Friday, 21 December 2012

Five Leaves year so far

Since the Mayan calendar got it wrong about the end of the world it is worth writing an end of year report from Five Leaves Towers. OK the year is not ended but all that remains is to read, correct and edit a pile of manuscripts for next year... Appropriately the last act dealing with current books was to pack up our last ten copies of Maps for the London Review Bookshop and order another reprint of our surprise best seller from 2011, which continues to run and run, not least at the LRB. This year's journal, Utopia, is selling, though not in such quantities but we know of some reviews coming up that will help. Not that we're dissatisfied.
Utopia was one of fifteen new titles this year, and there was a new edition of Beneath the Blue Sky, our memoir of Traveller life in the 1960s. This has not been an easy year for me, personally, having to spend a lot of time in Scotland on family business which has put pressure on the firm. Despite that - and a big addition to our workload because of the rise of ebooks - we had only one casualty for the year with Chris Searle's jazz book Red Groove being held over until next year. Sorry, Chris! Of all our writers he's likely to be the most understanding as he has a long history of involvement with the small press world. The work is written, only needing editing and picture research (and typesetting and design...).
Ebooks have been the big story of the year nationally and parochially. Our worker Pippa Hennessy has turned twenty of our titles into ebooks. Indeed she has become something of an expert in this, giving talks and workshops to other groups. Our ebook of Michael Malone's Blood Tears became our best-selling title, with around 5,000 sold as an ebook, with a further 1,000 in print. As an experiment we offered the ebook free and 18,000 copies were downloaded with interest continuing as the book was priced. It is now obvious though that only some books will sell at all in ebooks. NOT poetry, which we knew really. Genre fiction does best - but we are very interested in the new Kindle Fire and have plans to exploit this as much as possible with some books in due course, with video, high definition colour, hyper links. This will certainly be part of the future for, for example, our books on landscape. But that's coming.
The tie up with Kindle - ie Amazon - is not one we are too pleased with, given Amazon's reluctance to pay tax. Save for some good young adult fiction sales through the American company Overdrive near 100% of our ebook sales have been through Kindle. Though Kobo, Sony and Nook are trying to get into the market we can expect Kindle/Amazon to dominate for some time to come. But hey - look what happened to Starbucks! This has also been our first full year supplying Amazon direct following complaints about availability. The terms are awful - 60% discount - to secure good availability, but now one third of our trade sales are through Amazon and sales continue to rise. We would prefer people to buy from their local independent bookshop, but we are realistic. But if you do buy online try Foyles. They often beat Amazon on price. Our current best seller at Amazon - Talking Green - is £7.19. Over at Foyles online the book costs £5.99. And Foyles is an independent.
The other full year of... was of central buying by Waterstones. By central buying we mean one or two people being the buyers for subjects, for every shop in the country. We have benefited from this in Scotland where the chain has really backed Michael Malone and our other Scottish crime writer Russel McLean (his third book, Father Confessor did well this year) but elsewhere we can find a book is a great seller for us but Waterstones buy in a handful or even no copies whatsoever. In the past some of their shops did well for us, some OK, some badly - fine, that's how things should be as locally the staff know their customers and vary in their interests. All gone. Such concentrated power is not good for publishers, for writers, for readers - or for Waterstones. On the other hand there are some great independents out there, and we need to do more with them. Meantime we've struggled a bit with young adult fiction, not least due to cutbacks in school and public libraries. We've produced three great books this year by David Belbin, Bali Rai and Pauline Chandler - none exactly unknown in the young adult world - but sales have not been great.
Two books have been reprinted within weeks of publication, Andy Croft's 1948 (our contribution to Olympic mania) and Colin Ward's Talking Green. Why? In both cases they were Nicholas Lezard's paperback of the week in The Guardian. We bow down in front of him. Actually, the day Ward was in the paper every paperback under review save one was from an indie publisher. We were thrilled that five out of six books on the Booker list this year were from indies, three of them being from small independents and one being from a Nottingham author. Well done indies, well done Alison Moore for her book with Salt, The Lighthouse.
I won't list all the books we have published this year - the blog would be too long, but all appear on our website at and have been covered in earlier postings on the blog. Those writers not mentioned have not been confined to oblivion and we appreciate them (so don't get grumpy if you have not been mentioned).
Outside of straightforward publishing it was a busy year, as always. Because of family commitments, though I mostly programmed Lowdham Book Festival's winter weekend, I had to drop out of organising the main festival. Five Leaves main contribution was in Pippa designing the programme and other publicity material. Our other projects were not affected - States of Independence in Leicester (a one day celebration of independent publishing) was a great day, and there is now a set of such events - Birmingham, Sheffield, the Poetry Book Fair in London. We had stalls at all, with our many writers appearing too. The Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing was duly established, with the winner being David Graeber's book Debt. Bread and Roses has been well covered in this blog, as have our Teenage Kicks Derbyshire event for young adults and young adult writers, and the international commemoration of the Yiddish writers murdered on August 12 1952. 150 people came to our half-day event of speeches, readings and music and the launch of our From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish writing 1917-1952. Finally, unless I have forgotten something, Pippa took the lead in relaunching Beeston Poets with Jackie Kay, Neil Astley and Andy Croft as readers for the first season. All our projects are with outside partners - The Bookcase in Lowdham, the Creative Writing Team at De Montfort University, the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, Derbsyshire Libraries, Jewish Music Institute, Nottinghamshire Libraries and Nottingham Poetry Society. Best friends.
It will never be easy being a small publisher. But in the year that Random merged with Penguin, that Tindall Street merged with Serpent's Tail/Profile that we are still here, still publishing and still enthusiastic is worth mentioning. 2012 has been a tough year financially and personally but there are some things to be proud of. But we won't be publishing any Mayan calendars - their fact checkers are so poor.

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