Every state in the US has anywhere from 500 to 2,000 publishers,
doing one to perhaps hundreds of books a year. While no two
publishers are alike, the one thing they all have in common is the
need for back-office software to do the order-entry, invoicing,
inventory, and sales/finance reporting. It’s not the “glamorous” part of publishing, but it is one of the most
necessary, as well as the most dreaded. Some publishers are
left-brain driven, and for them, the accounting tasks of publishing
are not that unpleasant. But I suspect that among small independent
publishers, more are right-brain driven—writers as well as
publishers—and for right-brain people, accounting work can be
brain-numbing. No lyrical sentences, thoughtful metaphors, or
attractive colors anywhere. I can feel my brain begin to
short-circuit just thinking about it. But fortunately for us, those
left-brain software developers have come to our rescue—making
the unpleasant, not so terribly bad after all.
Why is software needed? There are three answers: efficiency,
finance, and taxes.
We have two very different divisions at Bookwrights. Our design
studio designs and produces books for other publishers. For years,
we have used Quickbooks for our billing and it works alright
for us—not ideal—but certainly adequate. It is way too
much program for the design studio’s needs but I am
comfortable with it. However, when we tried to handle our book
publishing company’s accounts—including royalties and
publisher-specific accounting concerns—with Quickbooks, it
fell woefully short of our needs. I am not a programmer, I could not
customize any software for our use, and I didn’t want to have
to do so. So my search for a package for our publishing company
began. I took my time researching available products, and learned a
few things in the process.
You can’t run a successful publishing company on 3×5 cards
or an Excel spreadsheet. Even a one-book publisher needs a software
program that will allow them to not spend their entire day
doing paperwork for Ingram or Baker & Taylor. Time is money, and
the more time allotted to “drudge” work, the less time
there is for the important things—like marketing, product
selection, and publicity.
With the problem of returns compounded by slow (or no) payment,
only with a good software system will you, the publisher, have any
idea what kind of profit you are making or how large a loss you are
taking. An end-of-month summary showing which titles are moving and
which are not is an invaluable business tool.
And then there are sales taxes to pay and report. Little needs to
be said about the complexity of taxes and how software can help.
Being able to click a button and total all your taxable sales will
save many days of mind-numbing work.
In deciding what software to buy, the first rule is that price is
not the best indicator of value. There are some expensive programs
that are very good, and there are some that are not. That is to be
expected. But it is also true (and unexpected) that there are some
low-priced packages that are every bit as good as those that cost 10
times more. For our small company, cost was a big factor. We only
publish one or two books a year; we are not going to pay more for
accounting software than we spend on the books we publish!
The prime difference between a system costing $200 and one
costing $5,000 are items you might call “bells and
whistles”—extra features that some publishers need, but
which will probably go unused by most of us. An example would be a
subscription feature that would be valued by newsletter and magazine
publishers, but not by most book publishers.
The bottom line is that all of the popular packages on the market
have the same basic features—from the low priced PUB123 (the program we purchased) to the premium-priced Acumen (which was beautiful, but not practical for us). In all of them,
there are modules to enter authors, titles, customers, and order
line-items. There are modules to accept payments, and to print
invoices or packing slips. And there are reports, reports, and more
reports… the more expensive the program, usually the more reports
that can be generated. But regardless of price, the basic features
are the same.
When trying to determine which non-basic features are important,
the answer is mainly that of implementation. For example, all
software programs will figure the tax for an order. But does the
program allow the tax to be computed at the line-item… such that
some items are taxable and some are not? And is there a feature to
allow taxation of shipping, as required in Canada, and for some
states like Pennsylvania?
Royalties are also an important feature. A large and expensive
program like the $10,000 Acumen will calculate royalties just about
every way possible. However, the $199 PUB123 can calculate royalty
on volume of sales, discount sold, or by channel—the same as
programs costing far more. They are the methods used by most
publishers and probably the way you calculate them as well.
A publisher also has to decide if their software should have
standard double-entry (credit/debit) accounting integrated with it.
Most small publishers use a standard financial package such as Medlin or Quicken (we use Quicken). Programs like
PUB123 and others have the ability to export necessary data to these
inexpensive packages. While integration can have advantages, many
publishers don’t want to be locked into both an order-entry
system and a finance system from a single vendor. Besides, many
publishers have no need for a complex, top-heavy accounting system,
and find that a single entry method like Medlin or Quicken serves
their needs quite well.
Exporting data may not seem like an important feature, but it is.
For example, programs like PUB123 can export credit card
transactions to the popular merchant programs like PC
Authorize and IC Verify. And it is often necessary to
export customer data for use in generating form letters and “personalized” marketing material.
Every publisher wants reports, and here is where I found the
greatest difference between low-cost programs and the higher priced
ones. But the sheer number of reports should not be the determining
factor of what system you purchase. Does the software output the
reports that are really necessary for you to run your business? Some
publishers really need to output customer statements and aging
reports. Others never use these, but spend a lot of time analyzing
sales summary reports. An important feature to look for is the
ability to create your own report queries; for example, being able
to output sales and customer data for a specific title, between set
dates, for Boston, Massachusetts.
Your software is of limited use if it is difficult to learn. The “look and feel” of a program is a very important
consideration. Many programs on the market today are re-tooled
legacy DOS systems… and they look and act like it. It’s
important to find a program that runs in native Windows and which
has a standard Windows interface. It will make life a lot easier for
the users and cut down on entry errors.
We use Macs at Bookwrights. This was a major stumbling block for
us because few programs are available for the Mac. Quickbooks
announced they were going to stop updating the Mac version of their
software just months after I purchased it! Mac owner, you want to
look for a program that will run well under one of the Windows
emulators, like Virtual PC or SoftWindows. Fortunately, the new Macs are much faster and the emulators run
much better on the new machines. We use Virtual PC to run PUB123 and
it works fine.
A publisher should think about whether or not they need a
single-user system or a multi-user system. While it used to be that
only the big expensive programs were multi-user, now even the lower
priced ones like PUB123 and Publisher’s Assistant work
well on networks. Multi-user systems are usually priced by the
number of users. One related feature that many programs have is the
multi-company ability, where you can keep separate data for
different imprints or your other business lines such as a graphics
division or a seminar division.
It is important to us to be able to try the software before we
bought it. Many packages, like PUB123 and Medlin, are sold right
over the Internet where users have the ability to install them, work
with them for 10 days, and either buy them or erase them. I
recommend getting as many trial packages as possible to see which
one will work best for you.
Finally, the publisher needs to look into what kind of support
they will get from the software vendor. This is where references are
so valuable. While many references will say that they like the
program’s features, make sure the references obtained from the
vendor are questioned about how the support has been. It is even
better to find users on your own and not those supplied by the
vendor. No vendor will give you dissatisfied clients to call! Yet
these are the ones you want to find and speak with. Also, try to see
if you can speak with their customer or technical support before you
buy. Ask some questions and see how they respond.
No off-the-shelf software package is perfect. If you want “perfection,” then you need to hire a programming staff
(or contractors) and have a package created that will fill your
exact needs. While most packages boast that they will do everything
you want, what is closer to the truth is that most packages will do
100% of what you need done, and about 90% of what you want done. The other 10% will cost from $100 to $10,000 extra.
So you can learn more, here are contacts for some of the software
PUB123: www.adams-blake.com, Adams-Blake Publishing,
Publishers Assistant: www.upperaccess.com, Upper Access,
Medlin: www.medlin.com, 707/255-4475
Quicken: www.intuit.com, 650/944-6000
PC Authorize: www.tellan.com, 408/274-1110
IC Verify: www.icverify.com, 510/263-4300
Mayapriya Long owns Bookwrights Press and Bookwrights Design
Studio in Charlottesville, North Carolina. She has 18 years of book
industry experience. Her publishing division currently has 10 titles
in print. She is an award-winning designer whose book design and
production clients range from large New York publishing houses and
university presses to self-publishers. Her Web site is
www.bookwrights.com. Bookwrights uses PUB123