For me, independent publishers are the people in the industry who are prepared to take risks on new authors and books where the larger players either don’t wish to venture, or they can’t see there being a return on. Each month in 2018 I am aiming to highlight some of my favourite independent publishers, along with some of their books that I have loved and also to have someone from the publisher answer a few questions.
The publisher that I am going to be starting with resides in my home county. Little Toller are in Toller Fratrum, nestled in the hills of West Dorset and have a focused portfolio of books that are centred on the natural world. They are not only reprinting classic books about rural life, but they are ensuring that we are getting new books too as they commision books for the fantastic Monograph and Field note series. I am slowly working my way through their back catalogue and I have liked and loved all that I have read. Particular favourites though have been Orison for a Curlew by Horatio Clare, Snow by Marcus Sedgewick and Arboreal. Not only are the authors that they choose top class there is something about one of their books that is quite special, from the cover art, the grade of paper that they choose and the tiny details in the way that it is made.
They are also a significant part of Common Ground a charity that seeks to engage people with their local area and are the originators of Apple Day
As part of this Jon Woolcott was kind enough to answer some of my questions below on behalf of Little Toller:
Can you tell me a little about the history of Little Toller?
Little Toller was founded by Adrian Cooper and Gracie Burnett in 2009, with the aim of republishing the great books of rural life – books like The South Country by Edward Thomas, Four Hedges by Clare Leighton and Men and the Fields by Adrian Bell. That list, our nature classics, now has over twenty-five titles, and we now publish contemporary landscape and nature writing; in fact that’s now the main focus of our publishing.
How is the company organised today and how many people work for you?
We’re tiny! Four of us work in the office regularly, working variously on editorial, sales, marketing, artwork and production, just like a normal publisher, on a micro-scale. But we do use freelance proofreaders, and have many collaborators, like the team who work on our blog, The Clearing- where we publish new nature and landscape writing and interviews with authors, plus podcasts and develop new themes.
What is the company philosophy when it comes to selecting for your catalogue?
We’re very choosy- we try to think about how the genre of nature and landscape is developing. Fundamentally, it must start with the words.
How much effort goes into the design of the book, for example the cover design, font selection and so on?
This is critical for us, and should be for all book publishers. If physical books are to survive in a digital age, they need to be beautiful. Carefully selecting artwork for jackets is really important, often commissioning new work by young artists. We feel the same about internal illustrations, the endpapers, the cloth that covers the jackets. We spend a lot of time thinking about paper quality, its weight and its grain. These things matter.
Are there any up and coming books that you are publishing soon that we need to look out for?
We’re delighted to be able to publish Eagle Country, by the poet Seàn Lysaght in April – his quest for the eagle landscapes of the western coast of Ireland – this will be the tenth in our monograph series, which includes books by Fiona Sampson, Iain Sinclair and Adam Thorpe. In the Nature Classics series, we’re looking forward to publishing Dorothy Hartley’s Made in England in the same month – an account of cottage industries and village life in the 1930s. This will have an introduction by Fran Edgerley of the Turner Prize-winning architectural collective, Assemble. We’re also publishing Herbaceous by Paul Evans, in paperback, next month – this was our first ever monograph, and is remarkable. And we’d have to mention the extraordinary Carol Donaldson – her book On the Marshes, about the watery edgelands of northern Kent was a debut last year, and a big success – the paperback is coming in May. We have plenty more wonderful books to come, but we’re yet to announce them.
What debut authors are you publishing this year?
We’re excited by Martha Sprackland’s book, Sharks, about the science and mythology and culture of this much misunderstood animal. It will be safe to go back to the beach, after all…
What title of yours has been an unexpected success?
When you’re small, any success is welcome, and of course, we feel that all our books deserve a wide interest – especially because we pour such energy and love into each one, but we were delighted with how well On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick we received. Both were BBC Radio Four Books of the Week.
What would you say were the undiscovered gems in your catalogue?
All our books matter hugely to us. I personally have a huge fondness for Dexter Petley’s memoir, Love, Madness, Fishing, about growing up, as he puts it, among the rural poor on the Kent/Sussex borders in the 1960s and 70s. It’s a quite astonishing evocation of a mostly vanished world, and it’s brilliant.
How do you use social media for promoting books and authors?
While we don’t do much with ebooks, which don’t suit our books well, the digital world has much to offer the small publisher. While Twitter and Facebook are important mouthpieces for us, the real point is that we try to use these opportunities creatively, in a way that works for our books. We make little films with our authors for new books, and distribute them online; and as I mentioned earlier, The Clearing is an important way of beginning a dialogue with our readership about important issues. What the internet enables us to do, is to be very targeted, and to reach people interested in what you’re doing more easily, and frankly, more cheaply.
Is working with book bloggers becoming a larger part of that process now?
Yes, to a certain extent. The truth is that there are fewer places for books to be reviewed as national newspapers find their continued existence more challenging, so finding sympathetic bloggers, who write about the appropriate subject area is bound to be a bigger part of what we do. Having said that, nothing beats a proper review in a national paper, or a serious radio discussion.
What book do you wish you had published?
We have talked about this sometimes – we publish books in such a distinctive way that it becomes difficult to separate that from the text alone. I’d say that while we’re often admiring of other books, it doesn’t usually extend into wanting to publish them.
What does the future hold for Little Toller?
When you’re as small as we are, planning means thinking about books we might publish in, say 2020, and while we have one or two very exciting projects, we’re still developing them. In the meantime, we hope to make bigger and bigger splashes with our books and, furthermore, to develop The Clearing more too.
Thank you to Jon for taking time out of his hectic schedule to answer those questions for me. I really appreciate it. Little Toller’s books are available from all good bookshops. I would urge you to buy them from an independent bookshop if you can as this support them, the publisher and of course the author with one purchase.