In a polarized landscape where the giants slug it out, huge tracts of territory are won or lost in the Christmas Big Push, and winners, increasingly, take all. Yet nipping between the tanks and the shellbursts are nimble squads of guerrillas, partisans and secessionists—the independents.

Independent publishers can shape the tactics of the big battalions, who imitate their successes and lure away their heroes. They also have more fun, which may be why so many of them have escaped from big publishing.

“Independents,” for these purposes, are U.K. trade publishers that are not one of the Big Four (Hachette, Random House, HarperCollins and Penguin) or the Not-Quite-So-Big Three (Pan Macmillan, Bloomsbury and Simon & Schuster). As in the U.S., there are plenty of them around. The U.K.'s Independent Publishers Guild has around 460 publishing members with a combined turnover of £500 million, and they are gradually increasing, not shrinking, in number as technology lowers the cost of entry. But the premium layer is visible and influential in a way that most U.S. independents are not.

U.K. independents come in many shapes and colors with little in common, apart from their lack of conglomerate size, to define them as a species. Some are literary to the point of preciousness, while others cheerfully chase any and all sales regardless of merit. They may publish 200 titles a year, or 10. Many specialize in nonfiction, in niches broad and narrow, though a distinguished minority concentrates on fiction, and some do both.

Their size, however, does give them one more pertinent common feature, neatly summed up by a publisher who has operated at both ends of the scale. “The bigger you are, the more you're affected by the market,” says Tim Hely Hutchinson, CEO of U.K. market leader Hachette Livre U.K. “If you're small, you make your own success.”

The giants publish many fine and original books. But sheer size demands that they spread their bets across the market, to give people more of what they already know they want. No book is ever bigger than the company. Independents can throw themselves into a single book so passionately that, however briefly, it almost becomes the company.

That doesn't make the independent publisher better in any way, according to Atlantic Books managing director Toby Mundy, one-time publishing director of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. “The difference is not a moral one,” he insists. “The idea that independent publishing is more pure or virtuous is rather ridiculous. But the conglomerates are supertankers and we're nippy yachts—more entrepreneurial in spirit.”

It's hard to be entrepreneurial inside a conglomerate, Mundy points out. “It irritates [the big publishers] that most of the best publishing people are outside the conglomerate sector,” he adds, provocatively.

Another crucial difference lies in the patience and expectations of the shareholders. Conglomerate owners have a lot of capital at risk and, quite reasonably, expect a healthy and regular return. Delivering it requires a plan, and adhering to the plan. Like many of its peers, Atlantic has what Mundy calls “benign” shareholders, whose expectations are less rigorous.

General publisher Atlantic's biggest shareholder is Grove Atlantic. Others include Mundy himself and Sigrid Rausing, the packaging heiress and philanthropist who backed Portobello Books and now owns book and magazine publisher Granta. “If we had to deliver 12p in the pound, there's no way we could operate the way we do,” Mundy admits. “But if you're privately owned, with shareholders to whom 5% underlying profitability is acceptable, you can wait for the big wave to lift the business every five years. Longevity and the long tail mean you can earn a nice return over 10 to 15 years. You can't be reckless, but you can publish different kinds of books.”

Increasingly, he says, Atlantic and other independents publish “books that need explaining”—nongenre books that can't be described in terms of what has gone before. The market responds to two things: books and authors that are original and those that are proven. “We must be in the 'original' business, breaking new authors and developing new subject matter for books. When they are 'proven' they might be difficult to retain, but we don't resent that.”

Philip Gwyn Jones, the ex-Flamingo publisher who cofounded Portobello Books, says that while big corporate publishing has become more professional and effective, reductions in lists and titles have leached the fun out of it. “Big payrolls require big successes, so they need predictable books,” he says. “But in literature and serious nonfiction every decent agent now knows that if a book is in any way different or unorthodox—and they haven't got a six-figure offer—it will be at least as well published at the better indies.”

In an independent, Gwyn Jones says, every book counts. And certainly, many independents claim to lavish energy and care on books and authors in a way that the biggies often can't. General publisher Snow Books, which began trading in 2004, takes the idea of personal attention to a new level. Emma Barnes, managing director and former chain store buyer, is critical of the “production line” approach to publishing, which she regards as too fragmented for a creative business. Snow editors—including one who lives and works in Minnesota—do everything from commissioning and editing to designing the book and (occasionally) shooting the photos. “You can't just commission a book and move on to the next one,” Barnes says. “It has to work or it's no one's fault but yours.”

However their approaches may differ, smaller publishers face the same tricky retail environment as the large ones. Barnes spent weeks going round Waterstone's stores doing surveys of customer buying patterns before explaining to the bookseller why her books fitted what they were trying to do. They were so impressed they put all her books on three-for-two promotions with no marketing spend for 12 months. That's making your own success.

These three-for-twos and other promotions paid for by the publishers—mostly the big ones—now fill the front of the major bookstores. This forces independents to rethink how they publish, maintains Anthony Cheetham, chairman of fast-growing Quercus Publishing. “The entire front of the store, the face-out space, is sold to the books that have the largest mass market potential,” he says. That effectively means sold to the six largest publishers, who have 90% of the weekly top 50 bestseller list. “The midlist—good books on history, science, philosophy, books by good, new literary writers—is squeezed out. The front of the store can't respond to market forces if something from the back takes off, because the space is sold. So the big chains have their hands around the neck of the trade, and independents must look elsewhere.”

The big publishers are content with this arrangement because they sell so many copies, and they don't care to take on the midlist, Cheetham says. Which leaves opportunities for independents to take on good authors at modest prices. “We must seek to make our living from the midlist, by profitably publishing books that sell 5,000—10,000 copies and never get near the three-for-twos.”

Another way to deal with U.K. retail difficulties is to rely less on the U.K. market. More than half of Quercus's sales are to the U.S., via contract sales to Borders and Barnes & Noble, and to Australia, where the book trade still looks like Britain's once did.

Canongate has another way to reduce reliance on the U.K.—it acquires world rights whenever it can and has built a reputation for successfully selling them on. (Canongate reminded the world that independents were an energetic force in U.K. publishing when its Life of Pi won the Booker Prize in 2002.) It has four people in its rights department, of a total staff of 26.

“We regularly sell into 20 or more languages,” says Canongate director Jamie Byng. “One of the beauties is that we can see our advances earned out before the first book is printed. That puts us in a positive position cashwise, so we're able to afford books that we otherwise couldn't.” Publishers have fellow feeling with other publishers, he says, which is why they should sell rights. “It's an indivisible part of proper publishing.”

One traditional route to international diversification, the international co-edition, has fallen on hard times, thanks to reduced demand from markets like the U.S. and increased foreign competition. Frances Lincoln, an international co-edition specialist that survived the cull of the late 1990s, has traveled in the other direction. It has grown its domestic business from 20% to 75% of the total, by publishing more U.K.-centered nonfiction—on Scottish garden plants, walking in the Lake District, A Year in the Life of an English Meadow.

The firm publishes 200 titles a year, compared with 50 at the start of the 1990s, but prints only half as many copies of each. “So we must publish books that fly on half the sales of 20 years ago,” says John Nichol, a former U.K. head of Yale University Press who took over the business when his wife, Frances Lincoln, died in 2001. “I'm not depressed,” he says. “Publishers can't be depressed. Optimism has to spring eternal or you must give it up. The secret is not to compete in the centre of the playing field. We seek out areas that big publishers neglect—like gardening, abandoned by everyone—except when TV-related. And we do well with local books.”

The most visible face of independent publishing is the Independent Alliance (sometimes known as the Faber Alliance), created in 2005 in response to the darkening retail climate. It was the brainchild of Stephen Page, who runs the largest independent and the one with the best pedigree, Faber & Faber—still half-owned by T.S. Eliot's widow, Valerie.

The idea was to present a united front to retailers by sharing Faber's sales and administrative muscle with a number of smaller but distinctive publishers. They learn from each other's best ideas and have begun hosting alliance conferences on topical issues, mostly recently on the digital world.

Today's alliance members are Faber, Atlantic Books, Canongate, Granta Books, Icon Books, Portobello Books, Profile Books (including recently acquired Serpent's Tail), Quercus Publishing and Short Books. No two are quite the same. Some have been very successful, though none would describe itself as primarily a “commercial” publisher. What unites them most, perhaps, is an informed taste, a love of books that doesn't preclude wanting to sell as many as they can. “In the alliance, you find the most editorially driven publishers, those that are willing to publish more specifically for the heavy book buyer and regular reader,” Page believes.

Waterstone's and WH Smith, the two surviving major High Street retailers, are cutting the number of titles they stock, making most of their buying decisions at the center and leaning ever more heavily toward bestseller potential. They want to reduce the number of their suppliers and the number of conversations they have with them. As they do, lone independents struggle to get their attention. Getting books into the shops has always been the single most challenging priority for independent publishers, but today it is harder than ever.

If it were a single business, the alliance would make it into an expanded Not-Quite-So-Big Four. It reasons that its collective size should oblige powerful retailers to pay attention—and they do. Realizing also that independent booksellers are its natural constituency, the alliance now includes them in the family, too. Those who sign up—about 100 so far—get better terms, author events and point-of-sale materials to help them boost sales. In return, they are expected to make certain stock commitments to the alliance.

Page says that membership is now “saturated,” at least in its present form, and that customers would not benefit from growing the list of publishers sold by Faber. Members are doing some blue-sky thinking about how to address different media and different audiences. “But we don't want to disrupt what's understandable to our customers—they get what we are,” he says.

Andrew Franklin, boss of Profile, says that alliance members are like French winemakers. “Each of us is fiercely independent and proud of what goes into our own bottles, but we come together to get the grapes pressed and to get the appellation controlée,” he says.

Faber apart, Profile is the most perfectly formed of the alliance publishers. Franklin started it in 1996, having lost his job as publisher of Hamish Hamilton (Penguin). He focused on trade nonfiction and scored a huge success in 2003 with Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, launching a widely imitated genre of “stuff you never knew you wanted to know about” books. Early last year Profile stepped decisively into fiction by acquiring Serpent's Tail, Peter Ayrton's crime and noir publisher. “Peter's now 63 and wanted Serpent's Tail to stay independent,” Franklin explains. “This ensures its long-term future.”

Even more recently, he has launched Green Profile, together with Mark Ellingham, who founded Rough Guides back in 1982. It launches its first environmental title—Fixing Climate, a history of climate science and a prescription for cure—in May.

Profile has grown every year of its existence, though Franklin thinks 2008 will be “less good” because of the downturn. His metaphor (he likes a good metaphor) for the economics of independent publishing will sound familiar to his peers. “It's like drilling for oil,” he says. “We're fundamentally sound, but every now and then we have a gusher.”

Gushers are another key feature of independent publishing. They're necessary in all but the most prosaic of businesses, but they are also unpredictable. They are, by definition, surprises. If a book sells 500,000 copies, and you paid a £1 million advance, that's not a gusher—it's a relief. If you paid £30,000, it's a gusher indeed.

If gushers represent the unexpected, another road to independent success is deliberately to publish books that lots of people want to buy. That sounds obvious enough, but former tabloid journalist John Blake redefined the mass market in 2004 by publishing Being Jordan, the autobiography of a young model best known for the size of her (reconstituted) bust. It became the fastest-selling hardback in U.K. history, selling nearly 600,000 copies, largely to young girls who had never visited a bookshop. Blake was thought to have paid £10,000. Jordan next signed a three-book deal with Random House for a reported £750,000, and the “chav memoir” model has been much imitated.

“Jordan coincided with the supermarkets starting to get behind books big-time,” Blake says. “It was a woman's book and women who were intimidated by bookshops would see a copy at the end of the aisle and chuck it into the basket.”

John Blake Publishing has been in business since 1991. Blake had written books on the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, published in the U.S. by William Morrow and Putnam, respectively. “I was struck by the difference between U.S. and U.K. publishers,” he recalls. “I would deliver a book to the U.S. and they would get excited, but in the U.K. I had trouble even getting a deal. One publisher told me the Rolling Stones book was 'too mass market.' I said, 'Does that mean it will sell lots of copies? And you don't want it?' He said, 'No, not our kind of book.' ”

Blake's ethos, then and now, is to publish books he can imagine in the top 10. He has the biggest true crime list in the country and, curiously, the biggest Indian cooking list, with a wealth of celebrity autobiography, “hard man” nonfiction, royal books and “endurance and survival” titles.

“Agents don't like us, because we do our own ideas,” Blake says. “We were initially scorned by the big houses—they were very snide about us. Now they watch us like hawks, and copy us. The problem is that if I try to sign someone, the agent will go to [a conglomerate] and tell them, and they'll buy it without knowing what it is.”

Michael O'Mara is another who succeeds by publishing what he thinks will sell. A Philadelphian and a former deputy chairman of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, he started his own general publishing business in 1985. U.K. independents talk about transformational books, ones that are so successful they grow the whole company. O'Mara's was one of the transformational books of all time—Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story, published in 1992 and a 100 million—plus international bestseller. Morton had been one of O'Mara's researchers. O'Mara had world rights.

He has recently signed up Roger Moore's autobiography, and current hits include Judy Parkinson's I Before E (Except After C)—subtitled Old-School Ways to Remember Stuff—and a series that started with The Boy's Book—How to Be Best at Everything and has gone on to include The Girls Book, The Mum's Book and various others. Like HarperCollins's The Dangerous Book for Boys—which The Boys Book actually preceded but from whose huge success it benefited—the series has a 1930s/1940s look and caters to the idea that “old books were better.”

“We tend to do things of the moment,” O'Mara says of his approach. “We can publish very quickly to take advantage of current events. But the margins have got to be good. We won't go into a project without a full costing that shows a healthy margin of 40%. We don't have years when we lose money—turnover and profit can go down, but that doesn't matter when you've got no shareholders to get angry.”

O'Mara is unusual in that he makes positive noises about the retail environment. “We have benefited from changes in the marketplace, from the rise of Amazon and the supermarket,” he says. “Because we're small and fast on our feet, we have jumped all over them, trying to do business with them, trying to exploit them.”

A million miles away from O'Mara's publishing philosophy are firms like Tindal Street Press. With its roots in a group of Birmingham short story writers who couldn't get their work published, Tindal Street has published 35 literary works since 1998. Ten of them have been shortlisted for national awards, including the Booker. Its most recent success is Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost, which won last year's Costa First Novel Award.

Tindal Street gets a £40,000 annual grant from the Arts Council for England, on condition that it promotes regional writing and supports new literary work that might not otherwise be published. “It's a hellish hard marketplace,” notes publishing director Alan Mahar, who defended the principle of arts grants (because they support excellence and risk-taking) in a recent public debate. But the reason he turned down a good offer to acquire rights to one of the firm's prize-winners was because “we were having too much fun.”

Indies make a respectable showing in sales-friendly long- and shortlists for literary prizes. They have a much worse record in the most powerful sales engine of all, TV's Richard and Judy Book Club picks. R&J's recent selection of Portobello's The Visible World by Mark Slouka only highlighted the sector's almost complete absence from this particular feast. Faber Alliance members have been discussing how to initiate a rival book chat show on a less commercial TV channel. Another of their ambitions is the introduction of top 10 in-store charts for back-of-the-shop genres like medieval history or gardening.

Independent publishing in the U.K. is not without its pains and frustrations, but the sector is as inventive, as determined and, overall, as healthy as it has ever been. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, note that Random House has set up its own “independent” operation, which begins publishing this month. Preface Publishing is led by Trevor Dolby, ex-head of HarperCollins Entertainment, with Rosie de Courcy in charge of fiction. It has editorial and marketing independence, and freedom in spending its budget (once agreed with head office). To underscore the point, its offices are half a mile away from Random House's Vauxhall headquarters.

Dolby had argued to Random House that it couldn't acquire another sizable publisher without attracting the attention of the competition authorities. It could, however, grow its own. Moreover, much of the innovation in U.K. publishing was going on outside the well-oiled machinery of the conglomerates. “So my pitch was 'set me up as another Quercus,' ” Dolby explains. “We're commercial, but we're independent. We want to buy things well and make them work, and not spend huge money.” After years of copying the independents' best ideas, the majors are imitating the idea of independence itself.