The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 22, 2012

Subscribe Please

In the 18th century, to get a book published was an affair as fraught as it is today. Publishers were often unwilling to take a risk on a new author, printers wanted to be paid up front, and authors themselves were worried about getting remunerated for their work. The subscription model was invented then - authors would ask some notable wealthy sort to be a patron (often with a cringe-worthy and fulsome foreword), the patron might ask people in his or her circle to pay up-front a certain amount (a subscription), and the author with his publisher would then happily go ahead with the initial print run. Do this a couple of times and - if subscribers continued to be found, or the author gained enough name recognition - publishers and printers would be happy to promote him.

That eighteenth century venturesome man of India, Sake Dean Mohammed, published his epistolary travelogue under subscription: Irish gentry paid 2 shillings 6 pence for a copy of his work. As with many other publishing models, this ran its course over the following years and then died out.

Given the turbulence in the world of publishing these days, it is not entirely surprising that the earlier models are being revived. About a year or so ago, a fresh enterprise named And Other Stories came to my attention. They would offer readers inexpensive terms to collect their books: by subscription. Pay up-front to receive two or four books over a calendar year, and the books would be delivered to you ahead of mass distribution with your own numbered copy; to further whet your ego, if you were among the first three hundred subscribers in a given year, your name would appear in a list at the end of the book.

Once a critical mass of support was established, And Other Stories could show distributors that they had an audience and were worthy of promotion. They could also collaborate with long-established publishers to expand the scale of a production. This they did, for example, with Deborah Levy's Swimming Home, when they entered into a partnership with Faber.

And Other Stories is a specialist enterprise. They offer books in uniform jackets and typefaces, softcover and neatly produced, many of which are translated, all of which have received positive reviews. To add to the excitement, Deborah Levy's book was recently shortlisted for a Booker Prize, so their visibility has suddenly jumped manifold. They have books by Mexican, Argentinean, German, American and Russian writers. The collection is eclectic - some noir, some humour, some pathos, but always readable. I await their 2013 author list with some anticipation.

When I signed up and received my first book from them, I looked at the back to see who else had subscribed. I recognised a name or two: translators and reviewers. The rest were private citizens like myself.

Publishing ideas, like other ideas whose time has come, often pop up in the zeitgeist. So it is not a surprise to see that another boutique publisher - Peirene Press - has a similar subscription model. I haven't subscribed to their list, but they seem to have an equally interesting and eclectic set of authors. And, just as And Other Stories tries to get their readers involved by arranging reading circles and translation seminars and walks with authors in the woods, Peirene too likes to woo the clientele with salons and discussion nights with nibbles.

In a time of consolidation and increased conservatism, and indeed desperation on the part of traditional publishers, it is gladdening to see that innovators exist and that they are able to find sponsorship. The class of readers is not dead and may yet prove to be more forward-thinking and adaptable than the businessmen.


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