I’ve been at the helm of Dahlia Books, a tiny press run from the corner of my kitchen for more than a decade. Resources – as elsewhere in the small press – are tight. My pantry doubles up as a stockroom. But that doesn’t mean we’re not ambitious; we’re constantly punching above our weight. I say we’re, but there is just me and a small roster of authors I take on, publishing 2-4 titles each year. While it is exciting to be flying by the seat of your pants in this way, the pandemic has forced me to take stock.
Around this time last year, a Bookseller survey revealed that a large proportion of small press businesses were at risk. When bookshops closed and events were cancelled it was inevitable that sales plummeted. Brexit and the collapse of Bertrams which owed thousands to publishers was a triple blow for the sector.
The small presses responded in the only way they knew how, rallying their supporters for help. Jacaranda Books and Knights Of set up a crowdfunder successfully raising £164,561 from 4679 supporters in 35 days ensuring that they continue their vital work. Emergency Response funding from Arts Council England helped many others – including Comma Press, Galley Beggars Press, Dead Ink Books – to stay afloat.
Much of the work we do in the small presses falls under the radar. The efforts of MA student Lauren Steele sought to map the small presses and showcase their work online. Her work resulted in 60 publishers being featured in The Indie List which launched last month.
“I set up The Indie List because I’ve seen so many publishers facing difficulties during the pandemic as bookshops closed and events dried up. It was heart-breaking to see. I wanted to channel my enthusiasm for independent publishing by creating a space that links people directly to publishers and makes them aware of the great work Indies do.”
The true impact of the pandemic is only just beginning to surface. Last month, Urbane Books announced it was shutting up shop for good after six years and publishing more than 300 books. The sad fact is that more presses, especially those who weren’t able to secure funds, will follow. This is devastating for us all. The small presses buoy each other up and have always done so, affording a generosity of spirit to one another which is often lacking in wider industry. I’ve been fortunate enough to tap into a knowledge pool from my peers and it’s helped me to shape Dahlia Books in a way that feels right for our business.
This is why I’m thrilled that Dahlia Books is the industry partner this year for States of Independence, a one-day book festival celebrating independent thinking, writing and publishing.
Now in its twelfth year the festival is organised by De Montfort University’s Leicester Centre for Creative Writing. This year will see the programme moved online with event taking place across a number of channels, live on Zoom and pre-recorded on Youtube.
Dr Simon Perril, Director of Leicester Centre of Creative Writing, said: “States of Independence is a splash of colour against the corporate grey of the publishing world.
“My poetry has been entirely supported by ‘small presses’; and the poetry world from which my work has grown is sustained by this tradition of independent publishing. It is the life-blood of what is so much more than an ‘industry.”
It is a sentiment that is shared among authors published by the small presses.
Drew Gummerson’s second novel was published by the newly formed, Bearded Badger Publishing Company. It was chosen as their launch title. He was delighted with the care and attention taken to bring his book to market.
“It felt like an honour for my book to be chosen as the launch title for Bearded Badger Publishing Company, written at my kitchen table and launched from theirs. During the editing and publishing process we worked closely together, thrashing out cover designs and ideas for promotion. And at the end I couldn’t have been happier with how the book looked.”
And herein lies the beauty of the small presses. We tend to work closely with our authors to publish as a partnership. We recognise that writers are at the heart of our business and we move quicker than other parts of the industry. What we tend to lack in financial muscle we make up for in passion and ground-level knowledge which helps us win readers in niche markets.
And while we can’t yet set up our stalls side by side, sharing tips and publishing know-how, States of Independence offers us a chance to share our experiences and puts the work we do centre-stage.