New York Review of Books, Lonely Planet, and other well-known independent publishers are signing up for new sales representation in the UK, according to The Bookseller, following the announced closure of Faber Factory Plus, the sales services platform for indies launched by Faber & Faber, itself a notable independent. This could suggest that publishing is becoming increasingly a barbell business, with Big Five major publishers at one end, very small independents at the other, and a slender band of middle-sized independent publishing houses, some of them well-known names.
Faber Factory Plus described itself as “a full-service sales agency for like-minded independent book publishers, with a simple aim of bringing the best books to the widest possible readership, both in the UK and internationally.” However, Faber announced its closure earlier following a difficult period for the parent operation. The platform’s website already appeared poorly maintained, with no blog post since last December, and no tweets since September. The seven publishers originally on board with Faber Factory Plus, according to The Bookseller, are now joining 11 of their peers in another Faber-led joint marketing initiative, the Independent Alliance. Obviously, questions remain over whether this will be any more successful than the other Faber initiative. Faber itself, meanwhile, continues to run at a loss.
That’s a pity, because signs are that the Big Five’s current comfortable profitability is being driven by the network effect of their huge geographical range allied to multiple rights opportunities that they exploit for foreign sales and subsidiary income. As publishing becomes increasingly globalized, indies without the internal resources to tap such opportunities are at a competitive disadvantage. Faber Factory Plus’s fate suggests that efforts to build common platforms to overcome this challenge aren’t necessarily working. And I don’t see any reason why the situation should be any different in the U.S. or other markets.
Of course, that’s without considering the “dark matter” problem, where an increasingly large share of e-book volume in particular is accounted for by self-published or micro-indie titles. Criticism of the New York Times’s recent misrepresentation of current e-book sales trends hinged on how this was linked to agency pricing reintroduced by the Big Five, but of course, mid-range independent publishers trying to price in the same bands as the majors may be hit just as badly, while having less generously padded safety nets.
This year’s Costa Book Awards in the UK demonstrated that very focused independent publishers can find and develop exceptional talents without anything like the Big Five’s scale and overheads. However, those are really small operations, well below the size and running costs of the likes of Faber. Will the mid-range indies be able to compete? Are we heading for a publishing barbell? I’d welcome feedback on this, but I’ll certainly be watching for that trend.