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'One startling lurch'

5 March 2007

Stef Penney's surprise win at the Costas with The Tenderness of Wolves has changed her life and her publisher's. She triumphed over more obvious winners, William Boyd's Restless and Brian Thompson's Keeping Mum. It was a real surprise for the author, and one which will put the reclusive Penney under the spotlight in a way she would never have wished. A sufferer from agoraphobia, now largely overcome, she ironically researched her book, set in Canada's snowy wastes, in the British Library. It took her two years just to get on a London bus which would take her to the Library.

The author said: 'I've written a book, I've sold the book, and the book's public - fine. But I haven't gone on Big Brother. That's not me. I'm a writer, and I want to go and sit in a room on my own.' As other successful authors have found, this will not now be so easy.

For the publisher of the book, the newcomer Quercus, this win will also have a profound effect. Chairman Anthony Cheetham wrote in the Bookseller: 'The company has moved, in one startling lurch, from the margins to the mainstream, where the current is faster and more dangerous.'

So Quercus has been catapaulted into the big league. But the new publishing house is already an innovator. It has based its rapid expansion on a new model of publishing, which involves creating books on a contract basis for large retailers such as the American bookselling chain Barnes and Noble. The guaranteed cash stream these pre-ordered books generate helps fund its trade, or general, publishing arm, which can then take risks on new writers such as Stef Penney. It is a new approach which allows the assured profitability of contract publishing to underpin the extremely risky business of building a trade publishing list.

Quercus has also been helped by joining the Independent Alliance, which combines the sales and marketing efforts of seven small publishers - Faber and FaberClick for Faber and Faber Publishers References listing, Quercus, Canongate, Profile, Atlantic, Icon, and Short Books, to achieve ecomomies of scale, and greater effectiveness, on the sales side. This too is a new model and the British publishing world is watching the success of this robust new approach with interest. As Mark Smith, CEO of Quercus, has pointed out, the Alliance increased total sales by 23% last year, showing that these small publishers, by working together on sales, can produce a dynamic growth model, far beyond what any of the individual members could achieve on their own. In an age of increasing conglomeratisation, this development is highly encouraging for authors.

Stef Penney's story has another little irony, just to show that publishing is still very much a matter of judgement and chance. Anthony Cheetham's ex-wife, the highly respected editor Rosie de Courcy, wanted to buy the book for her current house, Little Brown, but couldn't get it through. She then recommended it to her ex-husband. The rest is history.