Despite the eternal precariousness of indie press life, that they often punch way above their weight in sales, award nominations, and critical recognition is an accepted fact in Canada. Not so in the U.K., where indie presses are viewed not so much as vital to a literary culture, but more as justly obscure, barnacle-type entities that can be safely ignored.
Times may be changing, however “ at least according to an article in The Independent:
Think of the word “independent” in the book world, and you imagine young fogeys in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, earnestly proclaiming the merits of obscure novels by Japanese octogenarians which sell precisely three copies before being remaindered.
However, the best-seller lists of recent years tell quite a different story. Eats, Shoots and Leaves, The Life of Pi, Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, the Booker-longlisted What Was Lost, by Catherine O’Flynn, all demonstrate that the current crop of independents are energetic go-getters, unearthing treasures that would be lost in bigger houses, and publishing them with focus and a positivity that would put their bigger counterparts to shame.
Specifically on the topic of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Jamie Byng of Canongate, who acquired and published the book, provides some of the backstory of its massive success there.
There were several key steps in the success of Life of Pi that highlight the differences between the independents and the conglomerates. The first was acquiring it. As is well known, only one other publisher, Faber — another indie — actually bid for the book. Then, “An amazing amount of care and passionate thought went into the publication of that book. From the commissioning of the artwork from a great designer called Andy Bridge. There was a level of care in the book’s production values, which typified the process.”
Unlike some conglomerates with large budgets, smaller houses rely on endorsements or “puffs” as they are known in the trade. Byng sent a copy of The Life of Pi to Margaret Atwood, and although she was unable to endorse it, composing a very witty poem by explanation “ “I Only Blurb for the Dead” “ she volunteered to review it, “and so I had my pick of the literary pages. Margaret did a brilliant review for the Sunday Times.” Then, Byng put forward the novel for the Man Booker Prize “ this might not sound like rocket science, but as he astutely points out “a bigger publisher might not even have put it forward,” due to the two titles per publisher rule.