovative and risk-taking publications.
Recent challenges for independent publishers have included increases in heating, printing and distribution costs, but Jones said the small press of the year candidates “responded magnificently,” whether “asserting their claim to the mainstream or exploiting their niche.”
“These publishers are reaping the rewards of dedicated and often inspiring publishing, hands-on author care and community building,” he added.
A total of 48 small printers are shortlisted in different regions and countries for the Small Printer of the Year award. Printers will compete to win first in their region before vying for the overall prize.
Kevin Duffy, founder of Bluemoose Books, which is a finalist in the North of England region, says the landscape for small publishers is “tough, every week is a battle”, and among the biggest challenges was getting books to retailers. But he says he remains positive, particularly about working with independent booksellers.
“Independent bookstores are telling us that readers are saying they’re not finding anything different, and independent bookstores are pointing to smaller independent publishers,” he adds. “I think that’s one of the reasons independent publishers are being shortlisted and winning literary prizes, because we’re taking risks that the big publishers aren’t taking.”
Penny Thomas, editor of Firefly Press, a finalist in the Wales category, also says the landscape is tough and that the cost of living crisis and inflation “means that sales need to grow quickly if independent publishers are to survive”. Rising printing costs and the “pressure to discount heavily to compete with larger publishers is a real squeeze,” she continues.
“Small publishers, including those based outside London, definitely put out great books, but with relatively small marketing budgets, we’re always struggling to be seen in the trade and to get these books to readers,” she adds.
Several books nominated for the 2022 award came from publishers competing for the small press award, including After Sappho, Booker Prize longlist, published by Galley Beggar Press, which is in the East England category, and James Aldred’s Goshawk Summer, which won the Wainwright Prize for Writing from Nature and is published by London finalist Elliott & Thompson. Bluemoose is the publisher of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, which was chosen as Dublin’s 2021 Book of the Year, while The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros, published by Firefly Press, is shortlisted for the medal This year’s Yoto Carnegie for Children’s Writing.
Both Duffy and Thomas say awards and working with independent bookstores, which often hand-sell titles, are an important way for small publishers to thrive.
Thomas says that while things look “pretty good” for Firefly Press, “we’re realistic enough to know that we have to stay on top of our game and publish excellent books.”
“The margins are incredibly tight for small printers and the wages are not very generous,” she adds. “But we are determined to continue to publish great books that children love to read.”
The overall Small press of the year winner will be announced at the British Book Awards, organized by Bookseller magazine, on 15 May, and will also compete in the Independent Publisher of the Year category at the awards.