Alastair Niven on independent publishers 


In the third of a series of interviews with leading literary figures, Prabhu Guptara discusses the importance of literary independent publishers and the future of publishing and bookselling with Dr Alastair Niven OBE, LVO.

Prabhu Guptara: You have extraordinarily wide experience, as an academic, as a writer, as a judge of major literary prizes, and as someone overseeing support to the whole of the publishing sector. What is your view of independent publishers?

Alastair Niven: Independent publishers are not only a valuable part of the publishing industry—they are essential to it. The dominance of the corporate sector means the market is tilted away from what independent publishers wish to promote. The mainstream is celebrity-driven and unadventurous. Shuggie Bain won the Booker? Then expect to get a stream of books set in rough, working-class Scotland! The mainstream plays safe: it is about what is predictable and simply repeating successful formulae. Those who look for the predictable won’t publish what isn’t. By contrast, independents are about quality and taste and mission. They are loyal to their authors and committed to what they believe in.

PG: But the reality is that some independent publishers struggle.

AN: Unless they have a surprise bestseller or a Booker-winner, which may lead to massive sales. In the absence of those, independents do their best to promote their books, but it’s hard to get attention in an overcrowded marketplace. Every book that is published gets to see the light of day, and is deposited in the British Library for perpetuity, which is something—but is that enough? So many good books are hidden when they ought to be better known. One exception was the established children’s writer Jill Paton Walsh: when she couldn’t find any major publisher interested in Knowledge of Angels, a medieval philosophical fiction for adults, she finally self-published. She didn’t win the Booker with that novel, but being shortlisted meant that the book took off, and has done well over the years. 

And independents are very good at discovering major new talent. Bloodaxe Books first published Helen Dunmore. Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy were both first published by Sheffield’s The Poetry Business. But as Carol Ann Duffy illustrates, once an author has become successful, the temptation to move to a larger publisher can become overwhelming.

It was in view of how challenging it is to be an independent publisher that the Arts Council took to supporting them, by direct subventions to independents perceived to be particularly significant, and by schemes which helped draw books from independents to the attention of bookshops.

PG: In our Covid times, I am sure both of us hope that bookshops will bounce back. What do you feel are the prospects?

AN: There’s conflicting evidence. On one hand, book sales have increased, but on the other hand bookshops have been badly hit by Covid. One would like to think that people will return to browsing, as distinct from having books thrust at you by online algorithms. Just as it seemed obvious to people that radio, TV and newspapers were going to die with the advent of newer technologies, some people seem to think it clear that physical books are going to become extinct. But I suspect that physical publishing, and therefore books, are going to be resilient. Let’s not forget that ebooks aren’t for everyone. For some people, the only way to read is to hold the book, turn the pages and riffle back to look up something. 

There is one other factor to consider: the financial aspects of e-publishing. People expect to get e-products free or for not much money. The mindset is that ebooks cost nothing to produce (which isn’t true) so the public still has the mindset of not being willing to pay much for them. It is still a bit of a challenge to make e-publishing work from a financial point of view.

PG: That brings us to the prospect of post-Covid times. How do you look at the future of post-lockdown publishing for independents?

AN: I’m sure that they must and will go on hunting for the rare and the important. That won’t be done by the big houses.  

Alastair Niven has been director general of the Africa Centre London, director of literature at the Arts Council, director of literature at the British Council, principal of Cumberland Lodge, president of English PEN, a judge for the Booker Prize and chairman of the advisory committee to the Commonwealth Writers Prize. His most recent book is the memoir ‘In Glad or Sorry Hours’ (Starhaven Press).

Prabhu Guptara is a publisher, poet and board consultant. His interests include Salt Desert Media Group, publisher of the Pippa Rann Books & Media imprint and the forthcoming Global Resilience Publishing list.