can independent publishers beat the recession?

I was interested to read Hirsh Sawnhey's piece on The Guardian blog this week, How Independents will save literature from the recession. Writing from New York, Sawney reports that the city's commercial publishing scene is already beginning to feel the effects of the "credit crunch" ("sales are flagging... some predict 2009 will be the worst year the industry has seen in decades") and increasingly look likely to be shifting resources away from riskier, innovative titles from new writers towards "safe investments" like the ghost-written celebrity novels and autobiographies that are already so ubiquitous on the shelves of high-street bookshops.

The extent to which the same will be true here in the UK is currently hard to say. We can only hope there won't be quite such a dramatic effect: according to this post on Litfest's blog, Tim Waterstone has recently been speaking about how, historically at least, UK book sales actually increase in times of recession. That does make some sense to me: after all, a £7.99 paperback looks like a pretty good investment compared to a couple of pints, especially if you're like me and you can easily read a single book three, four five (ten...twenty...two hundred) times. And if you're in the mood for a treat, a book feels like a relatively reasonable and sensible impulse-buy compared with splurging on, for example, a pair of frivolous shoes (not that I would be at all inclined to do that, of course... hmmm... anyway...) So perhaps the credit crunch will see us all spending more evenings curled up with a good book and a cup of cocoa? It certainly looks likely to herald happy days for local libraries, second hand bookshops and the like.

However, even if the picture for the big commercial publishers does look a little bleak, it may be that literary culture will not be significantly affected. Sawnhey suggests that it will in fact be safeguarded "through the dark economic days ahead” by a core of small independent publishers, who are uniquely placed to weather the financial crisis, and I think he might just be right. After all, there's no doubt that smaller, more flexible independents are all ready well used to continually innovating and adapting their businesses, working with narrow profit margins, delivering a lot from only limited resources, and coping without expensive businesses lunches, glossy marketing staff and hefty PR budgets. And all this whilst building strong personal relationships with their writers, prioritising artistic experimentation and innovation and playing an important role as 'talent scouts' identifying and developing the most exciting new writers.

Given all this, perhaps Sawhney is right to suggest that the current climate will provide an opportunity for small independents to thrive in comparison to their market-driven corporate cousins. Let's hope so - because as Sawnhey himself rightly points out, "good things come in small, independently-owned packages!"