Commentary - Hating bookshops

James Hopkin talks to the maverick publisher Matthew Miller

Everyone, by now, has heard of Amazon.com, but how about the Toby Press, a small self-publishing company also accessible via the internet? Matthew Miller, who set up the press last October, is an American with more than 20 years of business experience in Britain, running European subsidiaries of American firms. The success of these companies resulted from selling, as he puts it, their "consumer durables" directly to the public.

Now Miller is trying to do the same with a list of books unavailable elsewhere. Why? Isn't the competition already formidable enough? "First," he says, "I'm a lousy writer, so my next best choice is to publish. I get terrific satisfaction from being the link between readers and writers."

If this sounds romantic, then he is quick to outline the project's viability in the market place. "There are a huge number of alternatives to the retailers in the book business. The distribution side requires 40, 50 or 60 per cent of the cover price, and that margin doesn't allow other publishers properly to promote a book. I'm trying to promote and publish a very small quantity - maybe 20 a year - of very good books. That's the object, at least."

Thus far, he has published 12 hardback books, with six more to come in his summer list. Among those already available are two novels by Anna Enquist, a bestseller in Holland, one of which, Secret, won the 1997 Dutch Book of the Year. The author herself feels this type of direct-sell marketing to be a "challenge, and I'm happy to give it a try".There are also novels by Per Jorner, a 26-year-old Swede; Joshua Barkan, a 30-year-old Californian praised by Saul Bellow; an Algerian writing under a pseudonym; and Romana Petri, an award-winning Italian. It is a catalogue of curiosities, but Miller sees it as a sellable mid-list. "For every Captain Corelli's Mandolin that makes it to the top," he says, "there's a criminally large number of good titles that don't."

Miller isn't relying on the internet alone. "I never set out to be a dot-com only," he explains. "I can also reach my target readers through advertising, and through direct mail. I'm not a techy. Half of my orders come through the freephones." But can he seriously compete with well-established booksellers?

"I'm not interested in challenging them," he replies. "I just don't want to do business with them. I don't want to know where any Waterstone's is, and if I never know where Amazon is, I'll be very happy. All Amazon does is haemorrhage money - the more sales it has, the more money it loses. If I, as a little schnooky guy, can publish 20 books a year, anyone can."

Any commercial venture is ratified or written off by the sales figures, and after six months of trading, a disparity has emerged. "The good news", says Miller, "is that, in the States, the orders are starting to get up to a nice level, well in the thousands. The disappointing news is that, in the UK, sales are not commensurate with the amount of advertising."

Perhaps we are much more sceptical over here about the direct-sell approach: if the books are so good, why can't I buy them in the shops? Miller has an equally valid explanation. "England is pretty bad for ignoring foreign literature. There's more openness towards European literature in the States." This has prompted him to return to a more Anglo-American balance in his June list, because "it will suit the UK better".

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of writers who want to sign up for the press. "We're having days when the number of unsolicited manuscripts coming in is greater than the number of orders. They are very depressing days." Yet Miller remains optimistic about their long-term prospects, and he displays the patience of a businessman who has been through it all before. "I don't expect to be in profit for several years. But I'm getting about a thousand visitors a day to the website. It's going to work. It'll probably take a bit longer than I wanted, but it's going to work."

In the autumn, the Toby Press is to publish an anthology of American short stories, edited by Saul Bellow. It might just be the book to raise the press's profile and to begin the slow and steady climb towards profitability. "I'd like to say I'm Saul Bellow's publisher," laughs Miller, "but I think the Trade Description's Act would get me on that one."

The Toby Press is at: www.tobypress.com