I am happy to introduce today’s guest blogger, Steve Kemp. Steve is the publisher of my picture book “Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa,” and he is my husband. Unlike me, “the author,” his impetus for Blue Whale Press was to build a company that published books – looking solely upon the opportunity to publish my book as any investor would.
After my interview with Kathryn Otoshi, some people commented that they had no idea how much was involved in independent publishing. Steve’s post sheds more light on the trials and tribulations of bringing a book to market as he sees them. His post appears below.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A PUBLISHER?
by Steve Kemp, Publisher, Blue Whale Press LLC
Most writers want to be published. But how many actually want to become publishers?
When asked for my views on what constitutes the difference between “publishing” and “self-publishing,” my immediate reply was patterned after David Letterman’s Top Ten list: “You’ll know if you are a publisher when . . .”
- You focus on building a company, not a book. After all, your long-term intent is to publish more than one title. Because you are establishing a foundation, there is a lot to be done, including web construction (with perhaps a mechanism for payment); development of an automated database for inventory movement (and possibly financial accounting); compliance with local and federal laws (including incorporation and obtaining an employee identification number, or EIN); and things like “the name.” You put a lot of thought into “the name” because it needs to stand out and be unique, especially in today’s world of search engine optimization (SEO is something you later get to learn a lot about as you develop your corporate brand and market your books). While most of this sounds complicated and possibly even tedious, look at the bright side: You’ve gotten to create a really cool logo that is your very own and, when done, puts significant reality to the fact that you are “in business.”
- You focus on the money. That’s right, money matters. Every business needs to pay its investors back and then some. Making a return that is sufficient to return the initial investment and, with luck, reward you for your risk and effort is a necessary function to the process. If you didn’t know something about Excel for building business plans and QuickBooks for sales and shipment accounting, you will probably want to learn them. While many, many businesses have operated for centuries without these tools, few accountants in this age will appreciate you walking in the day before taxes are due with a shoebox full of receipts and a smile.
- You build solid relationships with those whom you depend upon for sales. Unless you plan to become a bookstore instead of a publisher, you focus heavily on third party distribution that can scale your sales (Blue Whale Press does this to the exclusion of all retail outlet and consumer sales, Amazon.com excepted). You start with inclusion into Bowker’s “Books in Print,” at which point you pony up the couple hundred dollars for a block of ISBN assignments (one title can minimally consume three ISBNs if it is printed on paper as well as the two common e-book formats). You do this early, as it requires time for your company’s name and books to become visible to buyers. Once done, and you have a vehicle in which to advertise your title(s) (e.g., a “tear sheet”), you start getting the major book distributors onboard. This is tough when you are new, but certainly not impossible. It is important that distributors know you are in it for the long haul, particularly when unsold copies come flowing back in (and they will at times).
- You learn how to negotiate intellectual property contracts. This is key: Unless the publisher is also the sole illustrator and author, rights and payments need to be clearly understood and fully agreed to in writing by all parties before production. It is best to obtain the services of an attorney versed in media and intellectual property rights for this. Clearly, a self-publisher using a vanity press (e.g., Brown, Tate) doesn’t get involved in this except to the extent that a contract is reached between the author and the publisher assigning rights and transferring consideration. Going this route carries certain advantages in that you are relieved the headaches of figuring out how to layout your books, print your books; store your books; ISBN procurement and assignment; and filing each edition with the Library of Congress, as well as updating all your marketing materials. However, you will pay for this service, and you are never fully relieved of the marketing responsibilities (more on that below).
- You learn how to negotiate and manage supply agreements, possibly with overseas printers. While print-on-demand presses (e.g., Book Surge, LuLu) can take care of the printing for you, this will eat into your profits immensely. As a rule of thumb, you need to be able to sell your books for fifty-five percent off the published list price (the “net price”) while remaining price competitive and making a profit. This generally requires volume production. Beyond the cost of goods sold (about $2.50 for the typical children’s picture book, depending upon the print run size), you’ll also need to tack on monthly storage and shipping (yes, you are the one who generally pays for shipping, and no, you probably don’t have the climate-controlled storage space necessary for something the size and weight of a Volkswagen Beetle). Furthermore, you’ll need to tack on web hosting, phone service with a fax (surprisingly, a very popular distributor still employs that method); and the litany of other expenses that come with running a business.
- You become knowledgeable in pre-press operations, including book layout, type selection, and production. If necessary, you spend several thousand dollars on this alone using the services of an outside contractor. It is vital that the printer get files of the right specification. Knowing how to layout a bound book using Adobe’s InDesign and studying Pantone chips for hours isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you are thankful for the experience once you’ve acquired it.
- You focus the remaining fifty percent of your time on marketing and sales, recognizing that the six steps mentioned prior are already consuming one hundred percent of your time. To be fair, much of the upfront work is done while your author and illustrator continue to refine their product. However, the publisher must still be involved when continual revisions are sent back and forth to the suppliers you’ve contracted for both editing and proofreading. You insist upon a second and third set of eyes because people are all-too-often capable of overlooking their own mistakes. I recommend maintaining both an editor and a proofreader in your supply chain, as you will overpay for editing if only proofreading is needed. Moreover, you will also want these talents to review your marketing materials and website content, including helping you to master the ability of saying as much as possible in the minimalistic word count Google AdWords and others allow.
- You take every opportunity no matter how small to promote your titles by entering as many contests and submitting to as many reviews as you can, likely spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the process. As the old adage goes, “Fifty percent of my marketing budget is a waste. Unfortunately, I don’t know which fifty percent.” Initially, you burn through dollar bills or euros at a very high rate. But you need the exposure. Whether you do this, or a vanity press does it for you; it needs to be done. You can have the greatest title in the world, but it will be wasted if no one knows about it. Regardless of the cost, there is a lot to be said for that feeling you will get upon winning your first award or seeing your first review.
- You take nothing for granted, and you check everyone’s work down to the last detail. Quality is paramount because it reflects upon you and the company. After many excruciating reviews, a punctuation error was found in “Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa” – while the galleys were sitting on the press! The reality is that most publishers would have let a couple of poorly formed ellipses go once the offset printers were inked to go. But not this one. A quick ten minute phone call at midnight with our wonderful overseas partner, who was fourteen hours distant in time zones, and a PowerPoint markup resolved the issue. A good read on how attention to detail makes a difference can be found in “Inside the Magic Kingdom” by Tom Connellan. While the book is nearly twenty years old, the principles inside it are just as relevant to running your business today as they were in 1996. I advise any new business owner and marketer to read it.
- You likely get to do some of your own writing from time to time, but it is restricted to marketing and promotion material because YOU run the business. Your job is to ensure the business’s sustainability, which during the first couple of years often means investing more of your personal savings instead of hosting the company’s sales meeting on some exotic island. You focus on improving operational efficiency so you can spend more time on promotion. For example, automate the sales and distribution processes as much as possible (web driven) so manual processes and bookkeeping aren’t all-consuming. Also, unless you want to play with bubble wrap in between daily trips to the post office, you outsource the packaging and shipping. Figure out what works – and as importantly, what doesn’t.
In addition to the above, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the vast amount of help that is available at guru.com. It is a tremendous resource when you need to find specialized talent and don’t know where to start (although a cautionary note is advised when it comes to website development, and you can find my personal comments on that at the Blue Whale Press design page.
Lastly, keep in mind that the world of publishing is evolving rapidly. According to the Association of American Publishers and BookStats, e-books comprised 20% of the trade in 2012. Much of this was attributed to adult fiction and early readers. So, where does this leave children’s picture books?
It is this publisher’s opinion that pad technology will evolve over the next couple of years to avail more durable and much lower-cost devices to younger audiences. You’ve likely seen how quickly children have adapted to the iPhone/iPod and its Android brethren as they play with mom and dad’s smartphones in the grocery store or restaurant. They instantly “get it.” As a result, this publisher fully expects to see Amazon, and possibly Hasbro or Mattel, introduce the e-reader to younger audiences over the next couple of years. When that happens, the production of children’s books will no longer be just about writing, artwork, and printing; it will be about content development (specifically animation), electronic distribution, and digital rights management. And, hopefully, some of these new operating and production costs will offset the constantly increasing costs of storage, distribution, and printing that makes publishing such a tough business to make money in to begin with. Because of this, Blue Whale Press has re-evaluated our business model going forward and has already decided to forego further paper printing. The impact on submissions is that we are now only looking at author/illustrators who can produce a compelling product within a new digital world that borders on application development.
I wish the best of luck to each of you. Whether you decide to become a publisher, self-publish using another publishing house, or are fortunate enough to land the contract of a lifetime, I hope you enjoy the journey.
Publisher and Member Manager