I Made the Mistake of Starting a Small Press and So Can You -The Toast

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At the start of 2013–years ago, really–I started Sorry House. Imagined as a community collective (I was, after all, a year younger) and re-imagined several times with several different names, like high schoolers starting a band, it quickly became a very self-driven thing. I’ve rejected a lot and assimilated more. I’ve seen my books go from PDF to featured in Vice, Paper, Nylon, and The Rumpus, from my desk to the windows of McNally Jackson. Here’s everything that I’ve learned so far.

The basics

amillionbears-02-432x604No one cares about you as much as you care about you. This is a very helpful principle in life, but here’s it applied to publishing. As great as your idea to start a press may sound to your friends, and as supportive as they might be, it will ultimately come down to you to make it happen. Yes, friends are great for brainstorming, and you should collaborate with them. However, they have their own lives and when it comes to the bullshit of making things happen it has to be you slogging through it. I’ll come back to friends later.

Hate writers, hate books, hate publishing. Get mad when you see awful covers on great books, get frustrated when great presses have incomprehensible websites, cringe when a book is blurbed to be a “tour-de-force,” or another famous author makes an awkward stab at social media. Unfollow any writer who brags about their manuscript or penchant for whiskey. Feel bad for feeling superior. Remember it’s about doing. Feel excited.

Listen to 2 Chainz. There are a million presses and magazines out there. If you’re not different, why add to the noise? They’re all “at the forefront of avant-garde” apparently, so what are you bringing to the table? Luckily the world of writing and publishing sets a low bar for what’s exciting. With so much distance, traditionally, between book and author, editor and press, having yourself in the foreground is radical on its own. Since you are, literally speaking, different, the more you and your press merge into one entity, the more idiosyncratic it will become. Look at Giancarlo Ditrapano of Tyrant Books. You can’t follow one on Twitter without following the other (it’s a single account), and when you see a Tyrant book, you see Ditrapano reading it and saying, “This is it, this is really iit.”

However, work isn’t enough so don’t be precious. The best book in the world has probably failed because the publisher didn’t do a good job selling it, and now him and the author are both dead and forgotten. Don’t skimp on design. When you put out a book you’re not just competing with every other book, but also every other way people can spend their time and money, from watching porn to eating a breakfast burrito. You have to make your book look better than a breakfast burrito, which lacks both a sleek homepage and a well designed logo.

jokebook-02-432x604I repeat, the work isn’t enough, so don’t be precious.  Especially in the beginning, people will only take you as seriously as your website. With just a Gmail account and dream, getting started–from soliciting blurbs to scheduling a book launch–will be very difficult. I would recommend asking a web-developer friend, but in my experience web-developers are optimistic and overworked. This is a big friend-debt that can be avoided, and stringing along an unpaid project isn’t fair to either of you. Squarespace and Tumblr both have really beautiful templates, just make sure to pay for a custom URL to redirect to.  Plus, this site is going to double as your store. You can get a buy-it-now button from PayPal for free to begin pre-orders and direct sales.

But the work is still important. Don’t let print-on-demand services take your hard earned profits away. Amazon makes it convenient, printing your books and selling them through their site according to their market algorithms, but you’re a publisher now and you’re in control. When you order your books in bulk, you put in financial investment, you get to drop a chunk of change and say to yourself, “Now what are you going to do.” You get to be creative, write personal notes in the books you mail out, be in touch with your readers, be the process rather than take part in it. On top of all that, you’re rewarded with higher margins, allowing you to print more books, and drop a shift at your job.

Have respect for things you don’t understand. Just because you know how layers work doesn’t mean you’re a graphic designer. Just because you’ve got a DSLR doesn’t mean you’re a photographer. Wherever you have the opportunity to work with a professional, take it. Helvetica isn’t the only font out there and there are people who make fonts for a living. Make sure the cover art you go with looks good online, since that’s where you’re selling it.

Your friends are your best friend. If you’re lucky, you know people who do these things and do them well. Ask them for help, and be specific (“A simple, clean logo, something like these examples.”) so they can fit your assignment into their busy lives. Be clear about what you want, and be nice (be really fucking nice). Promote their work alongside your books for now. Eventually you will be able to pay them for their work and it will feel awesome.

Marketing small press.

The big five publishers don’t know how to sell books. Not really anyway. I interned at (what is now) the largest publisher in the world, and the formula was to skim the editor’s notes (which were a brief plot summary, three line biography, etc.) and, print press releases on company letterhead, calling it a modern masterpiece, a thrilling page-turner, a dazzling tear-jerker. Mail those press releases out with the books to a 300-entry list that’s not even up to date with current press contacts, and ask me to mail them out. On a good day, two or three reviewers get back to the publicists. The model is a few best-sellers float the rest, and there’s a machine in place to at make a few bucks on everything else.

You have the advantage. As a person in your bedroom with a Gmail account and a $300 box of books, you can do whatever you want. You don’t have mouths depending on book sales for food. You don’t have a boss to answer to, or employees to pay. You don’t have to worry about what the New York Times thinks about your book because the New York Times doesn’t care.

Content is promotion. Nothing makes me want to buy a book less than an author on Facebook saying “Have you read my book yet? Here’s your chance!” What does make me want to buy their book, though, is a funny or compelling Twitter feed, an interesting photography Tumblr, a great ask.fm account. This is how books are sold these days, and it’s a wonderful thing. We have all these opportunities to make selling more interesting than a commercial, to subvert the daily tedium of social media, to publicly slander your author instead of saying she’s the most honest writer alive. Advertising doesn’t have to be the necessary evil of your art, it can be a part of the object itself. Make it weird, make it funny, pay attention to what your inclinations are and indulge them. Don’t just compare the price of your book to a latte and call it a great deal.

MadsenCoverThe technical

Pray every night that the post office goes bankrupt. It’s a wildly inefficient service that does the public more harm than good. The goal, I think, is to slowly waste people’s energy in life, so that they’re more sedate and willing to consume things. I would bring the same size envelope to three different clerks on the same day and get three different rates. Fed up, I eventually brought a ruler with me to demonstrate that I was mailing a “large envelope or flat” instead of a package, and was promptly told that it isn’t the clerk’s job to measure mail.

Use Shipstation instead. This is by far the best mailing solution I’ve found after a solid month of mailing-induced despair. Stamps.com has an anqituated nightmarish user interface. When I tried to void stamps because their form didn’t refresh, I was told to mail them in on my dime to their processing center and wait several weeks for my $2.50 back. When I tried to cancel the service (which can only be done over the phone) their representative tried to sell me on a more expensive subscription, then attempted to bill me an extra month. Shipstation is clean, easy to use, imports orders automatically from PayPal, and produces product sales reports in graphs even I can understand. You’ll get a discount on postage, which with enough volume will pay for the monthly subscription.

Choose the right printer. There are many printers out there, I started with 48hourbooks.com because of how easy they are to work with. There’s no fine print, no extra fees, overage costs, or uncertain timeframes. They accept paypal, and staff real people you can talk to on the phone. Their books are digitally printed (lookup digital vs. offset printing) but don’t have any of the telltale signs of a digitally printed book, besides some occasional streaking on the cover, barely noticeable. Plus, they’re cheap.

Buy cheap, buy used. Get nice bubble mailers so your books arrive intact, but get them straight from China through eBay, 500 for twenty bucks. Maybe you need a printer, and on Craigslist you found an office that’s closing and sell its supplies for cheap. Maybe you want to make your life easier and get label paper, so that you can stick your Shipstation stamps right on the envelope, so you report the one you got from Amazon as damaged and they send you a second without question. You’re winning.

Three hundred dollars. Using 48hrbooks for this example, you will get 60 copies of your first book, perfectly-bound, delivered to your door. The breakdown of this small order comes to just under $5 a book. Let’s say you sell it for $15 direct through your clean new website. $2.00 goes to shipping it with your ebay-found padded envelopes, and PayPal takes another buck in fees. That leaves you with five dollars profit. We’ll get to paying your author fairly later. 10 copies are given to reviewers (ones you know, friends if need be, don’t throw away your books at big magazines), leaving 50 copies sold for a total of $250 profit, on top of the recouped $300. Now you have $550 to work with, and you can order a larger print run of 125 books for $480, at about $3.50 a book. Your profit margin is at around $8.50 per sale, and you can set aside a few more copies for review, and begin paying your author.

iwillnever-02-432x604On paying your authors. There are a number of ways to do it, some pay just in books. Royalties can get confusing if paid monthly, so many small presses pay them upfront (e.g. order 100 books to sell, determine profit margin, pay author as soon as they arrive, sleep soundly.) Author royalties range wildly. Typically, small presses pay better than big ones, but without an advance. My goal for Sorry House’s first book was to work hard to make sure I can publish whatever I want down the line. It would be the backbone of the press, a more sellable book than others I might be interested in putting out. So I worked with Mira Gonzalez on finding a number we were both happy with for me to buy her book from her. The agreement was that within six months of publication, I would pay her a lump sum of $800, and any profit I managed to make after that I would keep. For a first-time author and a first-time press, it was an enormous risk that I took, but it was also an empowering goal to work toward, needing to make at least $800 in profits before I see a nickel. It also felt good to know that I’m paying my author better than many small presses do.

The Marketplace

Bowker hates you. Bowker is the distributor for ISBNs, those numerical barcode you see on the backs of books. Large presses can buy a thousand ISBNs from Bowker for a dollar apiece. Small presses are often short lived, and never put out many books, so that kind of bulk doesn’t make sense for you. A single ISBN, purchased by itself, is $125 with an extra $30 for the barcode image. However, a pack of ten is $250, so if you plan on publishing any amount of books greater than one, ten is your most cost effective option. If it’s too much money at the beginning, don’t worry. You make the most profit from direct sales anyway, and neither you nor your readers need an ISBN on your book. Only Amazon and bookstores do. So sell direct until you make enough profit to swallow the $250 and get your book the fascist serial code it deserves.

Small press distribution hates you. Touted as the charitable non-profit connecting readers and bookstores with small presses for [too many years] this organization will, yes, take just about any publisher on and distribute your books should an independent bookstore order some. However SPD’s terms ensure that their bottom line is covered no matter what, giving themselves very little incentive to actually sell your books. So the marketing is really on you. With your website, Paypal button, and shipstation account, you’re mailing books all the time, so SPD isn’t making your life any easier by distributing. They will gladly take your $185 in upstart fees, list your book online, order a couple of copies for which you pay shipping, send you a notoriously late check of half the profits if any books sell, and bill you if they don’t. In my experience, a few awesome bookstores will come to you directly, or respond positively if you come to them. Sorry House, for example, doesn’t belong to any distributor but still sells copies wholesale directly to stores like Powell’s and McNally Jackson, both of which approached us pretty early on, thanks to their very rad buyers. So my advice: don’t bother with SPD. In fact, help me take them down.

Also, Amazon hates you. Amazon buys books from on consignment at an egregiously high 55% discount (Bookstores usually get 40%) So when signing up for an ISBN and listing your book on Amazon, you should set the price high, even if you sell your book direct through the site for $10-$13. Mark it up an extra two or three bucks, so that after their 55% discount, you’re still making a decent profit. They’re going to discount your book to consumers anyway, so let them bite the bullet instead of you. Unlike SPD, Amazon is an effective bookseller. I do believe that Amazon manages to sell books to people who wouldn’t otherwise find or purchase small press books on their press’s homepage, and when the numbers are good, it’s nice to be able to send off 50 books off to Amazon and get a nice big check, on time, a month later. Like SPD, Amazon makes you pay shipping, so when they send you small orders of a couple books or so, it’s best to ignore them and wait for a larger one, to make it worthwhile.


Do it properly.

Be different.

Be nice to your friends.

Fuck SPD. 

And remember, no one cares about you as much as you care about you.


Spencer Madsen is a writer and the publisher of Sorry House. His debut book You can make anything sad is due out from Publishing Genius on April 29th.

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