The Value of Independence by Tom Chalmers

Is publishing losing its middle ground? Large international conglomerates on one hand, small, independent presses on the other. Each can learn from the other's business model and keep the publishing industry vibrant and relevant. By Tom Chalmers, MD of Legend Press.

I have said for some time that book publishing, like most industries will be split into two clear types of company: the large conglomerates and the small independents. And, sadly in the case of a number of long-standing middle-sized publishers than have fallen by the wayside, this is increasingly becoming the case.

Part of the reason for this polarization across industries has been the digital revolution, allowing the largest companies to assert their large resources and enhance their global distribution and communication infrastructures. For the smaller publishers, digitalization allows a low-cost or no-cost platform for them to take advantage of their ability to move quickly and dynamically, unhindered by large company process, to punch well above their weight.

Obviously, I am passionate about independent publishers, but I also understand the key role the large conglomerates play. In a world where any consumer-facing company must compete against the often unfathomably resourced giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook, the industry needs some conglomerates of its own to at least nudge the giants aside where possible and put books in front of customers bombarded with offerings and content from every angle. We need some mass to fight the battle in a mass consumer market.

And then we come to the independent presses. We need to learn from the conglomerates to use what resources we have as effectively as possible, to find the ways to push our books into the wider distribution channels to be profitable businesses both for ourselves and our authors. But we need to learn and also do something different – to take the risks not allowed in Board decisions, to take instant action as is possible in small teams, to offer something dynamic and different so our products stand out when we hit those wider distribution channels.

We are not Mel Gibson crying ‘Freedom!’ in Braveheart, except at occasional book launches – with the often illogical business model of bookselling, independent publishers have to be as efficient and well-run businesses as possible – but we should be putting the creative into the book market, differentiating ourselves as an exciting vibrant sector offering something new to readers.

I love selling books and if Dan Brown wants to call – he hasn’t yet – we’ll take him. And I never want to publish a book that we don’t think will sell just because we love it as that would be a disservice to all the work the author has put into it. But there is a middle ground and the reader shouldn’t be looked down on – the many great successes from independents in recent years illustrate the huge demand for something creative, different and captivating.

So independent publishers should be proud of and value what they offer and not think they have to divert away from it. If we can get the background business right, the years ahead are yet to be a hugely exciting time for independent companies.