Old School Publishing is like Silly Putty

I spent most of the last year laying the foundation to transition Blacksparrow to publishing. Auctions are a thing of the past for me personally. I left the old auction job–in which I was at for 13 years–and promptly got into doing more auctions. That wasn’t how I envisioned it. But as Robert Burns would say, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…”

So here I am in 2017, with about a dozen books in various stages and a couple more sitting between “possibly” and D.O.A. Of course, the book business is a dinosaur in the age of digital. Saturated as well, with entrenched publishers who have been doing this for decades, even centuries. Independent publishing also faces assaults from self-publishing and crowdsourcing nooses like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe. Add to that the inevitability of human expectations and you have a recipe for the silly putty of book deal-making. The economics of making books is about margins, thin ones. The printing, shipping, distribution, sales, graphic design will leave a very small slice to be negotiated over.

So the question begs, “Why am I getting into publishing?”

The simple answer is that I like books. They are treasures. The nuanced answer is that tradition publishing is a fickle porcupine. It’s the reason that publishing executives wouldn’t give a second thought about The Illustrated History of Don Post Studios. There are plenty of smart and talented writers and artists who deserve to be celebrated, but who get overlooked by systemic biases. I think there is room for a niche market of specialty books that could thrive on Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 true fans” concept. From Kelly’s essay:

“To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.”

Further:

“Here’s how the math works. You need to meet two criteria. First, you have to create enough each year that you can earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan. That is easier to do in some arts and businesses than others, but it is a good creative challenge in every area because it is always easier and better to give your existing customers more, than it is to find new fans.

Second, you must have a direct relationship with your fans. That is, they must pay you directly. You get to keep all of their support, unlike the small percent of their fees you might get from a music label, publisher, studio, retailer, or other intermediate. If you keep the full $100 of each true fan, then you need only 1,000 of them to earn $100,000 per year. That’s a living for most folks.”

The second point is what resonates with me. I know firsthand about letting middlemen plunder your profits in hopes of increasing volume through exposure and market expansion. More often than not that doesn’t come to be when you’re dealing in niche products. In which case the more you control, the better off you are. Read the rest of Kelly Kevin’s updated essay here.