What Are the Most Important Business Challenges Independent Publishers Face According to Industry Experts?
Independent publishers come in various shapes and sizes. The word “independent” means they are not part of a corporate publishing group such as Penguin Random House, or Hachette Book Group. An independent, or “indie” publisher can be a one-person show, or have a small staff.
From a business model perspective, the publisher can have a profit or not-for-profit configuration, or can be a labor of love run on weekends. On the other hand, it’s safe to say that common traits to all indie publishers include passion, energy, a consistent commitment to every book they publish, and tight budgets.
We had the opportunity to speak to eight international independent publishers from countries including India, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, the UK, and the US. They shared their personal experiences about running their publishing companies, and highlighted the various benefits and demands that come with their chosen profession. From our discussions, we learned a lot about what it takes to be an independent publisher. In sharing these edited comments we hope they can benefit anyone who is part of the industry or thinking of joining it.
1. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Nigeria-Based Cassava Republic:
Cassava Republic was founded in 2006 in Nigeria by Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, an academic with no experience in entrepreneurship. Her goal was to establish a home in Africa for African authors. Her main challenge is finding reliable printers in Nigeria. Logistical complications aside, Cassava Republic publishes contemporary African authors from across the continent, exporting these voices to the rest of the world. One year ago, Cassava Republic became the first African publishing company to expand to London.
2. Will Evans of Texas-Based Deep Vellum:
Deep Vellum publishes Mexican and Latin American literature to emphasize ties to its neighbors south of the border. It is also committed to publishing diverse authors with different cultural backgrounds. The primary challenge for Deep Vellum’s publisher Will Evans is to have the books he publishes stand out in the louder noise of the mainstream publishing industry. That being said, Evans finds it deeply rewarding be a part of a nurturing publishing house that values great authors, connecting their books with interested readers.
3. Adam Freudenheim of London-Based Pushkin Press:
Pushkin Press was founded in 1997 and primarily publishes, although not exclusively, translated novels, essays, memoirs, and children’s books from classics to contemporary works. For Pushkin's publisher and managing director, Adam Freudenheim, the challenges and joys of running an independent company are both related to size. Being relatively small, financial security is always an issue. At the same time, this means the team can give attention to detail, bestowing a great deal of care to each book published.
4. Nadine El Hadi from Cairo-Based Hoopoe Fiction:
Hoopoe is a one year-old imprint of the American University of Cairo Press. The latter has published English translations of Arabic literature for over half a century. Hoopoe publishes contemporary writing from Marrakesh to Baghdad and Khartoum to Aleppo for "adventurous readers everywhere." The challenge for Hoopoe is having to operate with a small team. As a result,team members wear different hats, taking on various roles. However, they enjoy the creative freedom to grow in any direction they see fit.
5. Naveen Kishore of Indian Publisher Seagull Books:
In 1982, Naveen Kishore launched Seagull, first as a press for books about theater and art. Today, it specializes in English-language translations of European literature. With a global vision, Kishore opened Seagull Books in London in 2005 in order to make selected titles available in the UK as well as in the US. The greatest challenge was the freight cost of shipping books printed in India to the US, which is why they outsourced their printing to the US. On the other hand, the greatest reward for Kishore is the freedom to be able to publish and print whatever he wants, without having to follow trends.
6. Colleen Higgs of South African-Based Modjaji Books:
Colleen Higgs founded Modjaji Books, an independent feminist press in 2007. It publishes the writings of Southern African women. The challenge for Higgs is managing the company’s finances and balancing the cash flow between printing and sales. In other words, being Modjaji’s publisher means making both editorial and financial decisions. In return, running her independent publishing company also means being able to give a voice to the voiceless, and the choice to publish only books that she believes in. Of course, Higgs’ biggest pleasure is when a book changes an author’s life...
7. Becky Harrison of the Manchester, UK-Based Comma Press:
Comma Press is a not-for-profit publishing initiative dedicated to developing new writing, with an emphasis on short narrative forms. It is committed to a spirit of risk-taking, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses. Production manager Becky Harrison, works with a small team handling different aspects of publishing which is, for her, one of the most rewarding sides of the job. One of the challenges for Comma is the highly London-centric publishing industry. However, it has addressed the problem with special initiatives such as the Northern Fiction Alliance, teaming up with other Northern indies to enhance their visibility.
8. Marc Lowenthal of Boston-Based Wakefield Press:
Wakefield Press was founded in 2009 by Marc Lowenthal and Judy Feldmann. It is an independent US publisher devoted to the translation of overlooked books. Both Lowenthal and his partner work full-time jobs in academic publishing during the week, and run Wakefield during weekends. It is a true labor of love, and the challenge is to not burn out or get frustrated at getting less publicity than other publishers for lack of time, money, and personnel. The lack of finances is a constant. The reward, for Lowenthal, is quite simply having the freedom to publish what he wants, which sometimes includes unknown gems.
Following our conversations with these eight indie publishers, we were able to determine the pattern of challenges they face as independent publishing houses. So we put together a list of useful tips that will help any seasoned or budding professional when facing potential logistical, financial, or marketing obstacles. To read up on them, make sure to check out 5 best business practices every independent publisher should keep in mind.