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UK small press big on ideas, light on cash

Written by: Staff

HEBDEN BRIDGE, England, June 6: More than a decade before ''The Da Vinci Code'' phenomenon, a free-spirited British couple wrote their own homage to the Holy Grail after a year bicycling across southern France.

''Cycling in Search of the Cathars'' - the first book to be published by Elaine Connell and Chris Ratcliffe's tiny Pennine Pens in 1991 - was part travelogue and part history of Holy Grail folklore, the subject of Dan Brown's novel-turned-film.

''I still get annoyed at that,'' said Connell, reflecting on how their book brought none of the success enjoyed by Brown.

In this case, big proved beautiful -- big marketing, big stars and big money leading to a global blockbuster.

But as large publishing houses fight for business in a market characterised by consolidation and cut-rate discounts, Britain's small press companies like Pennine Pens in northern England are finding some success thanks to technology and a desire for new literary voices.

Measuring success at small presses is difficult, mainly because the firms are so diverse.

Many have annual sales of less than 1 million pounds (1.87 million dollars), their books take up scant shelf space in large bookstores and cater to niche interests such as crime fiction, horror stories or walking guides.

But in the small towns and cities nestled near Yorkshire's boggy moors and far from the bustle of London's literary scene, small publishers say they have been multiplying and growing.

''The further you go north, the healthier the independent publishing industry is,'' said Hannah Bannister, marketing director of Peepal Tree Press, a Leeds-based publisher of Black British and South Asian writers.

''In a lot of ways it's the small publishers that define what the big publishers do next,'' she added.


The Pennine hills in Yorkshire have a rich literary tradition, which includes the Bronte sisters, who immortalised the landscape in novels like ''Wuthering Heights'' and ''Jane Eyre'', and former poet laureate Ted Hughes, who grew up in Mytholmroyd, near Hebden Bridge.

The 2.8 billion pound (5.2 billion dollars) British book industry has been in decline for nearly a decade. But sales by some of the smallest publishers have been decreasing at roughly half the rate of the largest, according to the Publishers Association.

That trend is even more marked in the United States. A Book Industry Study Group survey in 2004 showed publishers with annual sales of 1 million dollars or less made up 94 per cent of the total population of publishers.

This segment generated around 10 percent of total publishing sales of 34.8 billion dollars in 2004.

One factor behind this growth in small presses has been the explosion of the Internet in the last decade. It has helped small publishers to compete by cutting down on design costs and making marketing easier.

''The Internet allowed us to work on an even playing field,'' said Chris Ratcliffe, co-founder of Pennine Pens, which he runs from his home in Hebden Bridge, a town known for its resident artists and writers.

Self-publishing software has also made it easier to print smaller batches of books, while big publishers depend on bulk sales of a single book -- Random House has sold 50 million copies worldwide of ''The Da Vinci Code'' -- to cover distribution and marketing costs.


Some authors also prefer the close relationship between editor and writer offered by small publishers. ''The benefits are what you would call intimacy in the sense of the relationship of editing with every single writer we publish,'' Jeremy Poynting, founder and managing editor of Peepal Tree Press, said.

Some large publishers do not even use in-house editors, he added.

''Suspended Sentences'', a book by Mark McWatt published by Peepal Tree, won a Commonwealth Writers' prize this year.

McWatt said that for now the pleasure of being able to work closely with editors at Peepal Tree outweighed the occasional frustrations of having such a small publisher with limited resources and having to field phone calls from readers looking for copies of his books.

''Right now, I guess I feel more loyal to Peepal than frustrated with their limitations,'' McWatt said.

Even though small publishers may be favoured by a hunger for fresh literary voices, they still face pressure from falling prices and a declining population of readers.

Book store discounts have eroded profits, particularly in Britain where publishers have to negotiate prices with the large retail outlets. In the United States, all outlets are offered the same deal.

''The issue is getting the voices out there and it's getting more and more difficult to get the voices on store shelves,'' Constance Sayre, of media-consulting firm Market Partners International, said.

Peepal Tree Press, for example, sold 25 per cent more books in 2005 but the value of its sales increased only 3 per cent. Peepal Tree and Pennine Pens declined to give annual revenue figures but said they were well below 1 million pounds per year. Small publishers say money is not what got them into the business in the first place.

The craft and creativity are the best parts of the job, Peepal's Poynting said.

The most enjoyable time ''tends to be when you realise the work you do is important to other people,'' he said.


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