Small Presses Special - Attic offices, skeleton staff

Over the next two weeks, <em>NS</em> critics will shine a spotlight on the output of small publisher

A cautionary tale from the world of books. Some years ago a group of literary-minded people from the Norwich area decided to start a small publishing firm. A name was chosen - Rampant Horse Books - and capital subscribed. The books, mostly novels by writers one had actually heard of (Susan Curran, Jeremy Leland), were exceptionally well produced and distinctive. Almost from the outset, though, Rampant Horse found its operation lying stalled and winded in a high-walled cul-de-sac. No one would review them.

What was to be done? Letters were written to books page editors and representations were made. In the end the proprietors opted to invest a fair chunk of their capital simply in hiring a PR firm to tout their list around literary London. Still the review coverage hovered between poor and non-existent. The books lingered in the warehouse, the firm closed down and the owners - musing no doubt on the iniquities of the modern literary marketplace - went back to their day jobs.

One of the distinguishing marks of British literary culture in the past two decades or so has been the rise - slow, painful and precarious, but a rise nonetheless - of the small, independent publisher. Interestingly this ascent has brought not merely more books but a significant widening of the areas in which small publishers used traditionally to specialise. Rather than confining themselves to poetry, say, or local history, many of today's small operators are busy colonising the old mainstream preserves of fiction, politics and cultural studies. Judging by the lists produced by recent newcomers such as Arcadia, Profile Books and Reaktion Books, their output is enough to put many a "serious" commercial publisher to shame.

There are several explanations for the boom in independent publishing, but the main one is the relentless financial squeeze applied to mainstream firms since the mid-1980s. Its consequences are scarcely worth restating: megabucks thrown at rubbish, a constant pruning of what used to be called the "mid-list" (shorthand for modest-selling literary novels) and a growing disinclination to sponsor anything regional, experimental or otherwise left-field. In its wake has come a diaspora of talent and enterprise from Hammersmith and the Vauxhall Bridge Road to the world of attic offices and skeleton staffs, where the editorial director is quite likely to lend a hand typing out invoices or begging orders from the local W H Smith.

Given the cut-throat nature of the business, smaller outfits - even those that concentrate on fiction - tend to peddle a particular line. Serpent's Tail specialises in avant-garde Americana such as Dennis Cooper. Arcadia, run by the energetic Gary Pulsifer, recently had a biggish hit (12,500 copies sold) with Richard Zimler's esoteric European best-seller The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. Black Spring does cult favourites such as Kyril Bonfiglioni, as well as running a nice line in collections of rock lyrics by, among others, Nick Cave and Howard Devoto. Manchester-based Carcanet keeps the experimental flame burning (Christine Brooke-Rose, Gabriel Josipovici), while continuing to sponsor high-class translations.

Without wanting to ignore the output of self- consciously ethnic specialists such as X Press or genre lists like No Exit, never mind older operators like Peter Owen, Souvenir Press, John Calder or the late Marion Boyars, one of the most cheering developments of the past half-decade has been the emergence of a clutch of provincial publishers - "provincial" not merely in the sense of operating outside London but in their pursuit of a distinctive regional identity. Several of them - Panurge Publishing in Cumbria, for example, or Sunk Island in Lincolnshire - have grown out of successful literary magazines (Panurge and Sunk Island Review); others, like Flambard in Newcastle, concentrate solely on books (notably John Murray's River Blues) but their basic objective is the same: to find a home for meritorious work that London no longer cares to sponsor.

Whether based in a moonlighting academic's Tyneside loft or in a Finsbury mews, independent publishing - fiction publishing especially - performs a role whose importance can hardly be exaggerated: talent-spotting for the majors (Julia Darling's collection Bloodlines was originally published by Panurge before Trans-world bought her first novel, Crocodile Soup, for £60,000), offering a home to established writers' vagaries (Robert Edric's novella Hallowed Ground, for instance, brought out by Sunk Island) or simply picking up talent that the big firms find too marginal to promote (Arcadia's championing of Elizabeth Russell Taylor). Finally, at the bottom of the scale, there are labour-of-love merchants such as Brian Buckley, who, in the guise of Chrysalis Press, has spent several years publishing the books of his wife Margaret, who died of cancer in 1992. Well worth reading they are, too (in particular The Commune), if mostly ignored by the national press.

Which is where the problems of even the more successful small presses begin. Two weeks ago these pages carried a piece by a young novelist complaining that nobody would review his books. Much as you sympathise with Gareth Creer (who incidentally is published by a Transworld imprint with huge commercial clout and at least sees his work in Waterstone's), his difficulties seem rather less irksome than those of a small operator in a provincial city struggling to come to terms with the great unwritten law of modern publishing: that anything with a Jonathan Cape logo on the spine takes precedence over a novel from the Nowhere Press. For all the efforts of a handful of enlightened literary editors, book reviewing remains a matter of favours being done to the eminent. Personally I wouldn't care if I never saw another book by Julian Barnes reviewed: we all know what he's like. There are other voices, out beyond the metropolitan circuit, and quite as worthy to be heard.

D J Taylor's novel "English Settlement" ("L'Accordo Inglese") recently won the Italian Grinzane Cavour prize for foreign novels in translation