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Small presses, big ambitions

Small presses, big ambitions

Nine of this year’s International Booker Prize longlist of 13 are published by small independent presses. This came as something of a surprise to the judges, as one of them, Lucie Campos, noted: “It was only after that [longlist] discussion that we looked back and saw the list was now made up of nine independent publishers. What this shows is the incredible work being done to identify these books and bring them to the fore.” The stats are extra data for Dr Richard Mansell, from the University of Exeter, who has been researching the history of the prize’s longlisted titles and those of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize which merged with it in 2016. From 2001 to 2005 Mansell found that the “big five” publishers were responsible for 55 per cent of the titles. That number declined to 47 per cent between 2006 and 2010 and then down to 36 per cent between 2016 and 2019. This downwards trend does not apply, however, to non-translated fiction. It seems clear that in translated fiction it is the smaller presses that are doing the heavy lifting and taking the risks. As Mansell says: “Positions of power of publishers are not as stable as they were.”


Many congratulations to the great Rose Tremain, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989 with Restoration and a judge in both 1988 and 2000, who has just been made a dame by the Queen in recognition of her services to writing. Reflecting on the honour, Dame Rose remarked: “I feel rather moved by it actually. I think it feels especially good because writers aren't often given these things. A lot of actors get them, I think it is because their visibility is much higher. We tend to hide behind our work."


Another Booker Prize dame, Hilary Mantel, has been bestriding the airwaves, television, newspapers and magazines like a colossus. The world has gone bonkers with the publication of The Mirror and the Light, the final volume of her double Booker Prize winning Thomas Cromwell trilogy. One reason she has been in such demand is for her thoughts on modern royalty and she did not disappoint those looking for some controversy. Discussing how the bodies of royal women have been treated through history courtesy of their role in giving birth to the next monarch, she said that the tabloid treatment of Meghan Sussex was body-related too. Royal women, she commented, “are perceived as public property in the same way that Tudor women were perceived. . . it is simply turning the individual woman back into a breeder”. Regarding Meghan, she thought the “scrutiny” of royal bodies “does include the skin”.


Dame Hilary has also been addressing the tricky problem of that potential third Booker Prize. “While I was writing, the Booker question was never present,” she said, “but, when you’re publishing, you can’t get away from it – some people are already acting as if I wrote the third book specifically to have a shot at the hat-trick!” Although she knows full well that “It will be cast in terms of a disaster if I don’t win it again”, she is phlegmatic. “I do care, but I won’t perceive it as a snub.”