The other day I received a nice email from Allen, who is security services & systems engineer, and also a poetry reader, regarding how well he liked the look of one of our poetry books. The email exchange kept up for a while, and in the end I felt like I had remarked upon a few things I felt were important to understanding how a small press operates, so I wanted to share them. Allen confirmed it was okay to share the exchange, though I have changed a few specific names in order to make the emails available to the public, without drawing any unwanted attention to third-parties.
I bought your “Already It Is Dusk” by Joe Fletcher (from SPD) and want to tell you that the layout, cover and binding are all nicely done. Very simple, very clean.
Senior Systems Engineer
Safety and Information Security Services Division
Thanks so much. We just started making chapbooks at the end of last year and wanted to create books people also valued as objects. That said, we think the poetry inside outshines the covers.
Perhaps poetry will outshine the covers, but lacking SPD’s write-up, it’s the cover that will make folks pick the book off a shelf. And your cover would do that for me. Do you stripe the spine on your other chapbooks?
I poked around your web site a bit – you use volunteer (unpaid) editors to screen submissions? Great idea of course.
We do stripe the spine on the other chapbooks, all except Lauren Russell’s, which was too thin to perfect bind, or it would have had a blue stripe.
I wish I could pay my readers and editors in something other than copies. I don’t even pay myself anything. The money we make from books gets poured into other books. Such is the world of poetry publishing.
Ha! You must have a trust fund!
I am not a poet or other kind of author but have several friends who are both authors of the academic variety as well as poets in their own right. They have shared some of their stories about trying to find a publisher and then, once they do, how tough it is sometimes to get the books published and even tougher sometimes to get the publisher to do any advertising. Several of my friends write on Robinson Jeffers and are published by **A LARGE UNIVERSITY PRESS**. The authors have expressed frustration about **THIS PRESS** not doing enough to advertise their work, which is understandable, but what strikes me the hardest each time is the fact that academic press runs are so small. I’m talking about people who have put years into developing and researching a book, only to have a press run of 500 or so copies. Makes me shudder.
A friend of mine (with some help from me) has started the arduous process of shopping for a publisher for a new bibliography of Robinson Jeffers. Initial responses have been tepid and have included the need for us to fund the book ourselves. We will eventually find a publisher but, as with you and BAP, our work will forever be on our dime.
I don’t have a trust fund. I just choose great writers and great cover designs and push my authors toward self-promotion.
I’ve known many writers over the years who have had, like myself at one point, the expectation that once you finish writing a book and ship the final proof to a publisher, your work is done. From there, the publisher’s marketing dept. would immediately get on the horn with the top newspaper editors and radio shows and heavily push the book. I actually had no idea how books got promoted before, so my expectation was the product of magical, or rather “unrealistic,” thinking: drop book in publisher box, rub box, open box, money and fame inside.
Promotion differs between large and small presses, just as it differs from between what genre you’re pushing. A 500 book print run for an academic book on a California poet beloved by the 60s-70s generation but relatively unread now doesn’t seem too low to me (I’m assuming it was printed in hardback). Your friends, unfortunately, and I hope not to sound rude, might have managed their expectations better. Their type of book may sell to libraries and lovers of Jeffers work, and to friends and family, but beyond that, its popularity is limited. A first run of 500 also signals to me the publisher was testing the waters–if the book sold out quickly, they could have a larger second one printed out in a few weeks at a greater cost-per-book but without sinking too much money into what is essentially a crapshoot.
When a publisher “pushes” or “gets behind” a book, that means advertising money spent, and it doesn’t necessarily translate into big sales. What generates big sales is word of mouth, popularity of the subject, the artist’s popularity, and a full combination of other things. Academic presses like the one publishing your friends’ book don’t receive a lot of funding, meaning they probably can’t afford to shell out $6k-$12k for a New York publicist to hound large newspaper reviewers and radio and TV talk shows to give you some space/time to promote your book. At most they may take an ad out in Poets&Writers or some such magazine, and do what we all do, which is send review copies out with nice notes and hope for the best.
What I didn’t realize until I started publishing books is that self-promotion is a writers’ greatest asset. Blogging and new media development, personal contacts, personal emails sent to potential reviewers asking for consideration, setting up readings, searching out places to advertise freely, etc. That’s what gets people’s attention and that’s what sells books. A small publisher is already busy reading other manuscripts, laying out other books, contacting printers, contacting distributers, contacting bookstores, mailing out books, setting up book fair tables, answering emails, traveling, updating calendars and websites, and trying to publicize both itself and its many authors to throw itself fully into the sink-or-swim effort of a sole title. We just can’t do it. We rely on our reputations, our author’s reputations, and a singular book’s inherent meaningfulness **and salability** for any press we may receive.
Also, cover art? If you don’t have friends doing it, that’s $1k-$2k in “advertising” money right there. Book setup? $500 to $2k to a graphic designer using InDesign. Editorial and proofreading work: $1k-$3k, depending on workload. Cost of offset-printing a 300 pg hardback with dustjacket at 500 books? $6k. Advance to author on royalties? Probably nothing, but let’s be generous with $3k-$5k **if you’re looking to nail down a big name**. What should we spend on advertising, now that we’ve already spent upwards of $18k on a book that will now have to priced at $50-$60 a piece to turn a minor profit? Probably not much.
To be fair, this was the old way of doing things, but many academic presses still stick to it, which is how we get academic books with a $60 price tag. If they switched to digital printing or POD, they could raise their profit margins and possibly spend more on advertising, but again, no amount of monetary “push” can help force-feed a reading public any book or author. And any book on Jeffers should be viewed as a labor of love, with the hope of garnering more interest in his poetry and lifestyle and “inhumanism.”
If you are going to self-publish a book, I suggest starting a small press and printing it digitally through CreateSpace, selling it on Amazon and in ebook form through the many outlets, and spending the majority of your time contacting Jeffers devotees directly with a free copy and inviting them to blog about the book.
Damn, I’m sorry that was so long, I think I just needed to get that out.
Your email reply makes eminent good sense and makes me doubly glad to be an engineer with a 9-5 type job – or in my case a 0630-1500 type.
Warm regards and keep doing what you’re doing,
Both of my grandfathers were engineers–Martin-Marietta, Pan Am, NASA. We lived on the Space Coast in Florida. The closest I ever got to engineering was research for a 12-page poem about the MQ-9 Reaper Drone.
There’s hope for you yet.
And for you, SPD buyer of poetry.
So that was the exchange. Reading back through it, there are lots of little things I would like to change or tack on, like saying that “any book of Jeffers should be viewed as a labor of love,” which discounts the possibility of an “Hours”-like novel resurrecting Jeffers in his primacy and element, which could sell a ton of books, etc. Also, certain academic presses absolutely do receive good funding, just not many of them, and not necessarily from their namesake institutions. Most university presses are non-profits that rely on outside grants and a great deal more outside funding just to say alive. Very few, if any, live off their sales entirely.
Check out this TERRIFIC SLIDESHOW by Darrin Pratt of the University of Press of Colorado. To quote his findings: “No university press in the country generates an excess from its book publishing operations alone.” The University of California’s publishing unit may lead the field with $6 million in sales, but that isn’t all coming from sales, apparently. And only 30% or thereabouts is coming from the university itself.
Here’s another quote: “Over the past 30-40 years, average unit sales of scholarly monographs have declined precipitously,” going from 2000-3000 typical print run copies to 300-500 copies, just as Allen had said, with a 75%-95% decline in sales.
Also, my $18k figure pales to their $31k figure for a monograph! I can only assume this was for a larger print run, but maybe not.
So what’s the future for university/academic presses? How are they planning to make sales? Are they planning on making sales, or just procuring grants and monies from fund-raising? Is the book-buying business not really about book-buying any longer? I’m not trying to be a dick, I’m seriously interested in understanding how these presses hope to survive in the new decade, and whether or not they plan to phase out old methods and what new methods they plan to adopt.
Chime in if you have any personally relevant information.