Amid the doom and gloom of the book trade - the disappearance of an independent bookshop every week, deep price discounting by the supermarkets, the pike-like eagerness of the large publishing houses to swallow their smaller brethren whole - it's easy to conclude that there's no life left outside the ranks of the big corporates.
Yet independent publishers continue not only to survive but thrive. Astonishingly, industry sources put the number of UK independent publishing houses at more than 3,000 - and though some are amateur or 'plain daft', the number remains remarkably constant, according to Philip Kogan, chairman of Kogan Page, by some distance this country's largest indie publisher of business books.
'Forty years of obduracy!' is his self-deprecating description of the company's ability to hold the road over long periods and difficult terrain but on closer questioning there's a bit more to it than that.
'There's a lot of very good management going on around here,' he says, a tribute to daughter Helen, who took over day-to-day running of the family-owned firm a couple of years ago, and also to colleagues who have seen KP through a number of ups and downs over the years, including the failure of a US distributor, which temporarily hit the group hard, and the periodic need to cull burgeoning publishing enthusiasms back to a core list that both marketing and sales wings can adequately service.
'You could argue that as independents we have to be better than the big companies to survive,' Kogan says. The range of skills even the smallest publisher has to embrace - business, design, print buying, editing, selling and marketing, distribution, not to mention web-mastery - stretches far beyond what any manager in a large conglomerate firm ('not houses any more') would have to envisage.
That's a challenge, but also part of the fun of being an independent. 'The fundamentals of publishing don't change. It's about acquiring good intellectual property and getting it to market', Kogan notes. Proof of the primacy of shrewd commissioning, and something he is most proud of, is a core of titles still going strong 30 or 40 years down the line.
That includes some, he concedes, that are frankly boring - British Qualifications or the Industrial Training Yearboo k, anyone? - so much so that he jokes that when he set it up he was tempted to call his venture Boring Books Ltd ('but vanity prevailed'). Four decades on, British Qualifications , a must-buy for libraries, is in its 38th edition and paying a new generation of salaries and overheads: a testimony to the continuing vibrancy and viability of niche publishing, and to the 'complete set of satisfactions' provided by being able 'to have and make work a good idea, no matter how simple or tedious'.
What has changed though, is the route to, and economics of, getting books to market. Ten per cent (for some specialist book and journal publishers almost the totality) of sales are now online and the same again through the supermarkets, and both segments are growing strongly. At the same time, with Borders up for sale and Waterstones cutting selling space by 10 per cent, the number of outlets is shrinking (and with it the range of books on offer to the public) while the cost of getting shelf space goes through the roof. As Kogan sighs, the days of the 30 per cent publisher's profit margin are now a distant memory.
Kogan admits that his first love is the bookshop - 'I'd rather browse and buy something I've discovered than chuck a discounted bestseller in the trolley with the toilet paper' - and is delighted with the success of enterprising exceptions such as Daunts and the rejuvenated Foyles in London. He believes there's much that could be done with some university campus bookshops. Yet there's a saving grace in the impersonal new retail world: 'All publishers are equal in the eyes of the internet', he points out, and Kogan Page has adopted it with a sprightliness belying its age and low-tech exterior.
The internet is a boon to outfits such as Kogan Page which, with a list of 140 or so titles a year and a back catalogue of 1,500, sell mostly small numbers of a large number of titles spread over many years. There are exceptions to the 'long tail' model - Great Answers To Interview Questions sells 30,000 copies a year and is into its fifth million worldwide. But blockbuster sales can't be relied on: 'The smell of a title in a publisher's nostrils is not enough: he, or she, must know, be sure of, the channels to market.' They must also exploit all revenue sources, including internet selling and online publishing, audio, not neglecting sponsored publishing and selling ad space in books and online.
Despite being a bit of a worrier - he rings me a day after the interview fretting about an anecdote concerning a supplier - Kogan's ease with the new world of online is no surprise. Unusually for a publisher, he's a scientist by training. After school in east London he took a degree in physics, then spent 10 years in R&D, specialising in dielectrics ('insulators for those who are more familiar with dialectics'). He might have continued in that vein, but for an appraisal where he was shown a graph plotting where he would be in eight years' time, at the age of 40.
'I'd be 40! Horrors!' The next weekend he applied to be chief editor of a schools partwork called Understanding Science , which, to the consternation of his family, he got. The company he joined, Sampson Low, was a rambling outfit which also owned Jane's Fighting Ships and published Enid Blyton. From its 'able and eccentric' boss, David White (who numbered the invention and exploitation of Little Noddy among his credits) and his wife, Kogan acknowledges learning much, including the virtues of producing copy to tight deadlines and explaining complicated concepts simply.
He also developed an itch to start out on his own. First, however, he did two more 'off-the-wall' jobs, with an educational technology firm and then Cornmarket, an innovative careers publisher run by Clive Labovitch, co-founder of Haymarket Publishing with a certain Michael Heseltine. When Cornmarket ran into trouble, Kogan, with a pounds 2,000 loan from brother Ben, was on his way. With the help of a minority partner, the late Terry Page, an industrial journalist, he put together the first Industrial Training Yearbook in four months and wrote a direct mail brochure that had a scarcely believable response rate of 30 per cent.
Page dropped out after a few months, but the firm has never looked back. Now 77, Kogan shows no sign of doing that either, arriving at the company's Pentonville Road warren most days to 'deal with the horrible authors and do lots of strategy'. Neither is there any notion of selling up, although there'd be no shortage of takers. 'I'm a recidivist,' he says.
In any case, with succession assured, a proven formula and a pragmatic realism that has allowed the firm to play to, and adapt, its strengths to all the changes the trade has thrown at it, why would he? Despite regrets (and the running down of the science and cultural base local government profligacy), 'We accept the world as it is. Provided we get organised, keep agile and have the right product, we can compete with anyone.'
Name Philip Kogan
Born 1930 Stratford, London
Education Stratford Grammar School, Universities of Reading and London (physics)
Career Ten years as physicist in industrial research before changing profession to take up several jobs in publishing. Launched Kogan Page as part-time occupation in 1967 with the aid of partner Terry Page and a pounds 2,000 loan. Past chairman of the Independent Publishing Guild and treasurer of the Publishers' Association
Hobbies Tennis, reading, music
Family Married, two daughters, one son