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Man Booker Prize: Swimming Home highlights indie publishing

By Tim Masters
Entertainment and arts correspondent, BBC News

image captionMaking a splash: Author Deborah Levy with the two incarnations of her novel, Swimming Home

Rejected by mainstream publishers, Deborah Levy's Swimming Home found a home with a small publisher funded by subscribers. Now the novel is in the race to win the Man Booker Prize.

This year's Man Booker shortlist has shone a spotlight on the role of independent publishers.

Of the six books on the list, three are from small imprints - Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books in Newcastle-upon-Tyne), Alison Moore's The Lighthouse (North Norfolk's Salt Publishing) and Deborah Levy's Swimming Home (And Other Stories of High Wycombe).

When the Man Booker shortlist was announced last week, the judges drew particular attention to the unusual journey undertaken by Levy's novel, which focuses on a group of holidaymakers in the south of France and the strange girl in their midst.

"Its manner of publication, by subscription and supporters and friends - rather than through traditional publishers, who turned it down - did not actually concern us at the time of judging, but it is I think worth noting now," said chair of the judges Sir Peter Stothard.

Levy's previous books include Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography (both published by Jonathan Cape) and Billy and the Girl (Bloomsbury).

Despite this track record, her new book was rejected by mainstream publishers when it was sent out by her agent at the end of 2008.

"It was just as the recession hit Britain," Levy says. "Publishers admired my book but were concerned it might not prosper in the tough economy and they made their decision. It was declined and I was devastated."

At about the same time a publishing house, And Other Stories, was being founded by literary translator Stefan Tobler, with the aim of supporting "mind-blowing" contemporary fiction.

The not-for-profit company has Arts Council funding, but its core income is from the contributions of its "subscribers", who pay between £20 and £50 up front on an annual basis.

It also uses reading groups to recommend foreign-language literature for English publication.

Levy's Swimming Home contains the names of more than 100 subscribers who helped get it off the ground as one of And Other Stories' four launch titles - published in autumn 2011.

Levy admits it was "a huge risk" going with a start-up publisher.

The editing of the book took place across time zones as Levy worked with And Other Stories editor Sophie Lewis, who is based in Brazil.

"She decided to take a punt on something new, and a little bit risky, which was us," says Lewis, speaking from Rio de Janeiro.

"What she gambled on was that we would give her a lot more attention than she would receive in a more traditional publishing house.

"The subscribers who provide cash up front are an inner circle of of advisers and supporters. They stand in for one giant benefactor that we don't have. All their names are in the back of that book."

In an ironic twist, a mass-market edition of Swimming Home is now being co-published with Faber & Faber - one of the mainstream publishers who originally rejected the book.

"It happens," says Levy matter-of-factly. "We're into a new chapter now."

The co-publishing deal was required because of the increased demand for the book once it was Booker longlisted this summer.

Lewis says: "The worst thing you can do as a publisher is not have any books when a bookshop puts in an order - so we brought in a partner."

Meanwhile, an anthology of Deborah Levy's short stories will be published by And Other Stories next year.

The author says: "Swimming Home is the book that caused me the most elation and the most despair, both in the writing of it and in its publishing journey.

"The irony is that I handed over my most commercial book to And Other Stories, who took such good care over it from beginning to end."

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 16 October. Deborah Levy is also shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award.

More on this story

  • Man Booker 2012: Shortlist at a glance