‘Keeping small and personal means that people have more time for us’
What do an Edinburgh town house, a Clerkenwell loftspace and an old dairy farm in rural Dorset have in common? Books are the clue. Not neat, untouched arrangements displayed fashionably to enhance the decor, but shelves spilling volumes, teetering piles of books amassed for the sheer joy of reading— as well as of looking at, touching and possessing them. Books furnishing rooms not as ornaments, but as the very lifeblood of their owners.
these are the premises of book lovers who produce books—just three of the many small publishers whose individuality, high production standards and rapport with their readership accord with the fundamental principles of Country Life. time and again, I’ve noticed that the titles we select for review in the magazine are books published by small independents working, perhaps from a converted barn or a rural industrial unit, in collaboration with some of our best writers, artists and designers. Often, their books are focused on a particular genre or subject or are regionally distinctive—whatever your subject, there’s a small publisher dedicated to your interests.
But how, in a world dominated by five corporate giants, do these homegrown businesses survive and what drives their creativity? I talked to three and discovered that freedom, fearlessness and flexibility are key.
I found Little toller (www.littletoller. co.uk) tucked into a fold of downs deep in the west Dorset valley after which it is named. the living embodiment of its mission to revive forgotten classics of Nature writing and British rural history, this small publishing house was founded by adrian and Gracie Cooper in 2008, soon after they bought a wrecked farm complex in the tiny hamlet of toller Fratrum.
they noticed that their shelves had begun to fill up with mostly out-of-print books devoted to the West Country and that other titles they wanted to read were unobtainable; around the same time, Robert Macfarlane wrote an article in the Guardian extolling the many wonderful old books on Nature and regretting that no big contemporary publisher was prepared to take on the job of republishing them.
Inspired by this, the Coopers decided to do it themselves. ‘It was the recession, I was heavily pregnant and we had no money and little business experience,’ says Gracie, a textile designer who had tired of the fashion world. the Dovecote Press, which her father, David Burnett, founded in 1974, provided some infrastructure, but ‘we taught ourselves everything and learnt the whole process from scratch’.
Working initially from their bedroom, they started with what has become Little toller’s staple—the Nature Classics Library—republishing Edward thomas’s The South Country, Clare Leighton’s Four Hedges and W. G. hoskins’s The Making of the English Landscape. their aim was to make these books affordable and attractive to a new audience, redesigning them in the spirit of the originals while commissioning contemporary voices to write new introductions.
the success of the series, which now numbers 30 titles, allowed them to pursue other projects. they began to commission new monographs—oliver Rackham’s The Ash Tree, Iain Sinclair’s Black Apples of Gower, Richard Skelton’s Beyond the Fell Wall and horatio Clare’s Orison for a Curlew—and Little toller is now recog-
‘Books furnishing rooms not as ornaments, but as the lifeblood of their owners
nised as the leading voice in contemporary Nature writing. This year, it publishes 12 books and is collaborating on different projects with Tim Dee, Alexandra Harris, Fiona Sampson, John Burnside and Mr Clare.
Such a hub of activity and ideas is all the more impressive for the smallness of the team, which operates from an old cowshed. Adrian (a former film-maker) controls the list and does much of the work necessary to get the books to print. Sales, marketing and publicity is masterminded by Jon Woolcott and Gracie heads up the aesthetic side of production.
One of Little Toller’s selling points is the way its books incorporate art and photography, including new commissions. Gracie is currently working with the stone-carver/ printmaker Jo Sweeting on a biography of J. A. Baker and with the painter Ffiona Lewis, who is illustrating On the Marshes, Carol Donaldson’s pilgrimage through the Medway region of Kent.
They can get a book from PDF stage to the warehouse in about three weeks, they tell me. Print runs are small: ‘If necessary, we can reprint quickly; we never run on debt.’ Crucial to this is having a close relationship with an English firm of printers—t. J. International of Padstow, Cornwall—which they can visit regularly. ‘At the moment they’re very competitive,’ Adrian says, ‘but our worry is that, when Brexit closes the gates, the cost of materials will go up—particularly paper, which comes from Sweden. Many publishers go to Hong Kong and China for printing, but their prices are now in line with those of Britain and other European countries.’
‘Keeping small and personal means that people have more time for us,’ says Gracie, who, when they started out, made a list of every independent bookshop in the country and called each one over the following two months. ‘We built up impeccable relationships and now sell a lot through them and by word of mouth, as well as through our website.’
The rise of the really good independent bookshop has been a real boost for small publishers. So, too, has Waterstones in its new era under James Daunt: it now accounts for a third of Little Toller’s sales, says Jon, who gave up a London career with Waterstones and Stanfords to work for the publisher. In a recent article for The
Bookseller, he extols the ‘extraordinary, original and authentic creativity’ of what he dubs the ‘micro-publisher’, ‘the spirit of doing things differently, and succeeding, while caring little for how others might approach it’.
Sharing this ethos, if more global in reach, is Eland (www.travelbooks.co.uk), which led the wave of travel revivals in the early 1980s. Eland was founded by John Hatt in 1983 because he couldn’t find anyone else to reprint Norman Lewis’s A Dragon
Apparent; since 2000, it has been owned and run by Barnaby Rogerson and Rose Baring. In the kelim-draped attic that is Eland’s office, above a former supermarket near their East London home, Barnaby recalls how he and his wife came to be publishers. Both travel-writers with a passion for reading, they set up Sickle Moon Books in 1998, running it from their bedroom for the first three years.
‘We were very naïve; we would almost certainly have gone bankrupt had we not acquired the Eland backlist from John Hatt, to whom I’d written a fan letter as a student. Any normal person would have binned it, but John invited me to tea, the start of a 10-year conversation as to what makes a good travel book. Unwittingly, I’d made myself the right person in his eyes to take over Eland.’
Now the leading publisher of good travel writing, with a list of 108 classics, as well
‘Keeping small and personal means that people have more time for us
as its anthology series ‘Through Writers’ Eyes’ and ‘Poetry of Place’, Eland prints its millionth book this year. Much of its ethos is encapsulated by the role model of centreleft, critical travel writing; travelling for a purpose rather than just to gawp. ‘We’re dedicated to understanding places through the eyes of their people; to keeping the stories alive,’ explains Barnaby, whose spirit infuses the Eland website. ‘For the price of a good bottle of wine, our travel books offer inspiration for passionate exploration— in the company of authors who really know and who know how to tell it.’
What struck me about the publishers I visited is the way they’ve perfected an enviable formula for operating in an increasingly frenetic, corporate-minded age: they are their own masters and have managed to weave their passion for books into a business that’s part of a wider field. Rose is a psychoanalytic therapist and Barnaby a writer and historian who compares himself and their employees to the African antelope that shares Eland’s name: ‘We’re essentially nomadic, spending as much time as journalists, writers, editors, musicians and dragoman-guides as behind a desk.’
In practice, they’re not just publishers, but little co-ops for like-minded enthusiasts. Like Eland, which runs a free film club, Little Toller has forged alliances with its writers and readers and become increasingly involved with the environmental charity Common Ground (of which Adrian is now director). They make short films, run The Clearing, a website forum for new writing, and have opened up a gallery in the farm complex.
Another independent that has expanded beyond the printed page is Birlinn in Edinburgh (www.birlinn.co.uk), which, this year, celebrates its 25th anniversary. A large, subdivided map of Scotland scrawled with employees’ initials dominates its engine room: a basement cluttered with books and bulky office machinery redolent of places I used to work in in the 1980s. Led through a scruffy doorway to meet the boss, I’m amazed to find myself ascending a handsome Regency staircase to the drawing room of one of Edinburgh’s grandest South Side villas. I find Birlinn’s owner and managing director Hugh Andrew, whose home this is, sitting at his desk in the book-lined bay window.
Birlinn is best known for publishing books on a Scottish theme, but Hugh is keen to point out that many of its titles are of general interest and can be found anywhere from Waterstones in Hampstead to a Calmac ferry. ‘Scotland is our creative heart, but I dislike the Scottish label because it tends to reduce everything to a one-dimensional tartan caricature. Where a book is set is often secondary to its main theme. One of our 2016 bestsellers, Island on the Edge about life on Soay, is, indeed, a “Scottish” book, but how much richer it is as an extraordinary story of survival and fulfilment.’
Instinct and the desire for ‘books that seek a kind of truth about their subject’ lie behind the founding of Birlinn. While working as a freelance rep, Hugh couldn’t find anybody to republish Neil Munro’s ‘Para Handy’ stories, so he decided to do it himself. Tales of Para Handy proved a big hit, followed by several other new editions of Scottish classics, before Birlinn took the big step of becoming a commissioning publisher. Capital to expand came in 2001 with the purchase of Polygon, just as its author Alexander Mccall Smith was becoming successful.
‘We’re dedicated to understanding places through the eyes of their people’
Five imprints and Scotland’s biggest cartographic business now form a penumbra of companies under Birlinn Ltd. ‘Profit is the validation of a vision,’ says Hugh, who has created one of the UK’S larger middleranking publishing companies. ‘I pay limited attention to the political gales; they’re trivial and demeaning to my country’s richness. While much of Scotland seems in a permanent firmament of grievance and anger, I’ve spent the past 25 years not complaining, but just getting on and doing. We’ve published more than 2,000 books and nobody has ever oppressed or tried to stop us. Many improvements could be made in Scotland if there was less whinging and more quiet action.’
One subject on which Hugh is prepared to whinge is access to the supermarkets: ‘They make a lot of song and dance about local purchasing, but they’re completely impervious to the specialist end of publishing.’ Amazon is also a potential bugbear, albeit a necessary evil. ‘Everyone complains about it, but we don’t,’ says Barnaby. ‘They’re tough businessmen, but two-thirds of our titles are niche and it extends our sales worldwide.’ Hugh agrees about this, but deeply resents its ‘unnecessary and cannibal price discount for distorting the real value of the marketplace and destroying the high street’.
Attitudes to digital publishing varied. After producing 12 titles as ebooks, Little Toller binned the idea: ‘Our readers appreciate good, beautifully made books; the quality of the design, paper and feel are paramount.’ Birlinn has embraced the medium, as has, after initial suspicion, Eland, which has now digitised its entire list: ‘We’ve got world books in copyright and find ebooks really useful for selling abroad, particularly in parts of the world where there are no bookshops. They help to break down boundaries.’
Ebooks no longer pose the anticipated threat to print, with demand receding as the print market goes up—7% year on year in 2016. Indeed, in many ways, it seems a good time to be a small publisher, with printers geared towards doing smaller print runs, more professionals working freelance and direct selling easier. ‘But it’s a tightrope and a hard grind,’ warns Barnaby. ‘We plough along, fortunately not going bankrupt by being careful. We’re working to the same tough discounts as the big guys, so you learn to keep a cautious eye on every percentage point or you go under. The cost of designing and printing books and authors’ royalty payments are just the visible first three fences, but, to survive, you need to master the dark arts of publicity and marketing and watch the hidden costs of distribution and warehousing.’
Surviving best where they occupy a defined niche, these publishers understand their readership, bring out the best in their authors and reflect the personality and interests of their owners. They have a natural rapport with independent bookshops, described by one publisher as ‘little queendoms of their own; they can pick exactly what they want to sell, create their own magic, share their enthusiasms and won’t be dictated to’. He might just as well have been describing his own business.
‘They can pick exactly what they want to sell and create their own magic’
The literary-travel publisher Eland is based in an attic in Exmouth Market, London EC1, and co-run by Barneby Rogerson
Gracie and Adrian Cooper run Little Toller from their home at an old dairy complex in Dorset. They have converted the haystore as a writers’ residence/holiday let
From left: Two books each from Little Toller, Birlinn and Eland. Whatever your interests, there’s likely to be a small publisher dedicated to producing books you’ll love