Ten years ago I started a
small family publishing business. By now, I have learned many valuable lessons
from real-life experience. Permit me to discuss a few problems that stemmed
mostly from the greed and inefficiency of others.
Debt collection has been a
problem, but not in the way I expected. Only twice in 10 years has an
individual or a small bookstore failed to pay, for a total loss of just a few
dollars. On the other hand, large companies don’t seem to care whether they pay
their bills or not. Baker & Taylor has always paid, but they sometimes
require a reminder; I just had to send copies of the tracking numbers and an
Internet printout to prove that three shipments were delivered and received.
B&T had said they weren’t; FedEx says they were.
Still on the subject of
collection, Koen Book Distributors sold a great many of our books to Barnes& Noble before notifying us in the middle of July that they had filed for
bankruptcy and that our invoices totaling $4,041.90 were at the mercy of the
court. I have heard nothing more and my letters are ignored.
My first problem with printing was
receiving quotes that ran from $3.20 to over $10 for the same quantity of the
same book. This would be funny if it wasn’t so preposterous. I settled for a
nationally known company located in the Midwest that quoted in the lower range.
They did an excellent job on one of our books, which was reprinted many times.
Then, soon after one of the reprintings with a few page corrections, we started
getting calls from people who reported that page 312 was actually page 212,
which also appeared in its correct place. We had checked for such things on the
first printing, but not on subsequent printings. The printing company did the
proper thing and quickly sent us a corrected bunch. I suppose about 200
abnormal copies are still out there someplace.
For a time we were located near
the West Coast. To lower shipping costs—which can be substantial—we
looked for a printer in California and found one just south of Los Angles that
provided an excellent low quote. During a visit to its plant, I was shown
quality workmanship. The first batch of books it printed had the quality we expected,
but a second order, about six months later, was full of junk. The covers were
wrinkled; some pages were printed with dark ink, while others looked as if the
ink supply was running low. The trimming was poor, and many pages had slivers
of paper that should have been removed. We sent the books back, and when they
were returned to us—in the same boxes, which by now were falling
apart—the quality was even worse. At that point I discovered that the
company had been sold and the new owners would not honor any problems created
by the previous owner. Later, I discovered that employees had known about the
sale of the business before they accepted my order. I can’t understand
disgruntled employees taking their frustration out on an innocent third party.
I had a big tax writeoff that year.
A different California printing
company supplied good books, but demanded $500 over the amount in its quote for
shipping. Sometimes it seems like dealing with the Mob.
Media Mail is so cheap for a
single book or two that I sometimes use it, but it cannot be tracked, and
shipments covering just a few hundred miles can take anywhere from two days to
a month. Once, when a package of books didn’t arrive at the bookstore I had
sent it to, I filed the proper paperwork with the United States Postal Service
and received a postcard years later saying the package could not be located.
With both FedEx and UPS, packages
sometimes sit for weeks in some warehouse at the destination city with the
paperwork marked “Incorrect address.” The shippers never attempt to contact
anyone about them. The addresses on our labels come from computer files and
have worked many times before for regular customers. When we discover boxes
stuck in warehouses because of an “incorrect address,” we check to determine if
the address in our files is current, and so far it always has been. Apparently
some employees at UPS and FedEx have the same work ethic as the employees in
the California printing company.
I had read many comments in <span
about problems with Amazon.com, but I didn’t believe they could be as bad as
some people said. Amazon sold one of our books for many years and paid us $300
to $1,000 a month, with most payments around $800. Recently we got great
publicity for the book in Field & Stream magazine (circulation of 1,511,796).
We had come out with a new edition, which had a new ISBN and corrected some
readers’ complaints (ours are technical books, and problems with readers who
complain that something is not correct when in fact it is correct are enough to
drive a preacher to drink).
We had filled out the form for the
new edition, but it never showed up on the site. [See “All About Amazon,”
February; “Anti-Amazon,” March; and “Applauding Amazon,” April.] We complained,
and it still didn’t show up. We sent many emails, sometimes getting responses
from a live person and sometimes getting a standard form, but still the new
edition wasn’t listed. Amazon continued to show just the old version. After
many complaints, Amazon emailed a URL that I could use to bring the new edition
up. It did bring up the new book—but with all the comments from the old
book. And besides, the new version was still not generally available.
Meanwhile, we noticed that the old
edition now had “Look inside the book” even though we had not given permission.
In fact, we had expressly denied permission. This was and is a blatant
violation of federal copyright law.
All our complaints, both polite
versions and curt, were dismissed. Once we received an email saying that some
problems had been corrected, but they hadn’t been. When Amazon started lying to
me, I quit trying. After about four months, everything is still as it was, and
all the great publicity in the magazine with a million-and-a-half readers did
Amazon no good. They didn’t sell a single copy.
And speaking of the great
publicity in Field& Stream, Koen’s bankruptcy happened about the same time, so
we lost our distributor to Barnes & Noble, and our expected jump in sales
through the chain never materialized.
What Hindsight Shows
Would I start this business again
if I could go back to 1995, and if I knew then what I know now? Yes, because I
made some money and had some great experiences.
What would I do differently to
avoid problems? Maybe I am just stupid, but I can’t think of much. How do you
keep a big company that has been in business for 30 years from going bankrupt
and stiffing you? How can you get a company to pay you when they sign for your
shipments and then say the shipments were never received? How can you avoid
dealing with a printing company that has had a good record in business for
years and then starts doing outlandish things? As for Amazon.com, the
new-edition problem defies conventional logic; and I don’t know what can be
done about the illegal posting of a book’s text unless you have unlimited money
for attorney’s fees.
Robert Rinker, who heads
Mulberry House Publishing in Clarksville, IN, started that company after
careers as a commercial pilot and an industrial engineer. For more information,