The IPG at 60 and change in independent publishing

As the IPG celebrates its 60th anniversary, we’ve invited some longstanding IPG members to reflect on their achievements, change and our role in their stories. Here are the thoughts of Andrew Johnston, founder of Quiller Publishing and a former Chair of the IPG.

1 What achievements in publishing are you most proud of?

On a business level, after 20 years of mainstream publishing in Sydney and London, to have been able to establish and grow a fully independent book publisher, Quiller Publishing in rural Shropshire, against all of the advice that one had to be in London to be successful. Quiller expanded with the purchase of five other independent publishers, funded by profits, and has become established as the foremost publisher in its niche.

On a personal level, without doubt, being a board member and then Chair of the IPG for two years at a difficult time for the organisation, and being able to work with Bridget Shine to put it back on a firmer financial footing. It was a huge and very enjoyable honour.

2 What do you think are the main ways independent publishing has changed since you first became involved in the sector?

I started my publishing career as a sales rep in Australia, covering the eastern seaboard in the days before online sales and social media had been dreamt of. It is difficult to compare like-with-like, as almost everything has changed on the sales and marketing side. Independent publishers could compete with the larger houses as their rep forces were able to sell into the then wide selection of book chains—many of which, like Borders, Ottakars and Dillons, no longer exist—and there were many more special sales opportunities as retail price maintenance and the lack of online discounting ensured a more stable market and profit margin.

Online sales have changed everything, bringing about the demise of hugely successful book clubs and wiping out much of the non-trade retail market as they were unable and unwilling to compete on price. The upside is that independents can compete head-to-head with multinationals on online sales, ebooks and audio, and in times of hardship like the last two years it has enabled many independents to really thrive rather than go out of business—as might have happened without the online sales safety net.

3 And what elements have stayed the same over that time?

I like to think there hasn’t been any great change in the publisher-author relationship. Publishing has always been based on personal relationships, and the process of commissioning, contracting and working editorially with authors has remained the same. Sales in particular have become much less fun and personal given that central buying is now rife and so much is undertaken from the office—and now home—without the travel and meetings which made the business side of publishing so enjoyable.

4 How do you think the IPG has evolved since you first joined?

I joined the IPG in 2000 when its focus was more as a publishing community rather than a supportive trade body. The growth in membership has been remarkable, and the size and professionalism of the conferences completely overshadow the early ones in small hotels in the Lake District. The huge training support given to all and the achievement of charity status are outstanding developments.

5 Where do you see independent publishing heading in the next five years?

I think any independent publisher that can identify and nurture a niche, whether fiction or non-fiction, should be able to thrive. Many of the newer independents now focus on ebook and short-run publishing profiles, which is eminently sensible given the escalating costs of printing and logistics. Once again though, in my view this takes away a large amount of what so was enjoyable prior to the dominance of online sales and marketing—but the upside is that the IPG is there to unite and bring the independent publishing community together, and long may that last.