On 29th May 2018, independent Norfolk-based publishers Salt tweeted that they were facing challenging times, and asked for support. They requested that twitter followers help them change their fortunes buy buying #JustOneBook.
On 30th May, the Bookseller reported that Salt had raised £7,500. At 3:00am on the 6th June 2018, Salt announced that they had received 1,165 orders over the course of a week. The original tweet has 1,691 retweets (as of 7th June) meaning each retweet has contributed to 69% of an order.
There are a couple of lessons to be taken from this. The first is on the precarious nature of the publishing industry, and the second is on how little individual effort is required to support independent ventures.
Salt were founded in 1999. Based in Cromer, they publish a mix of poetry, literary and contemporary fiction and non-fiction. They have been nominated and received many awards for their work, including the American Book Awards Editor’s Award for Excellence in Literature (2006, to founder Chris Hamilton-Emery), and the 2008 Nielsen Innovation of the Year Award. Despite their track record, they came close to closure. Whilst publishers who are part of large conglomerates like Hachette, Penguin Random House or Macmillan are somewhat sheltered from the capriciousness of the market, independent publishers are far more exposed. A few bad months can make for a whole bad year, and potentially closure. It also means that comparatively small results like this can make a significant difference.
This is not the first time Salt have run the #JustOneBook campaign – in 2009, they ran it after their Arts Council Funding ended, leaving them the significant bills as a result of expansion under the funding. As a result, they raised £30,000, allowing them to recover and continue trading. The issue is that it’s hard to build reserve funds as an independent publisher. When studying publishing, we were constantly reminded that publishing is not necessarily a profit-making business in the way other media is. Large conglomerates can diversify, and parent companies can move funds between their ventures to keep them boosted and allow more room for error, but for independents it is a case of sailing close to the wind and hoping the tide doesn’t turn unexpectedly.
This is true for bookstores as well. At the beginning of August, far-right protesters attacked and ransacked Bookmarks, a socialist bookshop in London. More than 500 people turned up to their solidarity event following the attack. This show of support is wonderful, but should this be built into the collective consciousness, so companies can build a buffer and not be reliant on floods of support in times of crisis – floods which have happened so far, but are by no means guaranteed in the future.
Independent publishers and bookstores are integral to maintaining the diversity of the publishing industry. There are benefits from being a small press – it is easier to change and move with the times than a large corporation, there is more creative control and ownership to the work. Some argue that it is independent publishers who are pushing the boundaries of publishing – in fact, an article on the Guardian from 2016 discusses two authors who debuted with Salt, to critical acclaim, and then moved to larger publishers later when they were no longer seen as such a risky choice because they had a proven track record of sales. Small publishers do not have the funds to compete with conglomerates for big names, so taking risks with new authors is the best way to operate, but it also means that each new book is a risk, with unknown sales outcomes. Their signings keep the industry challenging and changing, but at the risk of big losses if they don’t pan out.
The National Bookshop Day/Books Are My Bag campaign works to promote independent bookshops, and help keep them alive on the high street. The equivalent for independent publishers, Indie Book Day, only came to the UK in 2015 and doesn’t seem to have gained public traction yet in the same way. Perhaps it could benefit from some natty tote bags to push awareness. Perhaps #JustOneBook should be rolled out as a national campaign instead, to support all indie presses. The majority of people who read books usually buy at least one a month, usually more. By making a conscious effort to ensure at least one of those books comes from an independent press, people can easily support these small presses and keep the book market diverse.