Breaking into Books

The Christian Science Monitor  |  January 3, 2003

Byline: Kim Campbell Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Vanquishing the book appears to be as difficult as getting Dick Clark
to retire. Technology has yet to best the printed page - and that
resilience may account for the steady flow of entrepreneurs getting
into publishing.
Even with an iffy economy, decreases in book buying, and plenty of
small publishers calling it quits, some people find publishing an
attractive option.
The financial details of starting a business can be nerve-wracking, but
newcomers are undaunted by negative industry trends and threats from
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 in
mysteries and eclectic nonfiction and debuts its first books next month.
Independent publishing is persevering in an industry that's presented
fewer and fewer opportunities for entry in recent decades, as
consolidation and corporate ownership have reduced the number of
publishers and bookstores. More than ever, small and midsized
publishers are valued for the variety they bring readers and the outlet
they provide for writers who can't get the attention of the industry
Those are two reasons some newcomers are drawn in - the product and the
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 Marketing
Association, whose members deal in print and other media. "The one nice
thing about publishing is people always think they will be different."
For Hull, it was a natural next step after years in the industry as an
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 decisions are
mine, and the success and failures are mine."
The exact number of new people getting into the business is difficult
to determine. Unlike Hollywood, the book industry doesn't keep track of
its sales and its players, especially the smaller ones. The number of
new publishers applying for a sales-related tool called an ISBN number
did increase in 2002 to 10,653, up from 9,786 in 2001, according to
R.R. Bowker, the company that sells the numbers. But those figures
include not only print publishers, but those selling software, e-books,
educational videos, or a combination of different media.
For print publishers, starting a company today is both easier and
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 impact
is small, because companies with deeper pockets can snatch good writers
away. Others say they are a haven for niche topics and offbeat authors.
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 have a
huge overhead to deal with, he doesn't have a lot of accumulated bad
habits," says Jason Epstein, former editorial director at Random House,
and author of "Book Business."
A major problem publishers face is distribution. The decrease in
independent bookstores means more publishers are fighting for shelf
space in chains such as Barnes & Noble. Of the estimated tens of
thousands of independent publishers in the US, says Ms. Nathan, only
about 900 are represented by three distribution companies who market
their products to booksellers.
Hull has signed on with a distribution company, but those who don't
have the money to do so have become more innovative about the places
they try to hawk their wares - capitalizing on surveys that show 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 in books
that are bestsellers, and those belong to the top companies. Publishers
Weekly notes that of the books that made the magazine's hardcover
bestseller list in 2002, 77.4 percent were from the top five publishers
(Random House, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster, Time Warner, and
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 the
idea that it takes a lot of money to turn a profit. Nathan recalls a
common adage: "How do you make a million dollars in book publishing?
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 low
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 starting in
this industry necessarily needs a million bucks, although the closer
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 and made
about $3,000 on his business, Twenty Penny Press, last year. He has
mainly offered e-books - digital versions of the Bible and Sherlock
Holmes mysteries - which he says have not sold well. But starting next
month, he'll use some of his earnings to offer his first printed book,
a mystery he wrote himself.
He plans to use an option called print-on-demand, which means the book
is printed only when someone requests it, reducing the costs he would
absorb if unsold copies of the book were returned to him by a
bookseller. "Returns are the thing that kill small publishers," he says.
New technologies are what Mr. Epstein says may eventually liberate the
small publisher - allowing him or her to use the Internet and printing
devices to download books directly to consumers and bypass retailers.
"That will change the business profoundly and make it much more
interesting and varied and will restore to small publishers ... the
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 is
beginning with 12 books and wants to end up as a mid-sized company with
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 is
challenging every day, he says. "But it's also fun."

(c) Copyright 2003 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.


© 2002 Justin, Charles & Co. All rights reserved.