Wednesday, 04 June 2008

Clearing up some myths about publishing

Starting up your own small publishing venture can be a rewarding process (though admittedly rarely financially rewarding). It requires dedication, is very much a labour of love and requires that you input quite a bit of your spare time.

However, there are a number of misperceptions about publishing that could easily lead to disappointment, frustration and (sometimes heavy) financial loss if you are not aware of the realities surrounding the bookselling market or opportunities available to you.

Some of these misperceptions, or myths, are as follows:

1. To start up a publishing venture, you have to create a company, complete with administration staff, layout and editorial staff, launch a website, and engage in extensive marketing. Starting up a publishing press in such a manner may result in some initial high-profile exposure, but it can just as easily quickly fizzle out into financial failure. From a financial perspective, publishing can be a risky business: the book-buying public can be fickle and income streams can be slow. Such overheads as listed above could easily sink an aspiring publishing venue. So keep the operation small and simple.

2. To publish a book, you have to print about 2 000 copies. Traditional litho printing works on a basis of higher volumes/lower costs. The less number of copies required, the more expensive it is to print. But if you chose a digital printer, who works on a print-on-demand basis, you would be able to print lower numbers of books on an as-and-when basis. Instead of printing 2 000, you can print 200 copies, and once they are sold, print another 200. This approach has substantially reduced costs and is invaluable to a small publisher. Should you want to print more than 500 copies in one shot, however, it is wise to go the litho route, since it is at above 500 copies that higher volumes/lower costs kick in.

3. An ISBN for a book guarantees sales. Some aspiring publishers and authors see the acquisition of an ISBN as the “key” to ensuring book sales, since an ISBN is seen as the “stamp” of professionalism. An ISBN certainly assists in making a publication seem more professional and more easily identifiable by book buyers, but does not guarantee bookstore orders or sales.

4. You need a barcode to get a book into bookstores. This is also incorrect. Again, a barcode makes a publication seem more professional, but it is not essential to ensure bookstore orders. However, as bookstores are becoming increasingly sticky about purchases, I wouldn’t be surprised if within the next few years or so barcodes do become a requirement.

5. Launches guarantee a book’s success. The purpose of a book launch is to promote the publication of a book, but they do not guarantee success. About a year or so, the publication of a local sportsman’s autobiography was launched countrywide with great fanfare. The book flopped. Some launches can easily become nothing more than a party (free booze and food!) for an author’s friends and family.

6. The media will give a positive review of my book. Books editors on newspapers and magazines are often allocated some of the smallest spaces in the publication and are further restricted by ever-diminishing budgets and lack of advertising revenue. As such, they cannot review everything and probably wouldn’t do so even if they had the space. Books editors are not obligated to review a book and they are not obligated to ensure it gets a good review. They are not your unpaid marketing manager.

7. The bookstores will buy my book because they support local literature. We often have illusions about bookstores. We think they support literature, whether local or international. We think they support literacy and local publishing. But bookstores are retail operations out to make a profit. They will not buy a book to support local publishing or literature – they will buy it only if they think it will sell.

8. The public will buy my book. The reading public is fickle and unpredictable, and anything can happen. One novel by a certain writer can be a bestseller and the second novel flop as readers move onto some other author or interest. Until recently, the South African reading public (including authors) have tended to have a poor opinion of local literature. They would willingly spend R250 on a book by an overseas author but hesitate to spend R80 on a book by a local writer. It’s a hangover from a colonial mindset that many in South Africa still have. Thankfully this has started to change.

(Originally published as Dye Hard Press Newsletter 13)

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