I blame Jaws. Not the things in your mouth: they can be useful – for eating, for example. No, the film about the big shark. Before that movie came along, films were usually released on a fairly small scale, often in a particular geographical region. If they got a good reaction, they were rolled out more widely; if they didn’t, they weren’t. This allowed word of mouth to do its work. Jaws, for the first time, broke the mould: it had a huge opening weekend, and was a runaway success. After that, all big movies used basically the same approach: open the film in as many screens as possible, in as many places as possible, spend as much as you can afford (and possibly more) on advertising, and hope for the best. If the film was no good, well, who cares: so many people had already paid their money to see it, it didn’t much matter. Music and books were sold in much the same way. We’ve tried to emulate this approach ourselves at Liberties Press. I can report that it sometimes works. But on the whole it’s extremely wasteful, even damaging. It works against smaller players, who can’t hope to compete, in terms of marketing spend (the thing that matters most in this scenario, ahead of the quality of the work), and, sooner or later, are pushed to one side. The result is a winner-takes-all effect, and a lack of diversity in the marketplace.
But here’s the thing. Covid has thrown all of this out of the window. No one has a clue how to release anything successfully any more. The crisis has had a significant levelling effect: all the existing distribution channels, never ideal (in publishing, they essentially date from the nineteenth century, when railways ruled the world), are now in complete disarray. Anyone with access to the internet has a shot of getting some attention for their releases. And every multinational in the world is pretending to be a small independent – with, in the publishing industry, a plethora of imprints (some companies have hundreds of them), in an effort to make what is in fact a ruthless corporate machine look like a cool, boutique operation.
I’m reminded of the words of that fine English-Irish director (and author of a somewhat overlooked novel, Crime of Passion) John Boorman, who said: “The middle ground, where I made my career, sandwiched between the blockbuster on the one hand and the arthouse ghetto on the other, has virtually ceased to exist.” Well, it looks to me like the middle ground, much maligned, might be making a comeback. Liberties Press, after flirtations with both ends of the scale, stands proudly in that broad middle. Four years ago, we completely overhauled the way we do business, and we believe we’re now ahead of the curve. We’re looking forward to making headway, now that the world has shifted on its axis in our favour – and in favour of independent creative companies everywhere. If you can afford the price of admission, you have our full attention.
Come on in, the water’s lovely. Just keep an eye out for sharks.