Five years ago Jacques Testard went to the Frankfurt Book Fair and acquired the English-language rights for a book by a little-known Ukrainian-born author shunned by mainstream publishers.
A year later that £3,500 investment — the biggest advance ever paid by his newly formed Fitzcarraldo publishing house — paid off handsomely when Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature, enabling him to command a “good six figure sum” for the US rights to her book Second-hand Time, an account of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Next week Mr Testard will head back to Frankfurt with another Nobel winner on his books: Olga Togarczuk, the Polish novelist whose works were honoured this week by the Swedish Academy for their imagination and wit. Shortly after the announcement in Stockholm, Mr Testard ordered the printing of 30,000 copies of Ms Togarczuk’s novels, Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead in anticipation of increased sales.
A second Nobel winner in five years is a remarkable achievement for one of Britain’s smallest and youngest independent publishing houses. “I guess it pays to take risks,” said Mr Testard, 34, who set up Fitzcarraldo in 2014 with the ambition to create a “continental [European] style publisher” centred on individual authors and a select list of titles.
Increasing consolidation has led to the creation of ever-mightier international publishing conglomerates, such as Penguin Random House and Hachette. This has fuelled concern that individuality and less-mainstream writing would be squeezed out in an increasingly risk-averse business grappling with the challenges posed by technology and the distribution power of tech giant Amazon.
Yet this development has also created space for a new wave of small and energetic independents such as Fitzcarraldo, which has made a name for itself for its highbrow sensibilities and foreign language fiction.
Other notable imprints include And Other Stories, One World, Peirene and Galley Beggar, publisher of Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann’s 1,000 page single sentence novel that is one of the shortlisted titles for this year’s Booker Prize, which will be awarded next week.
“There are a number of established and newer independent publishers making very smart international rights acquisitions and attracting great authors to their lists,” said Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association.
Bill Swainson, a freelance editor and literary consultant, sees echoes of an earlier era in British publishing when at the end of the 1960s a younger generation — like today, many of them with an émigré background — revitalised the industry with the introduction of new literature from the US and continental Europe. “British publishing has been energised by the new Europeans,” he said.
Today’s new independents have been aided by technology, which has simplified many of the processes of publishing, and an ability to harness social media to build communities of readers interested in certain genres of books. This has enabled companies such as Fitzcarraldo to keep a lid on overheads. Mr Testard is one of just two full-time employees working out of a former warehouse in Deptford, south-east London, that once hosted a nightclub.
Cost efficiencies have also been found in areas such as design. Fitzcarraldo’s distinctive uniform sleek blue (fiction) and white (non-fiction) books, which bear strong similarities to the output of the French and German publishers that Mr Testard admires, are relatively cheap to produce.
In financial terms Fitzcarraldo remains a minnow. Sales last year were around £500,000 and it made a profit of £1,100. Critical successes such as the Nobel, or the Man Booker International, which Ms Togarczuk won last year, boost sales but do not guarantee long-term security. Publishers, says Mr Testard, are “constantly playing a guessing game”.