British independent publishers thrive despite Brexit and Covid pandemic | Publishing

Small presses across the UK and Ireland have had a “year of exceptional sales and profit growth in the face of Brexit and escalating running costs”, according to the British book awards’ chair of judges.

Independent presses have also told the Guardian they are optimistic about the future, a very different picture from just three years ago, when research found that more than half of the UK’s small publishers feared they could be out of business by autumn 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of author events, delays in titles being released and poor bookshop sales.

These smaller publishers are “showing that even in a toughened climate, grassroots book making is alive and well”, said Philip Jones, chair of judges for the British book awards, which on Wednesday announced the regional and country finalists for the Small press of the year award, which celebrates those presses delivering diverse, innovative and risk-taking publishing.

Recent challenges for independent presses have included increases in the costs of heating, printing and distribution, but Jones said those in the running for Small press of the year had “responded magnificently” whether “staking their claim to the mainstream or mining their niche”.

“These publishers are reaping the rewards from dedicated and often inspirational publishing, hands-on author care and community building,” he added.

A total 48 small presses are listed across different regions and countries for the Small press of the year award. The presses will compete to win their region first, before contending for the overall prize.

Kevin Duffy, founder of Bluemoose Books, which is a finalist in the North England region, says the landscape for small presses is “tough, every week is a battle”, and among the biggest challenges was getting books into retailers. But he says he remains positive, particularly about working with independent booksellers.

“Independent bookshops are telling us that readers are saying they’re not finding anything different, and independent bookshops are pointing to smaller independent publishers,” he adds. “I think that’s one of the reasons why independent presses are being shortlisted and winning literary prizes, because we are taking risks the bigger publishers aren’t.”

Penny Thomas, publisher at Firefly Press, shortlisted in the Wales category, also says the landscape is tough, and that the cost of living crisis and inflation “means sales have to grow fast for indie publishers to survive”. The increase in printing costs and the “pressure to give high discounts to compete with larger publishers is a real squeeze”, she continues.

“Small presses, including those based outside of London, do definitely publish big books, but with relatively diminutive marketing budgets we are always fighting to be seen in the trade and to get those books out to readers,” she adds.

A number of 2022’s prize-nominated books came from publishers in the running for the small press award, including the Booker prize-longlisted After Sappho, published by Galley Beggar Press, which is in the East England category, and Goshawk Summer by James Aldred, which won the Wainwright prize for nature writing and is published by London finalist Elliott & Thompson. Bluemoose is the publisher of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, which was chosen as Dublin’s book of the year for 2021, while The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros, published by Firefly Press, is longlisted for this year’s Yoto Carnegie medal for children’s writing.

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Both Duffy and Thomas say awards and working with independent bookshops, which often handsell titles, are a key way for small presses to thrive.

Thomas says while things are looking “very good” for Firefly Press, “we are realistic enough to know that we have to stay at the very top of our game and publish outstanding books”.

“Margins are incredibly tight for small presses, and salaries far from generous,” she adds. “But we are determined to keep publishing excellent books children will enjoy reading.”

The overall Small press of the year winner will be announced at the British book awards, run by the Bookseller magazine, on 15 May, and will also compete in the Independent publisher of the year category at the awards.