August 18, 2010

Small is Beautiful, or Strategic Map for the Reconstruction of Atlantis

Micropublishers have been undergoing a minor revolution in the past decade or so. Digital printing techniques came of age with print on demand publishing – the principle of being able to print one copy of a book per order. This cut away the need for advance print runs and storage, hence the need for predictive publishing, capital forecasting and warehouse overheads. The quality isn't quite level with traditional print techniques yet, however, and digital print has been fast overtaken by the e-book market and digital readers, from i-pads to Amazon's Kindle.

The effect on the book industry is to streamline more clearly the function of certain books and retailers. Mainstream bookchains attract general readers and non-readers, with a strong market hold on the idea of books as gifts, with two sales peaks in the year, around summer holidays and Christmas buying. Meanwhile, digital books, more disposable, less user-friendly in ease of reading experience, tap into the functional, necessary end of the book market: text books, manuals, reference texts and so on. This streamlining creates more space for small, focused task forces, with well-defined readerships, to leap in and start doing good work.

This is a gross simplification, but the big issues for people starting a niche audience magazine are finding out where they fit in and how to reach their target audience. Not only is digital printing still behind in terms of quality, but decent paper is harder to source, or non-existent. Many ink-based printers are reducing their overheads, particularly in labour costs, by standardising their processes, from, for example, the availability of acid-free paper, to a publisher's ability to include image inserts in a primarily text-based book, or the sizes available to publishers. Some print on demand servicers, like Lightning Source, have a set list of formats which they can produce books in, and that's your lot. Even the glue for perfect binding isn't as good as it was. Standardisation is a subtle thing, and publishers who can afford to vary the size and shape of their books from the norm will stand out on a shelf.

If you take a long-running small press like Enitharmon Books as an example, you can see how micropublishers are better able to specialise for niche audiences than larger, commercial houses. They run a line of excellent traditional (in terms of publication quality, size shape, and relative to what larger houses output) poetry books, alongside top quality, limited edition art books, 'coffee table' books. The poetry goes for a fairly standard £8-£12 for a single-author collection. The art books for £100-£500, perhaps, depending on size, production costs and so on. The art books sell extremely well relative to their limited runs and prices (last time I checked, anyway), paying for themselves and feeding into the poetry list.

Sure, it's not worth talking about profit margins in these presses. The work is half the reward and the most these passionate (perhaps even fundamentalist) publishers can hope for is to break even in most cases. Yet they're operating in a way that the publishing industry used to a few decades ago, before entertainment corporations, largely driven by the huge profits of the film industry, began moving into book publishing and raising the stakes to 15-20% growth. Micropublishers have lower profit margins, of 0-5%, which gives them greater flexibility in content, greater opportunity for risk, and ultimately, greater rewards should that risk-taking be rewarded. Essentially, they're terrorists, waging guerilla warfare and often winning the battles over top slots at Christmas, or on major prizes like the Mann Booker.

Some micropublishers try to mimic the corporate methods of the industry – the big end of the wedge. They employ things like the 'long tail' model, trying to develop backlists in a short space of time, building a large, low- and slow-sale range of titles and a smaller proportion of good sellers, to guarantee a degree of turnover and allow them to monitor growth effectively. Established presses are bolstered by an archive of dead, a corpse-ridden army of syllabus-listed writers and their estates, which ensure a steady stream of sales. It's the long tail method on a larger scale. The fast-build up of titles by newer micropublishers like Salt Publishing don't have the brand loyalty or reputable writers to shift units in sufficient numbers, bu they're trying and proving that reach is not impossible.

Salt's main strength is their competitive, sharp PR. They make waves, picking up shortlistings and prizes on major awards, hit national and specialist press outlets and they're challenging mainstream, established presses on their own terms. A side example, from the microbrewing industry: Brewdog make all the right moves, employing creative marketing and quality of product to catapult themselves far beyond the scale of their operations into great financial success.

Polarity doesn't have the business, marketing, or PR acumen to achieve this, or the time needed to really pull something off that will make the magazine sustainable in the short term. Arts graduates rarely have a decent business head. All this business talk doesn't really mean much to people who really just want to put out something strange, something they want to read. The drive behind what we do is cultural, not financial, like with many small arts magazines.

I'm reminded of a story (posted by Frank Key, Polarity advisor) about Peter Blegvad (also a Polarity advisor) being kicked out of cult band, Henry Cow. The reason: being asked to write a political song, and coming back with some flippant lyrics about “a woman throwing raisins at a pile of bones”. Give me that song, that woman, those raisins. Make the bones those of a Jabberwocky, the woman Eurydice, have it happen in an underwater parthenon, witnessed by Architeuthis, in a sprawling, sea-slug-laced, puce sargasso. I am the audience for that song, and if it doesn't exist, I'll make it myself. This is what drives us to create the magazines we want to read. We are the architects of Atlantis, of the utopia the world hasn't yet provided. Money, at some point, might catch up with us.


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