Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Realities of Independent Publishing

We have a special guest today--I asked my friend the multi-award-winning Alison Janssen, editor of Tyrus Books (formerly of Bleak House) if she would be willing to share her insight into the independent publishing world. Alison not only came back with a dynamite article, but also threw in an offer for Outfit readers. Hope you enjoy!

-Marcus Sakey

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Let’s get transparent!

As some of you may already know, I’m the senior editor and part owner (along with Ben LeRoy) of a new(ish) independent publishing company, Tyrus Books. Before we started Tyrus, Ben and I worked together at Bleak House Books, a company he founded in, oh, ninteen-aught-six, I think.

In any case, last July we launched Tyrus, and we’ve so far seen a fair amount of critical success, with our first title, Silver Lake, by Peter Gadol, named a finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction, and our second release, Double Exposure, by Michael Lister, a winner of a Florida Book Award. We recently received a starred review in Publishers Weekly for our fourth title, Hello Kitty Must Die, by debut author Angela S. Choi, and we’re garnering lots of press attention for our big short story collection, Delta Blues (edited by Carolyn Haines), and our literacy efforts in partnership with the Mississippi Writers Guild and the charitable donations we’ll be making to the Rock River Foundation.

But I’m not here today to talk to you about critical attention, awards, press, book trailers, or why I hate it when an author uses the word “never” when first describing a character. I’m here to talk to you about the number one challenge faced by independent publishers. Here it is:

Cash. Flow.

What a boring challenge! You were hoping I’d say that our single biggest challenge is keeping our authors plied with just enough whiskey to get them writing that great dark fiction, but not so much that they puke into their keyboards, huh? Or maybe you were hoping that our most oppressive obstacle is figuring out the right angle at which to sling our slingshot, so that we accurately take down our Goliath-like competition and become Kings (and Queens) of Crime Fiction?

But no, in the day-to-day trenches of independent crime fiction publishing, it’s cash flow that reigns. I guess it’s probably the same situation with many small start-up businesses. While Ben and I don’t suffer under the weight of an expensive lease for offices (yay, work from home!), we do have printing bills, freelance proofreaders, and designers to pay. Our authors receive advances (most of them do—we do have some exciting experiments in contracts happening at Tyrus), and we also do some limited advertising, trade show appearances, and promotional material creation. We have a website to keep up, and advance review copies to print, and every so often one of us takes a paycheck.

So that’s all money going out our door, and as for the money coming in, well, that’s on a fairly significant time delay. Like how my best friend lives in Seattle and I live in Madison and I have to be careful not to call her at ten on a Saturday morning because that would be mean. Only instead of a two hour difference, the difference between when we pay for a book and when we receive money from the sales of that that book is more like six months. Which means we need to have a fairly large reserve under the mattress to keep up with our cash flow needs, especially as we’re new and don’t have a deep back-list to generate slow and steady sales.

I’m sure this is not news for most—you visit The Outfit often and hear these wonderful authors talking about the industry. You probably know about sell-in and sell-through and returns and distribution and all of the system’s intricacies. Or, you have a vague idea and frankly don’t care to know more, because it’s not the publishing industry that interests you, but the books. The writing. The authors. And you shouldn’t have to understand the industry to enjoy the product. Goodness knows I have no idea how a Cadbury Creme Egg is made, but oh my gosh do I love them, and this time of year, when they are available on every counter display.

But here’s what I’m driving at in this already long-winded blog post. (Thank you, Marcus, for indulging me.) I would like to encourage all readers to buy crime fiction direct from the people who love it most, and who will most benefit from your dollars.

That means heading to your local indie bookstore to pick up the latest John Grisham. That means going to signings at your local library, and buying a book from the author while you’re there. That means buying direct online from indie publishers, rather than ordering through Amazon.

Yes, that also probably means paying a bit more for a book.

But listen. By buying direct from authors, indie bookstores, and indie publishers, you are helping us maintain our businesses. You are directly contributing to our bottom line. You, good reader, are making a difference.

Just like you like to buy your produce direct from local farmers at your local farmer’s market, I’d like you to consider buying your books direct from your favorite sources.

Many indie publishers offer direct sales through their websites, including Akashic, Busted Flush, and other, non-crime-fiction-focused publishers like McSweeney’s. We do, too, and we’d like to extend a big thank you to anyone who pre-orders one of our Spring 2010 titles direct. Use the code “theoutfit,” and we’ll give you $3 off. It’s a token of our appreciation for your support. And if you like the look of our upcoming titles, consider a subscription.

You can also buy direct from your local indie bookstore. Try IndieBound to find one close to you, and be sure to check out their events page. Every author loves a robust audience at their signing events.

It’s an interesting time in publishing, and in the world. Lots of people are focused on neighborhood-based, locally sourced food and goods for their homes. Etsy has become a wonderful way to support indie artists and craftspeople in all geographic regions. I’m asking you here, today, to take the extra step, the next time you see a book you want. Look to see if it’s available at your local bookstore. Check the author and publisher websites, try to order direct instead of through third party online vendors.

Even just one book sale can make a difference to an indie publisher.

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You can follow Alison on Twitter, and read her blog every Thursday at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room. Subscribe to the Tyrus Books newsletter here.

20 comments:

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks, Alison, for reminding us of the basics.

I always knew I could order direct from you guys, but didn't really think about how much it would benefit you. Now I do.

With so much volatility in today's market, it's easy to forget that the wonderful people like you and Ben who bring our stories to life need to stay afloat too.

And a discount too! Such a deal. I want DELTA BLUES.

Mike Shatzkin said...

If cash flow is your problem, don't make margin a barrier to solving it! If you want people to buy direct from you to solve the cash flow problem, make sure they're getting the best possible deal when they do it!

Jamie Freveletti said...

Well said, Alison. In these economic times cash flow becomes the pressing issue for most companies. But I'm still confused on the Amazon thing, as I'm told that it is a minority seller of books. If the indies, Barnes and Noble, and Borders (for now) are still selling, then the only answer is that in tough times sales require personal relationships more than ever. This is where the Indies shine. I go to my indies for advice, coffee and some great conversation, and I always leave with a book and a smile.

Alison said...

Thanks, Libby! You should definitely check out Delta Blues -- I think it's right up your alley. :)

And Mike, good point. I certainly want our readers to feel they're getting a good deal when they buy a Tyrus Book. But we have to consider more than just the challenge of cash flow when we sell direct. We don't want to undercut the indie bookstores on price, and we don't want to poach their customers. Indie booksellers are some of our fiercest advocates, and we can't afford to sour our relationships with them by appearing to be end-arounding them. We want all indies -- bookstores and publishers -- to flourish.

Our direct sales are an effort to make our titles available to online shoppers in yet another way, and in a way that (we hope) they can feel good about. We understand that price is a factor in any purchase decision, and we respect every reader's decision when it comes to their best mode of book buying. What I want to underscore is that should a reader be at liberty to make the choice to spend a bit more and buy direct, their decision makes a big positive impact on us. If that same reader chooses to buy through amazon, that decision is still a positive for us -- I don't resent any sale, believe me.

If readers ask themselves before making a purchase, "Is this indie pub book worth enough to me that I'll pay a bit more to ensure that more of this type of book will be available to me in the future?" and the answer is yes, I'm happy that we have a direct sale option for them. Our $3 discount is a token, I know, but I hope that whatever Tyrus title they select is worth the full retail price.

Sara Paretsky said...

Jamie, Amazon is a single entity, a single sales outlet, so when you say it's the minority, it's almost as though you took for granted that this single company controlled most book sales. That is their goal. It's why they play hardball with publishers over pricing, especially pricing in the digital marketplace. Remember how they took all of Macmillan's titles off their "shelves" when Macmillan challenged them on digital prices?
Two years ago, over half of America's book sales came from the big boxes, like Costco or Target. About 35 percent came from the big chains--B & N, Borders. About 5 percent came from the indies, 6 percent from Amazon, and the rest from a smattering of places, like airports and supermarkets.
In the last two years, the numbers have shifted dramatically--Amazon now controls just under 12 percent of the market place, at the expense of the big boxes and the big brick and mortar chains. The indies seem to have stabilized at 5 percent.
So--Amazon is truly the kudzu of the book marketplace. They can afford to sell below cost because (a) they have deep pockets and (b) publishers allow them a 120 day float on their accounts receivable, which they do not give to other vendors, just because they so fear Amazon's power.

Alison, I love the idea of treating our local indies like locavores. I'm lucky to have a great indie--Sem Coop--five blocks from my front door--but all indies, including the great Women and Children First, fill online orders. Come on, my brothers and sisters! Read like locavores.

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