Major vs. Indie Publishing: What Sells and What Matters

Once upon a time, six names were important in American book publishing: Penguin, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Harpercollins, Macmillan and Hachette. Little existed beyond their reach, and they often absorbed everything else. But if you look at a list of the best books of 2015, or of the significant releases this year, you’ll notice some names not affiliated with these big six, like Archipelago Books or New York Review Books. Some have been toiling away just as long as any of the big six, and others have cropped up in the past decade. Still, many have landed some big hits recently.

So what’s different about independent publishers these days? Mostly, it’s their versatility and the willingness to take a chance where big publishers won’t. Edwin Frank, the founder of NYRB, gave an anecdotal example in an interview with The Paris Review.

“One of the first ‘new’ books we did was Cesar Pavese’s ‘The Moon and Bonfires,’ an unpublished translation by R. W. Flint. He’d done a series for Farrar, Straus and Giroux — a compendium of Pavese’s stuff — and in it he went on and on about how ‘The Moon and the Bonfires,’ though it was Pavese’s best-known book, was perhaps not his most successful. So they decided not to include it. I called him and I said, ‘It’s a pity you didn’t translate ‘The Moon and the Bonfires,’ which is a great book … ’ And he said, Well, actually I did do it, but then I sent it to Roger Straus, who looked at the sales figures and said, ‘Why do I need another fucking book by another fucking Italian communist!’”

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“The Moon and the Bonfires” went on to snag an award from PEN America, but aside from accolades, there’s the simple benefit of having a wonderful new book to read. Without Frank taking interest in the book, it would likely have taken many more years until a new translation was published.

Like “The Moon and the Bonfires,” many of these small publishers take a special interest in works in translation — Archipelago Books only prints translated work. Books like these make up around two to three percent of works read in the English-speaking world according to the BBC. Those sales are not worth a large publisher’s time, but for an independent press aiming for critical acclaim and awards rather than a hit, translations are one way to bring strong works from other countries to a broader audience. The recent translation of “My Struggle” by Archipelago Books has been widely acclaimed, placing its writer Karl Ove Knausgaard within reach of the Nobel. But the six-volume epic is terribly difficult to pitch to a publisher: the most glowing reviews of “My Struggle” mention how boring it is, with dozens of pages devoted to activities like chopping wood or preparing for a party. But the willingness of small publishers to take a chance on such books has changed contemporary literature.

Of course, major publishers have not ignored these achievements. FSG, a Macmillan subsidiary, has already begun reprints of “My Struggle,” and other large houses are hopping on the translation train as well. By no means is this a bad thing, and if anything, it’s a natural step in publishing, by bringing the book to more stores and shelves. Such a move also lets publishers like Archipelago turn their gaze towards new projects. Their process for finding great books differs at its core from the process of larger publishers; before publication, larger houses ask, will this book sell? Smaller houses ask, does this book deserve to be read? I know which question I would rather have answered.

Email Michael Landes at [email protected] 

Check out the rest of the Arts Issue here.

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