There’s No Accounting for Books
Putting out over 50 books with Publishing Genius—a small press I started eleven years ago—has been, to put it simply, fun. I can’t believe some of the fun, from selling movie rights to Shane Jones’s novel early on, or more recently placing Stephen Dixon’s Beatrice with a Swedish press for translation. I’ve written about the business stuff before, like seven years ago at HTMLGiant, when I wrote a post called “$20,333.08” which grapples with the cost of publishing, but I don’t write a lot about the fun stuff.
… And in my left hand there is the dark idea that I’ve only kept PGP running because shutting down would require more energy. When I’d consider closing, I’d tell myself to make it ten years and see what it’s like then, figuring I’d have, at least, achieved sustainability. When that anniversary passed in October 2016, the press was at an all time low in terms of productivity, engagement, and whatsit, book sales. Also, I was too overwhelmed with my day job to even slightly commemorate the milestone.
But for the last several months I’ve been focused on a very exciting future for the press. This renewal, plus some weird controversy I’ve seen related to the business of publishing seems like an appropriate jumping off point to reflect on what it means to work with a small press, both from my point of view as the publisher, and putting myself in the writer’s shoes.
The Fun Stuff
The best part of publishing has been my interactions with cool writers and artists. It’s a different experience with each project. Sometimes it’s hands off—voila, a book!—and other times it takes several rounds of creative collaboration. Sometimes there are meetings, like when Rachel Glaser took the train to Baltimore and we met with Michael Kimball and Joe Young and argued about capitalization rules as they pertain to her stories. Feelings were hurt, but it felt so real. Sometimes there are ping pong games (but more on that in a bit).
Chris Toll and I became close friends during the course of putting out The Disinformation Phase. He would take me out for sushi and pull his manuscript from several grocery bags and we’d pore over the poems using his cell phone for a flashlight, arguing about whether a line needed a raygun or a light saber.
I remember my early conversations with Jarod Roselló, one of very few people I’ve published without knowing them first. Almost immediately I could tell he was a kindred spirit, someone coming to this endeavor with similar motivations. I was excited, too, that many of his ideas about comics echoed what I’d learned from John Dermot Woods, whose collection I’d put out a couple years earlier.
Repeat this 50 times. Taken altogether, these interactions have meant more to me than anything else. Working with people is like playing. It’s so fun, and it’s what keeps the press alive.
The Bad Stuff
But I am bad at accounting to these people. I mean accounting literally, managing “the books” for the books.
There are several reasons for my shortcomings here, and a major one, actually, is being embarrassed that sales aren’t better—I am afraid people won’t believe that we’ve sold fewer than a couple hundred copies of their labor of love. I feel bad that I wasn’t able to do more. Failing there (if we must call it failing) leads to so much other failure.
Another complication is that sales happen through many channels and the tools change. You should see the ludicrous PayPal-tracking spreadsheet I maintained when my day job allowed for building such reports. Looking back, my efforts were unsustainable, but what did I know?
Clearly, the main problem is that accounting is a big job I’m not trained for. Over the years I’ve come up with a few systems, but I need to use the process so infrequently that it dies on the vine. For example, I’ll create a spreadsheet for hand sold books at book fairs or readings, but these opportunities happen only a handful of times a year. By the time the event is over, I forget about inputting the three copies sold into the Excel file I made last March. And three copies is a minuscule amount, but with small press margins it adds up to more than a rounding error.
Over the years I’ve recognized my shortcomings, but given all the other tasks that go into publishing, I have never put serious effort into finding a solution. An obvious question: why not get help with accounting? to which I point out that I’m not being paid, so is it realistic to expect a person who is talented at bookkeeping to work for free, and reliably? Indeed, I would love to have accountants go unpaid while writers are compensated for a change, but there are other obstacles too—one of them being that I don’t want to spend the time and energy finding this person, working with them, and then almost certainly repeating the process once they quit.
Instead, the royalty model that I’ve been playing with for the last few years is to pay authors in copies so that they can sell their book themselves. This way, they actually earn more than if I paid the traditional seven-ish percent of list. Here’s an example: I gave one author 250 copies of her book—a quarter of the print run—in advance, as payment in full. If she sells them for $10, she stands to make significantly more than what goes into the PGP coffers. (Averaging about $5 per book, selling 700 books after promo copies and the 250 for the writer, subtracting $2000 in printing costs.)
More to the point, when I started my small press, I wanted to work creatively on literature, and to meaningfully contribute to the cultural conversation along with people in my community that I admired. But there was more, too—it wasn’t all about the obviously rewarding creative process, which, let’s face it, is something everyone likes best.
But I also wanted to solve problems related to this kind of work, such as how to mail books in a timely way, how to maintain a website, how to interact with booksellers and other editors, when to reprint, and most importantly (and where I also fail), how to publish underrepresented authors.
At various times, these questions have been all consuming—but in that fun way, like a game, or like the feeling that comes when a writing project is going really well. Which makes me wonder, should publishers get to work on the aspects of their press that they’re consumed by—on their dreams—just like the writers they hope to publish? I mean, why can’t they?
They can’t, obviously, because publishers are stewards of other people’s careers. I don’t feel bad for myself on this matter—I feel sorry for writers who don’t have a clear sense of what they’re getting into. But small press founders who work with those they know to be likeminded in the first place are charged with only putting out books by their friends.
Perhaps these considerations don’t factor because I’m reflecting on indie presses like mine—but when authors aren’t getting royalty reports it doesn’t matter who is not providing them, or why, and it doesn’t matter how little is actually at stake.
This is where the whole “being cool” thing comes in. Writers should not be expected to “be cool” at their own expense; that devalues their work. On the other hand, I think writers should recognize each book for what it is and position it appropriately, like a springboard for more creative and interesting and peacemaking energy.
What is a book, anyway? A meal ticket? No! For the writers on a small press especially, it might be a bridge to their next project, which maybe will come out on a better press, one that even has an accounting department. I celebrate the numerous writers who climb this ladder after working with Publishing Genius, and I credit them with being the best ambassadors for their work. In fact, they deserve all the credit for their successful publishing career. Perhaps their achievements came, in part, because of my work, but also it’s in spite of it, too, I am sure.
A small press book that is successfully published is generally successful because of the author’s own efforts. As a book’s publisher, I can reach out to my contacts and do the standard publicity outreach for a very short period of time. The writer, however, lives and breathes their work, and as they go through the world meeting people, engaging with art and sharing their own, they spread energy that comes back around to their publisher. In this regard, the writers deserve even more of the money!
When I put out Spencer Madsen’s very wonderful book as a lark, after losing a ping pong game, the funnest thing any publisher can do, I sold hundreds and hundreds of copies. Spencer allowed me to rake it in before something clicked and he asked if he could republish the book with his own press. Of course he could! He deserved the money coming in, and more power to him! I can’t imagine being the kind of person who would say no to this. It’s exciting and fun to watch these unique opportunities unfold.
Meanwhile, other nice, professional, interesting writers often come to me and say “X has accepted my book, but I think Publishing Genius would be better for it, will you take it on” and I say “No! That’s awesome! Make the other publisher as good as you want them to be!” The interaction of a publisher and author should be a collaborative partnership based on shared aesthetics and goals.
When people ask me about starting their own press I tell them two things to have in place at the outset: 1) a bookkeeping process that is as simple as possible; and 2) an endgame—meaning figure out how you’re going to go out of business responsibly. I feel like I should add a third point, and it would be to remember why you’re doing it in the first place. Remember what it’s like to play.
Photo by angermann