A quiet revolution is afoot in British publishing. Earlier this year, when American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis brought out his latest bestseller, The Shards, the book came to UK readers not from his usual publisher, Picador—his home for nearly four decades—but from a small independent company, Swift Press, a freelance-powered outfit so light on overheads it doesn’t even have an office. Likewise, Sheila Heti, the prize-winning Canadian author of zeitgeisty autobiographical cogitations Motherhood and How Should a Person Be?, recently announced that her next book won’t be out with her regular publisher, Penguin Random House, but with south London indie Fitzcarraldo Editions, not yet 10 years in business. Last year’s Booker winner, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka, came to us courtesy of the smallest publisher ever to win the prize, husband-and-wife indie Sort Of Books.

In 2022, all the glittering literary prizes went to indies—not only the Booker, but its sister prize for translated fiction, the International Booker, as well as the Nobel, the Goldsmiths, the Pulitzer and Australia’s $67,000 Victorian Prize for literature. The last four remarkably were all won by Fitzcarraldo, the UK home of celebrated French memoirist Annie Ernaux and foremost among a wave of new small publishers punching above their weight. What’s going on?

“The thing about the publishing world is that most people don’t understand how it works,” says Valerie Brandes, chief executive of black-owned London indie Jacaranda Books. “Even people in publishing don’t understand how it works! But I’d make so bold as to say the real publishing is happening at the bottom.” It’s a view that is increasingly widespread in the industry.

The argument runs something like this: because commercial pressures at large houses encourage cautious commissioning (see the way every breakthrough success, be it Sally Rooney or Richard Osman, heralds an attack of the clones), nimbler indies—operating with tighter margins—step into the void and give choice-starved readers the books that corporate imprints deem unsaleable or otherwise risky. Whether these are from veteran authors left on the scrapheap (according to Ellis, Picador didn’t want The Shards), boundary-pushing first-timers such as Sheena Patel (author of I’m a Fan, recently the winner of a British Book award) or foreign greats deemed tricky to sell (witness Fitzcarraldo’s wonder trio of overseas Nobel laureates, Ernaux, Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk), all are finding homes with upstart maverick publishers that—as their prize success indicates—are reaping the spoils.

“In our risk-averse climate, a lot of what is exciting, original and untested is being published by independent publishers,” says literary agent Anna Webber, who brought Heti to Fitzcarraldo. Author Lucy Ellmann goes further: when her longtime editor turned down her 2019 novel Ducks, Newburyport—one sentence, 1,000 pages long—she sent the manuscript to Sam Jordison and Eloise Millar of Norwich indie Galley Beggar Press; it promptly made the Booker shortlist and won the Goldsmiths prize for experimental fiction. No wonder Ellmann says indies are UK publishing’s “beating heart… the big corporate guys seem to aspire only to be sluggish large intestines”.

“The thing about the publishing world is that most people don’t understand how it works. Even people in publishing don’t understand how it works!”

Roughly speaking, the industry has three tiers. At the top, a decades-long domino run of mergers and buyouts, accelerated by the need to unite against the all-conquering clout of Amazon, have left us with a “big five” of overseas-controlled mega-conglomerates: Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Pan Macmillan (home to Picador), News Corp subsidiary HarperCollins (whose Fourth Estate imprint publishes Hilary Mantel and Jonathan Franzen), and the biggest of the big, Penguin Random House, the German-owned umbrella to a dizzying array of prestige imprints, including Salman Rushdie’s publisher Jonathan Cape and Hamish Hamilton, home of Zadie Smith.

Go down a rung and you find smaller non-corporate companies cushioned either by individual owners with deep pockets (see Granta and Canongate) or cash cows such as Harry Potter (in the case of Bloomsbury) and TS Eliot (Faber). By “indie”, no one really means this kind of amply resourced mid-sized publisher; they mean the kind of place where the people—or person—selecting which books to publish may also be responsible for choosing the paper they’re printed on before eventually lugging copies to the warehouse (perhaps a corner of the living room in their very possibly remortgaged home), parcelling website orders, calculating royalties, handling social media and so on.

“I think anybody involved in editing likes to be involved in the whole chain of publishing a book,” says Marigold Atkey, publisher of small press Daunt. But where apex publishers employ dozens of staff individually responsible for every last micro-task, the job for publishers at the bottom is more akin to 24/7 DIY. The giddy flipside is a freedom to flex editorial instincts muzzled at larger imprints, where algorithm-informed input from sales and marketing teams can mean an editor’s decision is seldom final. Atkey, once of Bloomsbury and HarperCollins, says she now picks authors to acquire without “a whole roomful of people from all these different departments looking at somebody thinking: ‘Oh, they’ve not got very many followers.’”

Like many successful small publishers, Daunt specializes in two types of book: stardust-sprinkled reprints (such as postwar Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, introduced by Rachel Cusk or Sally Rooney) and bought-in fiction from US writers on the up (Daunt published the debut of Pulitzer-winning Hernan Diaz and made the Booker shortlist with Brandon Taylor’s first novel, Real Life). In each case, money is saved by publishing what is essentially a pre-existing title—what’s called “offsetting” rather than “originating”. Crucially, the product never looks cheap; like many indies, such as Pushkin Press, whose rise was built on elegant-looking translations of interwar classics, Daunt puts a premium on design and cares about how its books look on social media – not to be sniffed at, Atkey says, when you can’t rely on a marketing budget (she recalls her panic when literary Twitter prematurely said its goodbyes after Elon Musk’s takeover).

Another strategy is to swoop for underpriced rejects. No one currently does this more effectively than Swift, co-founded in 2020 by Mark Richards, 41, who, unlike every other small publisher I speak to, says he’s always had an entrepreneurial streak. An editor with 20 years’ experience, he previously acquired books for Fourth Estate and John Murray (part of Hachette), where he shrewdly threw a lifeline to Mick Herron after the Slow Horses author found himself hastily dumped by his publisher for weak sales.

By “indie” people mean the kind of place where the people selecting which books to publish may also be responsible for choosing the paper they’re printed on before eventually lugging copies to the warehouse.

Bringing that savvy to Swift has earned him a list including Bret Easton Ellis and the Booker-winning John Banville, as well as immersing him in the culture wars. He moved quickly to bring out Kate Clanchy’s tweaked version of her classroom memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, as well as her entire backlist, when she and her original publisher, Picador, parted ways in the fallout over her use of language; she’s now at work on a new book that Richards says he’s sure he’d love to publish. And where more than 20 other publishers decided against taking on the first book by the Newsnight reporter Hannah Barnes, Time to Think, an investigation of the contentious Tavistock gender clinic, Richards said yes, proudly landing Swift a bestseller shortlisted for the Orwell prize.

Yet the greatest influence of indies on the literary landscape lies in their willingness to take an arguably less commercial form of risk by publishing fiction that “pushes boundaries of form and shows the different ways something can be a novel”, in the words of Denise Rose Hansen, founder of Lolli Editions. Think of anything you read recently that was elliptical, fragmentary or enigmatic, and chances are it has something to do with an indie: Eimear McBride, Tom McCarthy, Isabel Waidner, Eley Williams and Shola von Reinhold are only a handful of the prize-winning or prize-shortlisted writers to give fiction in English a shot in the arm over the past decade – and all got their break from small presses, although it’s telling that with one exception (Von Reinhold), each has since moved to a bigger house.

Look at what happened with Deborah Levy. Now one of Britain’s most celebrated authors, she’s likely in line for a fourth Booker nomination with her latest novel, August Blue, ecstatically reviewed. Yet little more than a decade ago, she couldn’t get a hearing. After publishing three well-received experimental novels with Jonathan Cape and Viking in the 1980s and 1990s, Levy stopped writing fiction to raise her children; when she came back in the 2010s with a fifth novel, Swimming Home, no one took it.

That it was ever even published—earning the first of her two Booker shortlistings, in 2012—owed to the disillusionment of former Amazon employee Stefan Tobler, now 49, then working as a freelance translator assessing potential foreign-language acquisitions for a large literary imprint. When his proposal to translate Brazilian great Raduan Nassar was rejected on the grounds that he’d be hard to market, the frustration drove Tobler in 2011 to launch his own company, And Other Stories, part-funded by readers’ subscriptions. His mission was to spotlight adventurous translation, but what put And Other Stories on the map (and saved it from bankruptcy, Tobler tells me) was his early decision to accept Swimming Home, feeding an appetite for off-kilter fiction starved by the risk-averse corporates.

Of course, the sweet smell of success always tempts bigger companies to lose their inhibitions; Levy’s next novel went to Hamish Hamilton. “Indies have definitely put in the legwork on some tricky-to-sell authors,” says Gary Budden, co-founder of London indie Influx Press, no stranger to the bittersweet pleasure of making a hit out of authors nobody else seemed to want. Probably its greatest coup has been to relaunch African American writer Percival Everett, whose novels went unpublished in the UK for 20 years until Influx steadily gained him a new readership. Interest spiked last year when his darkly comic detective novel The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker, selling more than 48,000 copies. But then the majors circled: Everett’s next book, James, a retelling of the Huckleberry Finn story, will be published by Pan Macmillan after a six-figure deal in the US.

The greatest influence of indies on the literary landscape lies in their willingness to take an arguably less commercial form of risk by publishing fiction that “pushes boundaries of form and shows the different ways something can be a novel.”

For a publisher, that uneasy experience offers peculiar vindication of editorial instinct; for a writer, the experience can be just as double-edged. Isabel Waidner, unable to get an agent, began publishing with Manchester print-on-demand press Dostoyevsky Wannabe before a switch to London indie Peninsula Press for their third novel, Sterling Karat Gold, about a non-binary migrant’s Kafkaesque travails. Winning the Goldsmiths prize in 2021 brought interest from the Wylie agency, whose clients include Rushdie and Rooney; Waidner’s new novel is now just out with Hamish Hamilton (spot the pattern). For the author, it’s been “shockingly brilliant”, although they add: “In many ways I resent my trajectory for its exceptionality. It’s not exactly feasible for a wider community of queer, working-class writers to first win the Goldsmiths prize, then secure some of the privileges and support systems that more traditional writers have from the get-go.”

The suspicion is that cultural homogeneity at the top end of the industry skews perceptions of what constitutes risky publishing. Last year’s Booker winner, Shehan Karunatilaka’s second novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, very nearly wasn’t published at all in the UK. Nobody wanted it: publishers including Jonathan Cape, which brought out Karunatilaka’s debut, Chinaman, let it go on the grounds that its Sri Lankan context would perplex readers. Sort Of Books saved the manuscript from limbo, selling 80,000 hardbacks in the process. Karunatilaka’s editor, Natania Jansz, tells me over Zoom while visiting family in Sri Lanka that rival editors had a point about Seven Moons – but her background left her well placed to advise on a redraft, while Sort Of’s business model, which prioritizes attention to detail over speed of turnaround, meant she was happy to wait for the result.

Jacques Testard, the founder of Fitzcarraldo Editions, named his publishing house after Werner Herzog’s 1982 movie.

Thus did author and publisher reap the rewards of work no one else seemed ready or able to put in—but as the story shows, a hair’s breadth lies between winning the Booker and not even getting a deal. The prevalence of the kind of short-term thinking that almost buried Seven Moons goes some way to explaining why some of the boldest publishing in the UK currently comes out of a renovated carburetor factory overlooking a south London estate. This is home to Fitzcarraldo Editions, launched in 2014 by Paris-born Jacques Testard, whose titles this year have included Owlish, a magic-realist fable from Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse, Polly Barton’s Porn: An Oral History and a new translation of Brazilian modernist epic Macunaíma, by Mário de Andrade. Hailed by another publisher I speak to as “the publishing genius of our time – like Lionel Messi, he can do everything”, Testard leads a team of six (at first it was just him, a designer and a freelance publicist) and has been lauded for his foresight in publishing Annie Ernaux, Belarusian reporter Svetlana Alexievich and Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk before they each won the Nobel prize.

But when I ask him to account for Fitzcarraldo’s phenomenal success, he uses words such as “ludicrous” and “depressing”; for him, it illustrates the blind spots of an overwhelmingly monoglot industry painfully short of care, patience and discernment. Nowhere else in Europe could he have assembled so strong an international list, he points out, because elsewhere on the continent (where they mind about translation), his authors all have homes at the most prestigious houses.

A hair’s breadth lies between winning the Booker and not even getting a deal.

I think he undersells his magic. Notably, Testard wasn’t the first to publish Ernaux, Alexievich or Tokarczuk in English, but he’s the first to sell them in their hundreds of thousands. “Somehow Jacques got people to see what Ernaux was up to,” says Lauren Elkin, author of Art Monsters, who has interviewed Ernaux and written frequently on her work. “He went all in by doing one book after another after another after another, as if to say: ‘Look at this amazing body of work this woman has created,’ rather than trying just one to see how it went.”

In 2022, Fitzcarraldo Editions authors won the Nobel, the Goldsmith, the Pulitzer, and Australia’s Victorian Prize.

A more superficial explanation for the cut-through is the chic austerity of the Fitzcarraldo jacket design: plain covers (Yves Klein blue for fiction; white for nonfiction) that dodge any need for potentially costly image rights while unifying an eclectic list with high-literary mystique. “Once the hipster beers came along, you were going to have a hipster publishing house,” says novelist and Weatherglass publisher Neil Griffiths, noting the “extraordinary” number of “cool young people” attending Fitzcarraldo launches. This is the cohort amusingly labelled “generation TF” – translated fiction – by recent market research from Nielsen: readers under 35, who bought nearly half of the 1.9m translated fiction titles sold in the UK last year (most fiction was bought by readers aged between 60 and 84).

Some of these readers weren’t yet born when, in the 1990s and 00s, the pioneering indie Serpent’s Tail (now absorbed into Profile Books under new management) translated an earlier trio of Nobel winners, Kenzaburō Ōe, Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller. Their editor, Pete Ayrton, recently recalled how their accolades were received by a grudging UK media like a football crowd jeering an away substitute: “Whoooo?” The clamor that greeted Fitzcarraldo’s 2021 release of Tokarczuk’s 900-page, 18th-century theological epic The Books of Jacob shows how much horizons have widened. In 2017, Griffiths set up the Republic of Consciousness prize for small presses, expressly to reward the ostensibly undersung labor of publishers such as Testard, yet the irony is that Fitzcarraldo has now bagged every big literary award going (bar the Booker: it has not even been longlisted, which probably says more about prize than publisher).

Although barely a decade has passed since the corporates turned their nose up at Deborah Levy, the map of British publishing has been redrawn – such that Stefan Tobler now wonders if, in 2023, he’d even need to go into business. “I could have just published my translations with Charco [Press, an Edinburgh-based outfit specializing in Latin American fiction] or Fitzcarraldo,” he jokes. Yet he, like other maverick publishers in his wake, helped bring the change he wanted to see. “I feel the successes of books that have been less obvious, like Levy or Claire-Louise Bennett [author of Checkout 19], have made bigger publishers more willing to pick up books that they wouldn’t have necessarily in 2008. But maybe that will be changing now we’re into another recession,” he says.

Whatever happens, the wave of new indies that Tobler led looks set to stay. “Collectively, indie publishers represent a stability of purpose. We’re not all going to swap jobs,” says Testard, alluding to the merry-go-round of corporate editorial posts that keeps trade newsletters busy but can leave big imprints rudderless. “We have different tastes and interests but I think we’re all invested in the long-term – we’re all going to just carry on doing what we’re doing.” Amen to that.

Anthony Cummins is a London-based writer