The announcement on Tuesday that U.K. online and pop-up retailer The Book People has been forced into receivership is having ripple effects throughout the U.K. book retail and publishing industries, including a potentially disastrous financial impact on the small independent publisher Galley Beggar Press.
The seven-year-old press is owed £40,000 by The Book People as a result of a special run on Galley Beggar’s marquee fall title, the Booker Prize nominee Ducks, Newburyport.
On Wednesday, the publisher launched a GoFundMe campaign in an attempt to raise some money to cover the shortfall, which co-director Eloise Millar writes poses an existential threat. In her appeal, Millar states that the publisher entered into an agreement to print 8,000 copies of a special edition of Lucy Ellmann’s 1,000-page novel when it landed on the Booker Prize shortlist.
The Book People offer hardback versions of the shortlist to their readers, and as soon as we learned that we were longlisted, we were put in touch with the Book People and made to understand that everyone on the shortlist would need to supply an edition.
They wanted 8,000 books and would pay just over £40,000.
It was a sizeable undertaking. It’s the sort of money we never normally play with, but it was part of the schedule and the competition and when Ducks, Newburyport made the shortlist, we did it.
According to Alison Flood in The Guardian, the recommended retail price for the six-title Booker Prize shortlist is £111.97; The Book People was offering its special discounted package of all six titles for £35.99.
Five hours after the GoFundMe campaign went live, Galley Beggar had raised £31,704 on a goal of £40,000. At 9:30 EST on Wednesday, the publisher tweeted that someone walked in off the street and handed them £250.
A man just knocked on our door and gave us two hundred and fifty pounds. People. Just – oh.— Galley Beggar Press (@GalleyBeggars) December 18, 2019
All of which is good news. But the incident highlights the precarity of small presses, many of which may not be able to accommodate the financial outlays involved in demands for reprints or publicity materials made by prize administrators. A large print run on a 1,000-page novel, even given economies of scale, is not cheap for a small press, especially one that can expect returns should the book not go on to win the prize.
On the other side, The Guardian reports that The Book People’s 2017 profit on sales of £71.5 million was £1.1 million, down from £6.2 million in 2016. A partner at the equity firm that owns The Book People attributed the losses to “well-documented challenges in the retail environment compounded by the strength of global online booksellers.”
At the retailer, 400 jobs hang in the balance. And all this is occurring just before Christmas, which is traditionally the most important selling season for publishers and bookstores.
It is to be hoped that Galley Beggar Press is able to weather the current storm. They famously picked up Ducks, Newburyport after Ellmann’s previous publisher, Bloomsbury, turned it down. (It is published in North America by Biblioasis.) That a small house was willing to take a chance on a sprawling, digressive, stream-of-consciousness narrative written more or less as a single run-on sentence is heartening. It is a terrible irony that the very success of Ducks, Newburyport has become the thing that has placed the house’s future viability in jeopardy.
Also encouraging is the immediate, enthusiastic response to the press’s crowdfunding appeal. It indicates that there might still exist an appetite for challenging, provocative literature that doesn’t fit a prefab corporate mould. It being Christmastime, it is perhaps not unusual to want to believe in miracles.