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The Best–and Worst–of Times

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

So there I was at the Olympia Exhibition Centre in London, attending a seminar titled “Publishing: Another Fine Mess,” when Charles Dickens’s words came flooding back to me. I realized that I had heard exactly the same publishing industry complaints at dozens of other industry seminars stringing back to 1984, when I attended my first ABA (now BookExpo):

“There is no diversity in the bookstores”; “The marketing people–rather than the editors– make too many decisions about what should be published”; “The cards are stacked against the independent publisher ever making it at retail”; “The big publishers are pushing the smaller publishers out of the marketplace”; “Bookstores are terrible places to sell books–you have to go direct to the consumer if you ever hope to succeed.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Obviously the English have no corner on the grievance market over Americans, nor does book publishing own these grievances exclusively.

Attend an NARM (National Association of Record Manufacturers) convention of the music industry and you will hear all the same issues: “Sony and Bertelsmann control the marketplace and push the independent labels off the shelf”; “All the acts sound alike; new music can’t get airplay”; “Studio musicians and audio technicians are underpaid and overworked.” The video and software businesses share all the same ailments.

In making these comparisons, I am not suggesting that there are no issues in the marketplace or that publishers have nothing to complain about. But I am suggesting that these problems have always plagued our industry in one form or another and that publishing books is a Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest, and always will be. There are real problems with being a small to midsized publisher today, but there are also advantages today that publishers 20 years ago could only dream about:

    • In 1984, art boards were the size of freeway billboards. A whole book with illustrations on one DVD-ROM was Buck Rogers territory.
    • Typographers used to set type on a Linotype machine and “paste-up” production artists had to fix it in place! How many typefaces do you have on your computer?
    • If you wanted a photo you had to go into the darkroom and shoot a “half-tone” on the “enlarger” or send it out to a service. Scanning your own perfect halftones at 1200 dpi on a $99 scanner–never!
    • Color separations . . . fuggeddaboudit. That was magic only the printers knew about. Now, you don’t even have to think about the process.
    • It took months instead of weeks to edit a single manuscript, mailing revisions back and forth between the author and editor. There was no way to e-mail a complete, revised manuscript to your author while she was on her houseboat in Provence.
    • There were far fewer publishers because of the costs of getting a publishing company started. This meant less opportunity for authors to find publishers–not more. Now there are so many small niche publishers that every genre has at least four or five working the market.
    • Authors who decided to publish their own work had to come up with thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands of dollars, to pay for promotional copies and a first printing. With today’s technology, self-publishers can cover production costs for a book launch with far less money.
    • Distribution meant toiling under the thumb of a big publisher until you could afford to go it alone. Now you have dozens of choices with fulfillment houses, wholesalers, distributors, and co-distribution options. Your biggest challenge might even be deciding which distributor to go with.

It has never been easy to be a small-press publisher, whether in the USA, the UK, Europe, or Asia, and making money as a publisher has always been an art form. But thanks to technology, publishers today do enjoy advantages that entrepreneurs in the 1980s never imagined. You still need to run your publishing company as a business and take advantage of every technological cost-saving and communications tool at your disposal, but it takes far fewer bodies, and therefore a much lower overhead, to turn out the same number of titles. If that means using an editor in Argentina, a translation service in India, and a printer in China, so be it.

Even the bad news about independent bookstores in the United States is somewhat offset by the proliferation of new markets in grocery stores, coffee shops, drugstores, gift stores, and the Internet. If the distributors are squeezing your profits, you can sell direct to retailers. If the bookstores won’t take your product, go direct to the consumer through Internet marketing.

It may indeed be “the best of times . . . the worst of times,” but for better and worse, these are your times. In 2024 publishers will still be going to conferences in Frankfurt, London, Tokyo, and Chicago and complaining about how difficult the publishing marketplace is and how tough it is to be a small-press publisher. They will look at us grizzled veterans of the good old days and say, “You had it easy back in 2004.”

Stephen Kerr, the president of Business Marketing Consultants, writes for a number of industry magazines and conducts seminars and workshops. Before entering the field of investment banking and M&A consulting, he was president of Marketing Tools, a book and film design, production, and marketing company. To learn more, visit www.bizmark.net.

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