It seems like a strange time to be launching an independent house in the U.K., when the big publishers are struggling with a seemingly halting retail environment and fierce pressure on prices and margins. But for publishing veteran Anthony Cheetham, who took over this year as chairman of an ambitious two-year-old start-up, Quercus Publishing, the cup looks to be much more than half full.
"I think the industry here has a more optimistic feel than publishing in the U.S. at the moment," he says. "The market grew by more than 6% last year, and there's a feeling of opportunity, and a welcome for new enterprises."
Quercus, which was launched in spring 2004 by Mark Smith and Wayne Davies, both alumnae (like Cheetham) of Orion, has an unusual profile for an independent. This involves a two-pronged approach to the market: Quercus Editions is in effect a packager of promotional-style titles for retailers (what the Brits call "contract editions"), and its revenues support a rapidly growing trade publishing side that has a concentration at present on mysteries and thrillers. Cheetham joined the company's founders in 2005, became chairman last March, and recently presided over an investment drive that brought in well over $5 million from a mix of institutional and individual investors.
The company's aim, Cheetham says, is to create a mix divided 50-50 between the contract titles (which passed the million-copy sales mark this fall) and the trade ones. Currently it does a total of about 50 titles a year. To help put together the trade list, he has the help of another former Orion colleague, our own Otto Penzler (formerly of Mysterious Bookshop), who scouts for likely titles and does his best to buy world English rights; many of the titles are done here by Harcourt.
One title Penzler brought aboard has been the house's biggest trade seller to date, hitting the list of top 10 British bestsellers recently: The Broken Shoreby Australian crime writer Peter Temple, barely known in this country or the U.K. (though this latest book has been snapped up for a substantial sum here by FSG). Other big international names the house has recently signed up include Philip Kerr and Joseph Wambaugh.
Although Cheetham stresses the importance of the world English-language market for titles on both sides of the aisle—with the U.S. being "the most influential"—he finds the U.K. an easier place for his kind of start-up. "There's more opportunity here for a new publisher. You can distribute easily and swiftly, using quite a small team of reps to call on all your national accounts; you don't need such a big and sophisticated sales operation as in the States."
Cheetham wants to see the company reaching, in the next few years, a sales level of £30 million—£50 million a year—a level at which, he says, "we can afford the kind of infrastructure to compete with the bigger houses. At present we feel slightly exposed." He has an impressive range of experience to help him to get there: he founded Century, led Hutchinson until its purchase by Random House UK, and then founded Orion, all within the past 25 years.
Whence the odd name for his ambitious little company? "Quercus is Latin for oak tree," he says. "I think it's a very appropriate symbol for publishing: long-lived, sturdy and hospitable to wildlife."