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The Upside of Focusing on Failure

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Recently I had a stimulating
conversation about the value of publishing success stories with David D.
Horowitz, publisher and resident poet at Rose Alley Press of Seattle, which
publishes self-help pamphlets for publishers and writers in addition to its
poetry and philosophy books. Rose Alley Press and Epicenter Press had adjacent
tables at a book festival in a Seattle suburb.


Horowitz described himself as an
avid supporter of PMA and its mission, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Helping Each Other to Achieve and Succeed
The association has been helpful to him in his more than 10 years of
publishing. Yet he believes it may be doing its members, especially new
publishers, a disservice by providing too much good news about publishing!


“The ‘40,000 copies sold in six
months, and now I’m a marketing legend’ kind of story feels too distant from my
experience to be truly uplifting,” Horowitz said in a follow-up email.


I have a
saying: You’ve got to bust your tail for every sale. That is no lie, no
exaggeration, no cynical aside. It’s the truth of trying to sell poetry books
in a horrifically competitive marketplace. I have a hunch it more accurately
reflects the experience of my small-press publishing peers than the
40,000-sold-in-six-months folks do, though I do not begrudge them a penny of
their success. More power to them. How often, though, does that really
happen—without later returns or compromisingly sharp discounts? I bet it
is very, very rare, and beginners especially should understand that.


Horowitz believes PMA members
might learn more about the industry and improve their odds of survival by
reading articles that report and analyze publishing failures. The Seattle
publisher was laughing when he said this. He doesn’t really expect the <span

to feature a “publishing disaster of the month” series. But his point was
thoughtful and serious, and our conversation stuck with me.


Bad News/Good News


I was reminded of David Horowitz
when I was interviewed recently for an article about independent publishing
scheduled to appear in a spring issue of <span
magazine. I was asked, “What
advice would you offer to someone who wants to start a publishing company? What
are the pitfalls and the rewards?”


My quick and short answer was: “I
wouldn’t recommend that anyone start a book-publishing company!”


The pitfalls outweigh the rewards.
I know this sounds defeatist coming from a spokesman for an association whose
goals are to help publishers break into and succeed in the business. But my
perspective is colored by my own company’s reality as a publisher that relies
heavily on trade sales in a highly competitive marketplace. Book sales are
flat, yet the output of new titles is increasingly steady. Like many other
presses, we work hard to increase Internet sales, find new markets outside the
mainstream, take advantage of new technology, reduce our dependence on trade
sales, and find new ways of generating revenue from our backlist. A decade ago,
more than 90 percent of our revenue came from distributed trade sales, and
sales then were frontlist-driven. By the end of 2005, the percentage of our
revenue from distributed trade sales had declined to around 62 percent, and
most of that now comes from a more robust backlist. We’re getting to where we
want to be, but it has taken time.


So, having said all this—and
whined a bit, as trade publishers are prone to do—I must add that after
18 years in this business, I am still upbeat about the future of independent
publishing. Here’s why:


·      The Internet has helped level the
playing field for the independents.

·      Finding ways to sell books in a
marketplace bloated with new products has forced us to work harder and be

·      Brick-and-mortar bookstores have
struggled too, and been forced to do a better job. Ultimately this environment
may benefit independent publishers, as the surviving indies look for ways to
compete with the more mainstream-oriented chains.

·      Independent publishers adapt more
easily to new technologies and take advantage of new opportunities more quickly
than the large houses.

·      We have content. No matter how
technology may alter the delivery system, there will always be a need for our

·      Money isn’t everything. Many of us
got into this business because we had a story that needed to be told. We didn’t
expect to get rich.

·      In my years in publishing, I’ve
seen a steady increase in the number of titles from independent publishers
appear on the New
York Times
bestseller list.


A positive but realistic outlook
is important. You have to have optimism in this business—but not too much
of it!


I welcome your comments and ideas
for PMA. Contact me at gksturgis@earthlink.net.



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