Australian indie publisher and teacher librarian Tehani Croft Wessely loves books:
My time at ASIM [Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative] was pretty much my internship in publishing – I did every role involved in creating a publication that you could do, I’m sure! I slushread, commissioned stories and art, edited, did layout, proofread, organised contracts and payments, marketing, promotions, sales, e-publications and every little thing in between that gets an issue of a magazine from being just an idea, to being in the reader’s hands. The structure of ASIM was both its beauty and its curse – organising anything by committee can be difficult, but for the most part, the support provided by the ever-varying ASIM team meant that you had people to rely on, and also that someone in the group would usually know how to solve a problem. As a learning experience, it was a very good one and has, I think, stood me in good stead in my own publishing ventures. It’s even led me to paying jobs in academic editing, which is a nice sideline!
Being an indie publisher is not an easy road. For every indie press that makes a book that breaks even or, even more rarely, makes a profit, there are dozens, even hundreds, that see money vanish into big boxes of books stacked up in spare rooms and sheds, until the erstwhile owner (or their long-suffering spouse) finally says, “Enough.” It’s fascinating to chart to progress of these publishers, to see them rise and fall, to see the authors who put their faith in them get a start, and read the projects they produce. They continue to emerge, perhaps in even greater numbers in recent years with the advent of E and POD publishing options that make it more cost-effective to produce books, and easier to reach a wider audience. Well, I say “easier”, but what I mean is “possible”, because as the numbers of indie publishers rise, so do the number of self- and vanity publishers, which means the role of the publisher – that of gatekeeper and quality control – is being lost under the white noise. And sometimes it’s very difficult for readers (and authors) to distinguish between an indie press and a vanity one, which has a negative impact on the perception of all independents.
I think this brings us to the part of indie publishing which is the most difficult – it’s not finding the right project, or having the skill to help authors polish their work to the best it can be, or the design skills to produce a quality book, or the money to do a decent print run, and then the tenacity to sell them (although all of those things help). No, I believe that the most important part of being a successful indie publisher is marketing and promotion – getting your books out there in places they can be found and will be purchased. And this is so very, VERY difficult to do.
Not only are our local bookstores closing in droves, not only are the online bookstores being flooded by self-published books that clog up the filters of search engines, not only are the big publishers closing ranks on DRM and ebooks and pricing, all of which makes the indie publisher’s life more difficult, but of course, we try to compete on a shoestring budget. The best way to get into bookstores is to have a distributor. To get a distributor, you need a print run of at least 1000, often more. You also have to sign agreements that almost guarantee you will lose money on the books you send to that distributor, with discounts of up to 70% of RRP necessary for them to take you on. You also run the risk of losses in transit, in the warehouse, and in the end, to pulping, as the contract may give them the right to dump your stock with no returns.
. . . .
I guess it has to come down to love – editors and publishers in indie press have to love what they do. The thrill that comes with being the first person to read a new story, discover a new author, to make a new book! It costs money to publish – money that comes out of the indie publisher’s own pocket for the most part, although there have been some very successful crowd-funded projects in the very recent past (it’s all about the signal boosting!). Even if you decide to only run your manuscript through the Smashwords meatgrinder and hope to sell that way, there’s still an investment of time that has to go into a quality product, the money to pay the authors, artists, designers (if you use them), and the money it costs to market – because there are ALWAYS costs.
So we have to do it because we love the process. Some of us may hope to use our experience to step up to another level in publishing, but even that is becoming a distant hope, with the way publishing is teetering on a financial knife edge at the moment, and particularly in Australia, where jobs in the industry have never been prolific. So indie publishing is perhaps our way of expressing our love for books, for writing, and supporting the industry that gives us much joy.