Small pub­lish­ers

‘Keep­ing small and per­sonal means that peo­ple have more time for us’

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Hugh An­drew runs his Scot­tish pub­lish­ing house Bir­linn from his hand­some Re­gency house on Ed­in­burgh’s South Side

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. 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.trav­el­, 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.bir­, 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

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