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Starting Over: The Truths Disaster Teaches

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Sometime in April of this year, NewSouth Books-the publishing house my partner Suzanne La Rosa and I own and run-passed its first anniversary. Over the course of those 12 months, we bought and renovated a historic building in downtown Montgomery, Alabama; recruited a staff; installed a short-run printing operation; opened a specialty bookstore; signed up commission sales reps; and published about 20 books.

“Not bad for a start-up and a staff of five and a half,” many people say. And we would agree with that, except that we are more a start-over than a start-up.

Shortly before opening our new company, we had been unceremoniously fired from Black Belt Publishing, where I was Founder and Editor-in-Chief and Suzanne was Publisher. It’s a long, complicated story (they always are), and it isn’t over (litigation is pending).

The point was that in December 1999, Black Belt (named for the Black Belt region of Alabama) and I had been honored with a reception by the Governor of our state for a decade of independent publishing. Then, in February 2000, I was ousted from my own company by investors; Suzanne, who sided with me, was also let go.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been a farmer, pulpwooder, factory worker, journalist, civil rights activist, private detective, newspaper and magazine publisher, and, finally, book editor-designer-publisher. Of these, book publishing is by far the best and worst endeavor I’ve ever experienced. The financial rewards-if you’re mission-driven, which we are, and not niche-oriented, which we aren’t-are modest and uncertain. The terms of sale under which we operate, terms essentially dictated by the customers, are absurd. But the pleasures of publishing good books, especially for one whose life was essentially saved through reading (that’s another story), are immense and perhaps eternal.

That’s why as soon as we figured out that a legal remedy to our situation would not be quick, Suzanne and I immediately started over with a new company.

We are not, of course, the first who have ever had to start over. We had some recent and inspiring examples close at hand within our own trade association, the Publishers Association of the South. Our friends at Menasha Ridge Press in Birmingham had their business inundated by a mudslide when an earthen dam on a nearby lagoon collapsed. August House in Little Rock endured a flood and an embezzlement. Pelican Publishing in New Orleans was devastated by a fire. Wyrick & Company in Charleston was blown away by a hurricane.

In each case, the folks who run these great independent publishing houses picked themselves up and got back to work. Suzanne and I often thought about their examples as we went about rebuilding a publishing program.

Re-building Blocks

Experience helps. Between us, Suzanne and I have published about 300 books. Because we know how the process works, the two of us were able to focus on building infrastructure rather than trying to figure out how to put a book together or how to get it printed.

Contacts are essential. Relationships lubricate the publishing engine, and we were able to call on ours to re-link to the sales channels, to set up with vendors, and to present our case to the industry media.

Friends and loyalty make it all possible. We may have been fired, but many of the authors we’ve worked with over the years remain loyal to us and made it possible to quickly acquire manuscripts for our first list. Vendors, buyers, publishers, and others at all levels within the industry were supportive and helpful.

Attitude matters. When bad stuff happens, you can mope or cope, and the former gets you nowhere. Trying to do the latter doesn’t guarantee success, but the odds are better. Montgomery is not exactly the center of the trade publishing universe, but we each had family commitments that kept us from leaving to seek jobs elsewhere. So when Suzanne and I made a list of our options, if we ruled out changing careers, then casting down our bucket where we were was the only practical course.

Last, but not least, our own working relationship was critical. For the first eight years of Black Belt’s existence, I pretty much managed both the creative and business sides of the growing company without the benefit of colleagues or employees who knew even as much about publishing as I had learned through trial and error. In 1998, I met Suzanne, who had moved to Montgomery due to her husband’s business relocation; subsequently, I fired myself and hired her as Publisher. That act remains my single greatest achievement in publishing.

She stabilized Black Belt and grew its sales 20% in her first year. Suzanne also let me concentrate on what I do best, editing and design. At NewSouth, we are co-founders, co-owners, and co-decision-makers. It’s too simple an explanation, but we more or less divide the management along the lines of production and sales. I handle a book from acquisition until it’s in the warehouse, and then she takes it from there. Plus Suzanne oversees the day-to-day operations.

Moving Forward

We’ve recruited a small but great staff, several of whom even have some prior book experience. We work in a great location that constantly reminds us of the cultural underpinnings of our publishing program-within a block of our office are the spots where slaves were auctioned, where the telegram was sent to begin the Civil War, where Rosa Parks boarded her bus to civil rights immortality, where the Freedom Riders were viciously beaten, and where a courageous federal judge wrote his opinions imposing the rule of law over the demagoguery of George Wallace.

Explaining the nuances of this complex history in nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and folklore is what we do in our publishing program. We weren’t finished with that labor of love, so it was an easy choice for us to start over after we were slapped down.

 

We’ve made a great start, but our success is not assured. We don’t publish best-sellers, and our growth will be incremental rather than geometric. This is a tough industry; even if you do everything right, the low return on investment and the nature of the business cut you off from most conventional forms of capital. And we have learned the hard way to be cautious of private investors who don’t understand publishing.

So this time around, we are aiming high, but taking it one day at a time. It helps to have a partner who, asked whether the glass is half full or half empty, tells me that I better start looking for another glass to contain the overflow!

Randall Williams is a native Alabamian. He was a journalist and the Founding Director of the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center before starting the media business that eventually became Black Belt Publishing. His new publishing firm is NewSouth, Inc. Learn more about NewSouth at www.newsouthbooks.com.

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