I’ve been trying to imagine a world without small and independent publishers. I can’t do it. I’ve tried to draw parallels. For example, I’ve wondered if it’s like a world without electricity, or a world without roses to smell. But neither is an appropriate comparison. When I try to imagine a world without these publishers my mind goes blank, short-circuited by the complexity and depressing force of the idea. Initially this was a great frustration. Then I realised my blank brain was illustrating the point: a world without small and independent publishers is a world with far fewer voices and ideas. It’s a whiteout. ‘I see independent business [including publishers] as a very strong force for good and for positive change in the world in general,’ says Zoe Dattner, General Manager of the Small Press Network (SPUNC). She also sees these publishers as more able ‘to beat their own drum’ thus contributing to the diversity of voices available for readers (and venues available for writers). And if participation in SPUNC is anything to go by, this diversity is diversifying. In the last two years membership has grown from 50 to 100. This year SPUNC will hold the inaugural Independent Publishers Conference in Melbourne on 8 and 9 November.
The presence of so many small and independent outfits means that writers wanting to publish are more likely to find a welcoming venue. That sounds like cause for champagne and chocolates! But when it comes to those hardy souls behind these publications – often small or singular teams, running their publishing efforts alongside a day job – love and squalor may be a more apt pairing (that is, a lot of love and just a little bit of squalor).
‘It’s a very difficult industry to make a crust in,’ says Dattner, (noting this is her ‘own personal belief’). ‘I don’t think that it should be so difficult. Publishers (particularly small publishers) come to it out of passion. They’re not necessarily interested in making money but they’ve found a manuscript [and] they really want to publish it. They get so passionate about doing that one thing, and then they stumble at all the different obstacles that exist between them and selling a book to a reader,’ she says. More recently these obstacles include changes to technology and distribution models. Another challenge, ‘is for small publishers to approach the climate that we’re in with a business head on. Which is hard because [we] are often creative types,’ Dattner adds. (And creative types she says, don’t always think with business heads).
All in all, small and independent publishers, ‘could be sharing a lot more knowledge, and asking a lot more questions, and admitting to a lot more,’ says Dattner. To facilitate this, sessions at the conference include production and workflow, digital strategies, marketing and trends (as well as opportunities to network). There’s also an academic day. (See the full program for both days on the SPUNC website). Plus, the conference will host ‘The Most Underrated Book Award’ (MUBA) which will privilege both writer and publisher. The MUBA – like the conference – celebrates the staggering contribution small and independent publishers make to our literary culture.
‘The opportunities are huge – far bigger than the challenges,’ says Dattner. She explains that small and independent publishers have a lot less to lose than their mainstream counterparts. They are therefore nimble, able to act quickly, are good at identifying opportunities and approaching them without fear.
For Dattner, the biggest win is that small and independent publishers are, ‘in a position [to] reinvent however we want to do this. But it requires either an approach that has been done before but is a lot better, or a brand new one that no one’s ever thought of.’ The key to harnessing these opportunities is that, ‘you’ve got to be open to them,’ she says.
As a participant in the literary community I tend to focus on the challenges facing writers. But I know my pages would be blank – indeed, a whitewash – were it not for the efforts of small and independent publishers. I hope the conference and the MUBA do their part in encouraging, growing and celebrating this integral part of the literary community.