HOLLYWOOD Struggling to scrape by in a small-margin, big-money business, independent publishers live or die by their editorial agility. They either grasp subtle shifts in the market faster than the big houses, or they risk being left in the dust.
Take Talk Miramax Books. If not an indie in the traditional sense — it’s owned by Disney — it still operates like one. The tiny staff has few meetings and little bureaucracy; it generates many of its own book ideas, and reacts quickly to market trends.
“We can create the list as we go,” says editor in chief Jonathan Burnham.
Hence its bestseller by South Pole doctor Jeri Nielson — “a book we came up with,” says Burnham — and its remarkably fortuitous $3 million deal for two books by ubiquitous New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Last week, as America’s reading habits swerved in the wake of the terrorist attacks, a handful of books from indie houses shot to the top of bestseller lists.
On Amazon, a book on the World Trade Center from nonprofit Rutgers University Press was outselling Jack Welch’s memoir from Warner Books, while an Osama bin Laden bio from Prima Publishing hurtled past Putnam’s inspirational blockbuster, “Who Moved My Cheese.”
Indie publishing is a niche business, and it just so happens the only niches that mattered last week were terrorism, the Twin Towers, spirituality and Nostradamus — areas poorly covered by the big houses.
These breakthroughs come at a time when the indie sector is displaying new optimism.
One of the fastest-growing indies is Chicago’s Source Books. Founded 14 years ago by former ad exec Dominique Raccah, it’s now a $25 million company with a lucrative line of mixed-media books. Last week’s attacks raised demand for its CD-bundled history of radio news, “We Interrupt This Broadcast.” Approximately 650,000 copies of the tome have already sold.
September has seen the launch of another indie, Rugged Land, with a mandate to publish the same type of popular fiction and nonfiction you might find at the big houses, with distribution by Holtzbrink, one of the big book congloms. But Rugged Land will publish just six books a year, and co-founders Webster Stone and Shawn Coyne say an indie, do-it-yourself spirit prevails.
“We’re not sitting here, waiting for the next hot thriller,” says Coyne.
Surviving in a land of publishing giants isn’t easy, especially in a flagging economy. But as the big houses play catch-up, rushing their own books on terrorism and patriotism into bookstores, indie publishers can take heart. You don’t have to be bigger than G.E. to beat Jack Welch.