It has been five years since Biteback Publishing opened its doors. In that time we have consistently sought to publish books that have set the political agenda, and I truly believe we have established ourselves as one of the leading specialist independents in the country. We have published best-sellers by Anthony Seldon, Peter Sissons, Peter Hennessy, Ann Treneman, David Sainsbury, Damian McBride, Peter Hain and Andrew Adonis, among many others. We may be small but we are incredible noisy, exploiting excellent relations with the British press in order to secure often record serialisation deals and unparalleled media coverage. No lesser names than Charles Moore and Peter Oborne have proclaimed us Britain’s best political publisher, for which we are grateful and very proud, and it is a rare weekend you will open a Sunday newspaper and not find one of our books serialised, or reviewed, or providing inspiration for the cover splash. I have to say it has genuinely been a lot of fun, though hard work. We have made a lot of friends and put a few noises out of joint along the way (nobody who has worked with us would describe us a shrinking violets) but we have enjoyed ourselves tremendously.
The last five years has also been a time in which the face of publishing has changed almost beyond recognition. When I started the company in July 2009, I, along with everyone else in the world of publishing, could not have predicted how rapidly that change would take place. Since 2009 we have witnessed the dramatic shrinkage of the high street with Borders disappearing, Waterstones cutting their cloth and WHSmith pushing up marketing costs to create its own cottage industry of fleecing publishers. We have seen the inexorable rise of the Ebook, a sector that now comprises 20% of our business, and perhaps most importantly the irresistible consolidation of Amazon’s domination over the book trade (as, according to some noises-off, it seeks to tighten its Ming-the-Merciless like stranglehold on our sales, pricing and stock-control), more of which later.
Unsurprisingly, some independents have very publicly struggled. It has been sad to watch companies with fantastic lists having to refinance, seek investment, sell up or close their doors. But those of us looking for green shoots can, in my opinion, forget it. It will take a long time for recovery to trickle down to us, and besides, the economic downturn has just been the latest dramatic twist in a narrative that began with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement and will end, I believe, in a radical and wholesale restructuring of the industry business model. A change that will hopefully see an end to the farce of returns.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – the patient is not yet terminal, and the doomsayers can crawl back into their holes, for the time being at least. Challenging times also bring opportunities, something I banked on when I opened Biteback in the eye of the recession. The downturn allowed me access to suppliers and retailers who would not have looked at me twice in fatter times. More importantly, I was able to recruit some of the most talented people in publishing; some of whom are still with us, some have gone on to work for bigger houses, but all of whom I regard as friends, and a vital part of what Biteback has achieved in half decade.
I do believe that, in some regards, small publishers have the upper hand in this brave new world. Large publishers may have the resources but they are constrained by their unwieldiness and vassalage to the shareholder. They lack flexibility and are less able to manage their cost bases. It was this inflexibility that got me back into publishing. In 2009 I identified what I perceived as a gap in the market for, frankly, the kind of book I like. Even back then larger publishers were shying away from some areas of serious non-fiction; refusing to consider anything that was likely to sell less than 10,000 or 15,000 copies (anything selling that now would likely be considered a best-seller!). Consequently I was able to pick up a number of brilliant books that would not otherwise have seen the light of day. I may not have published a Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey or Da Vinci Code, but I have published a lot of books I’m terrifically proud of and that have more than washed their faces, which is imperative at this level of publishing.
In tough times the truth of the maxim ‘adapt or die’ becomes starkly clear. In 2011,realising that we were effectively competing against ourselves in our own niche, I invited Jeremy Robson to form our imprint, The Robson Press, and help us broaden our trade appeal and our sales horizons both domestically and overseas. Cue books by a plethora of household names, including Michael Winner, Andrew Sachs, Esther Rantzen, Sandi Toksvig, Barry Cryer and London 2012 multi-gold medal winning Paralympian, David Weir.
The days of sky-high author advances are long gone and there are no longer any free lunches in this industry. The publisher/author relationship is now, more than ever, a strategic business partnership, with the author having to adjust his or her expectations to the realities of the current trading environment and the publisher having to work at least twice as hard to identify and supply alternative sales channels (every one of my staff at Biteback is an enthusiastic hand-seller, often selflessly giving up their evenings). The truth is that none of us are likely to become millionaires so trust is more important than ever, and graft is the name of the game.
Interestingly, I think the role of the literary agent has become the most precarious in these lean times, with agents having to work that much harder for their 15%.
So it’s not all doom and gloom. With a smaller pot from which to draw on times are challenging but the rewards are out there if you are brave and prepared to work harder than the other guy. Any blueprint for successful independent publishing in the current environment must include a renewed understanding between author and publisher, a healthy spirit of do-it-yourself, a keen eye on the bottom line and a willingness to cover all the channels, not to mention having a killer online offer and a desire to exploit new media to the hilt.
Some of what I read about Amazon’s alleged proposed new terms in the trade press doesn’t sit well with me. As you may have guessed by now, I am not a man who likes being told what to do. If true, the idea of signing a new contract which guarantees my books cannot be sold for a lower price than Amazon’s anywhere, including on our own website,is anathema to me. Every publisher, indeed every company in any industry, should have the right to market its wares directly to its customer base, at whatever price it deems appropriate. Taking control of pricing away from the publisher is, I would suggest, bad for all of us. Similarly, I don’t much like the idea of allowing Amazon to sell print-on-demand editions to customers if books are out of supply. Any company has the right to maintain its own stock and its own cost base, otherwise there is simply no point being in business. Besides which, no matter how much people try to persuade me otherwise, I think POD still looks crap.
In Amazon’s favour, I would say this, however. Everything Amazon do is geared towards presenting the customer with the best deal and the best service. As a principle of business it is irresistible, and all independents could do worse than adopt it as a guiding virtue in a marketplace unrestricted by the need to shop outside your living room.
Five years ago, Biteback did what any successful publisher has to do: we began a conversation with our customers. That’s a conversation we are still having today, underpinned by the conviction that if we concentrate on publishing the right books and marketing them to the right readers, we will prevail. Roll on the next five years.