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Covers story: why are there so many new publishing imprints?

Thursday 23 June 2016

From Colm Tóibín’s Tuskar Rock to Fleet, One and Tinder Press, there seem to be more and more publisher subdivisions. Claire Armitstead finds out why

owards the end of the noughties, Colm Tóibín bounced into the office of a London publisher clutching a fat Australian novel and insisting that he had to bring it to the UK. His enthusiasm for what he would later acclaim as a book “of immense power and scope, reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Don DeLillo’s Underworld” caused some surprise at Atlantic Books, which was among the 80-odd publishers that had already rejected Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap.

But Tóibín persevered and the novel – which had already been out for two years in Australia – became the literary talking point of 2010: loved and reviled with equal passion, this yarn about a falling-out over an unruly child at a suburban barbecue was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and went on to be made into two TV mini-series.

It’s unlikely that many of the 300,000-plus people who bought The Slap in the UK would even have noticed the name of the imprint under which it was published. Unlikelier still that they would recognise it as a stablemate to László Krasznahorkai’s wayward Hungarian epic Satantango or Chris Kraus’s cult hit I Love Dick, which have since joined it on the list. But Tuskar Rock – founded by Tóibín and literary agent Peter Straus and named after a lighthouse rock off the coast of Tóibín’s home county of Wexford in Ireland – has been quietly lighting up a corner of the UK’s publishing landscape since 2005.

Now into its second decade, Tuskar Rock is one of the older kids on a block that is becoming more crowded with each publishing season. In May, Little, Brown launched a new literary imprint called Fleet, which joined an existing stable of 12 with a mission to be “fleet of foot, alert, responsive”. In October, Orion will launch two new commercial imprints, Spring – devoted to wellbeing and lifestyle – and Trapeze, whose five-book autumn line-up includes works from Alan Partridge and badass YouTuber KSI.

So what is an imprint, and why are there suddenly so many more of them? The simple answer is that they are subdivisions of bigger publishers. Sometimes, they come about through takeovers and sometimes they are startups. Andrew Franklin, whose Profile Books recently took over Tuskar Rock, points out that imprints have no legal status, “so if Tuskar Rock had libelled someone with I Love Dick, it’s Profile that would be sued. On the other hand, they break up monolithic companies and give space to individual editors.”

Some insiders say an imprint can be a handy way of sidelining editors who are difficult or don’t fit in Philip Jones, editor of the trade journal the Bookseller, sees their rise as symptomatic of an identity crisis created by the rise of publishing giants such as Penguin Random House or Hachette. “For agents and their authors, they are a way of getting books to the relevant editors within publishing groups that are growing ever larger and more anonymous. They indicate who (ie which editors) are on the rise, who is acquiring and what types of books they want – although of course, this being publishing, it’s not an exact science. For booksellers they are a way of finding those titles as they come through the publishing thicket.”

Off the record, some insiders say an imprint can be a handy way of sidelining editors who are difficult or don’t fit in. But they can also be a way of giving talented, ambitious publishers a free rein, and reassuring authors that they are not disappearing into the corporate ether. Maggie O’Farrell, Patrick Gale and Andrea Levy are among the big hitters who decamped to a new imprint Tinder Press, set up in 2013 as a literary boutique for the more commercially minded Headline, and run by three publishing veterans known for nurturing writers.

O’Farrell said: “My main reason for moving to Tinder was to stay with my editor, Mary-Anne Harrington. I’ve worked with her on every book and the idea of writing a book without her at the helm was unthinkable. So off to Tinder I went.”

But it’s not only the big money companies that are playing the game. When Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen was longlisted last year for prizes including the Man Booker and the Guardian first book award, staff at Pushkin Press had to keep reminding the media that it was not actually the work of the small indie publisher, but of its even smaller sister, One. Set up in 2013, One was the brainchild of writer and editor Elena Lappin, born of her frustration at seeing some books she loved passed over because editors were too nervous to pick them up, and others falling short of their potential because publishers didn’t know what to do with them.

She took the idea to Pushkin boss Adam Freudenheim, whose focus was on literature in translation, “and he felt there was room for an imprint that would be completely different: one exceptional book per season, which would be a debut.” The Fishermen was the fourth book that One had published and the first for which it had world rights in English. “It took a year to edit it properly, and to me that is what has got lost in much of contemporary big-house publishing. We give a book that attention and it does always pay off,” says Lappin.

Tuskar Rock’s involvement is less intensive, according to Straus. “It is really Colm’s press and is seen as a rescue mission for books we feel should be heard and are not available here. I am helping him on that.”

But though imprints are “a wonderful way for the trade to organise itself, it would be a mistake to assume they were relevant to consumers or meant to be so,” says Jones. “Nobody buying the books cares about the name of the publisher. The consumer doesn’t need to know that Mantle, say, has a reputation in literary crime, but booksellers can use that knowledge when shelving their books and getting them to the right readers. They are the invisible webs that just about make the trade understandable – no more and no less. That some may come to mean something to consumers is just luck.”

Five imprints you’ve probably heard of:
Gollancz
Speciality: Science fiction, fantasy and horror
Owner: Orion, part of Hachette UK
History: Founded in 1927 by Victor Gollancz, became specialist SF/ Fantasy imprint in 1998.
Authors include: Terry Pratchett, Philip K Dick
Sceptre
Speciality: Literary fiction and nonfiction
Owner: Hodder & Stoughton, part of Hachette UK
History: Started in 1986 as literary arm for Hodder & Stoughton
Authors include: David Mitchell, Thomas Keneally
Penguin Classics
Speciality: Mainly classics and but also occasional new books
History: started in 1944 with translation of The Odyssey
Owner: Penguin Random House
Authors include: Marcel Proust, Morrissey
Puffin
Speciality: Children’s books
History: Founded in 1941 in England to produce paperbacks for children
Owner: Penguin Random House
Authors include: Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson
Virago
Speciality: Books by women
History: Started in 1973 as feminist indie
Owner: Little, Brown, part of Hachette UK
Authors include: Sarah Waters, Marilynne Robinson
And five you probably haven’t
Fleet
Speciality: Literary fiction and nonfiction
Owner: Little,Brown, part of Hachette UK
History: Launched in May 2016 with three novels and a science memoir
Authors include: Charlotte Rogan, Hope Jahren
Tinder Press
Speciality: Literary fiction
History: Founded in 2013
Owner: Headline, part of Hachette UK
Authors include: Maggie O’Farrell, Patrick Gale
Bloomsbury Sigma
Speciality: Popular science
History: Launched in 2014
Owner: Bloomsbury
Authors include: Jules Howard, Timandra Harkness
One
Speciality: Literary fiction debuts
History: Founded in 2013
Owner: Pushkin Press
Authors include: Chigozie Obioma, Olivia Sudjic
Mantle
Speciality: Fiction and narrative nonfiction with focus on crime and thrillers
History: Founded in 2010
Owner: PanMacmillan
Authors include: Benjamin Black, Andrea Camilleri

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