Breaking into Books
The Christian Science Monitor | January
Byline: Kim Campbell Staff writer of The Christian Science
Vanquishing the book appears to be as difficult as getting
to retire. Technology has yet to best the printed page - and
resilience may account for the steady flow of entrepreneurs
Even with an iffy economy, decreases in book buying, and plenty
small publishers calling it quits, some people find publishing
The financial details of starting a business can be nerve-wracking,
newcomers are undaunted by negative industry trends and threats
the now de-fanged e-book.
"A book is a book is a book, and contrary to what people
were saying a
few years ago, they're not going away anytime soon,"
says Stephen Hull,
founder of Boston-based Justin, Charles & Co., which specializes
mysteries and eclectic nonfiction and debuts its first books
Independent publishing is persevering in an industry that's
fewer and fewer opportunities for entry in recent decades,
consolidation and corporate ownership have reduced the number
publishers and bookstores. More than ever, small and midsized
publishers are valued for the variety they bring readers and
they provide for writers who can't get the attention of the
Those are two reasons some newcomers are drawn in - the product
people. Others, like those who self publish, do so to add
heft to a
resume, or to establish the viability of their work so they
can shop it
to larger publishers.
"There are more and more people entering this world.
I sometimes wonder
why," says Jan Nathan, executive director of the Publishers
Association, whose members deal in print and other media.
"The one nice
thing about publishing is people always think they will be
For Hull, it was a natural next step after years in the industry
editor. "I actually started thinking about it seriously
during the tech
boom, when it seemed like everybody started a company,"
he says. "Part
of my motivation is this is something that's mine.... The
mine, and the success and failures are mine."
The exact number of new people getting into the business is
to determine. Unlike Hollywood, the book industry doesn't
keep track of
its sales and its players, especially the smaller ones. The
new publishers applying for a sales-related tool called an
did increase in 2002 to 10,653, up from 9,786 in 2001, according
R.R. Bowker, the company that sells the numbers. But those
include not only print publishers, but those selling software,
educational videos, or a combination of different media.
For print publishers, starting a company today is both easier
harder than in the past. Computer equipment is cheaper and
manufacturing fairly easy.
But while it's technically easier to publish, it's harder
than ever to
get noticed. Many independent publishers concede their editorial
is small, because companies with deeper pockets can snatch
away. Others say they are a haven for niche topics and offbeat
For any small company, it can take decades to become viable.
"In general, I think a small publisher may succeed more
easily than a
big one, because he starts out with less baggage, he doesn't
huge overhead to deal with, he doesn't have a lot of accumulated
habits," says Jason Epstein, former editorial director
at Random House,
and author of "Book Business."
A major problem publishers face is distribution. The decrease
independent bookstores means more publishers are fighting
space in chains such as Barnes & Noble. Of the estimated
thousands of independent publishers in the US, says Ms. Nathan,
about 900 are represented by three distribution companies
their products to booksellers.
Hull has signed on with a distribution company, but those
have the money to do so have become more innovative about
they try to hawk their wares - capitalizing on surveys that
consumers buy their books from a variety of outlets, including
specialty stores, catalogs, and the Internet.
Small publishers say the chain stores are primarily interested
that are bestsellers, and those belong to the top companies.
Weekly notes that of the books that made the magazine's hardcover
bestseller list in 2002, 77.4 percent were from the top five
(Random House, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster, Time
HarperCollins). The number jumps to 91 percent when two other
well-established hardcover publishers are added in.
Would-be publishers starting from scratch often try to disprove
idea that it takes a lot of money to turn a profit. Nathan
common adage: "How do you make a million dollars in book
You start with two [million]."
In the current economy, most people don't have an extra million
dollars, but by some accounts it can take that much.
"It's a capital-intensive, long-term cash flow, relatively
profit-margin business. Sounds good, doesn't it?" jokes
Hull, who is
paying for his endeavor with a line of bank credit and private
investment, including his own money. "I don't think someone
this industry necessarily needs a million bucks, although
you can get to it probably wouldn't hurt," he adds.
Others say $10,000 or even just a few thousand can be enough
to get a
company off the ground.
James Engstrom, a retiree in Sequim, Wash., spent about $3,000
about $3,000 on his business, Twenty Penny Press, last year.
mainly offered e-books - digital versions of the Bible and
Holmes mysteries - which he says have not sold well. But starting
month, he'll use some of his earnings to offer his first printed
a mystery he wrote himself.
He plans to use an option called print-on-demand, which means
is printed only when someone requests it, reducing the costs
absorb if unsold copies of the book were returned to him by
bookseller. "Returns are the thing that kill small publishers,"
New technologies are what Mr. Epstein says may eventually
small publisher - allowing him or her to use the Internet
devices to download books directly to consumers and bypass
"That will change the business profoundly and make it
interesting and varied and will restore to small publishers
kind of autonomy that Random House and others used to have
in the old
days when they consisted mainly of groups of like-minded editors
working on their own," he says.
Hull is modeling himself on the old-style, independent general
publisher, he says, rather than taking a niche approach. He
beginning with 12 books and wants to end up as a mid-sized
about 40 books per year.
"I probably didn't know enough to be really daunted,"
he admits of his
initial thoughts about getting into the business. Now, publishing
challenging every day, he says. "But it's also fun."
(c) Copyright 2003 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights