Small Press Publishing for Profit, Part 5: ‘The Long Tail’ & Part 6: ‘Scaling Up’

The long-awaited fifth and sixth installments of a series in which Valley Press founder Jamie McGarry reveals his tried-and-tested formula for making a living as a self-employed literary publisher. This week: what to do after you’ve broken even, and how to re-invest the results.

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A prosperous-looking young publisher speaking on a panel at the Northern Short Story Festival. (Photo: Raj Passy)

Back in the spring, I wrote a series of articles explaining how someone could make a living as a self-employed publisher of literary books. Here’s a bullet-pointed summary of my proposal, so far:

That’s how to make a living from publishing, but this series of articles is called ‘Small Press Publishing for Profit’ — we want to do more than just scrape by, don’t we? We want to have cash left over to save for the future, to build a strong business, and live our lives.

You may have heard the saying ‘give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime’. I think most jobs fall into that first category — but not publishing. Once you’ve published a book, sold out the first run and made your salary, its journey is not over … something wonderful happens. It enters the ‘backlist’, or to borrow another business term, ‘the long tail’. That’s the first thing I’m going to talk about today.

‘The long tail’ refers to the vast number of products in the world that aren’t bestsellers —i.e. almost all of them. The graph below illustrates the point, where the vertical axis is copies sold in a particular month, and all the books we’ve published can be lined up along the horizontal axis:

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In our case, the green segment might contain titles published in the last year, and the yellow segment our older titles. If the area of each segment represents income from sales of books, it’s plain to see that sales of the older 80% of titles, though small individually, match the income from the newest 20% when added together. I’m not saying this will always be the case for your business, but I have observed this effect with Valley Press and had reports of similar from other organisations.

The moral? There’s money in the backlist, and it would be foolish to let books you’ve still got the rights to go out of print. If you’ve already covered the costs of producing those books, any cash received will be pure profit, and a genuine example of ‘passive income’ (a.k.a. how the rich keep getting richer).

‘So how do we keep the older books in print?’ you cry. You’ve got three options:

  • Do a standard reprint. If you’ve sold out your first print run and interest is still high, this is worth a thought. 50 copies is the lowest sensible print run, so I judge it on whether the book has sold 50 copies in the last six months: if the answer is yes, a small re-print seems called for. The most common scenario leading to a reprint is as follows: I’ve watched stocks dwindle to 8, 6, 4 copies over the last few months, but then the author does an event and needs 20 — I do a 50 copy reprint, the author’s payment covers the cost, and I’m left with 34 copies in stock and the same cash-on-hand as before. Perfect.
  • Put the book on ‘print on demand’. POD books used to be too ugly and too expensive; the whole thing used to seem like a pipe dream, but the situation has moved on a lot. In ten years, POD might be the only sensible way to do any kind of printing (but we’re not there just yet). I passed a personal watershed on this a few weeks ago — I had an email from a happy customer that went as follows: “I received my first Valley Press books today, and I wanted to tell you how impressed I am … very nice paper and print quality … as a book lover I appreciate the care you take of the books as objects.” I checked her order to see what she’d gone for, and nearly spat out my tea: she’d ordered two of my print-on-demand titles. My supplier Ingram deserve a shout-out for that one (paperback, matt lamination, cream paper, if you’re wondering).
  • Make an ebook. Okay, this is cheating really, but ebooks are always worth a shot. It’s free to upload titles to most services, and then they sit there forever; so what if they only sell one copy a month? That’s £2 in your pocket with zero effort. (I say £2, as you need to price them semi-competitively: £3.99 is sensible, but after VAT, the seller’s cut and author royalties you’ll be on your way back down to £2.) You could also try doing a digital audiobook: but that is a pool I’ve only just dipped my toe into, so I won’t speak on that subject today.

(I will say, though, ignore the people who say poetry can’t work as an ebook — you need something called a ‘dynamic hanging indent’, which preserves the poet’s original line breaks without spoiling the re-flowable, re-sizable advantages of the format. It does this by clearly differentiating between intended line breaks and un-intended; you make this happen in your stylesheet, by indenting your text by -2em and making the left margin 2em. I swore these articles would never get technical, but I had to get this point off my chest somewhere…)

So once you’re making a modest living, and have a steady flow of income from backlist titles, what then? How do you grow a publishing business? This is something I’m still wrestling with myself, but the key performance indicator (or KPI) you want to watch is your average copies sold per title. The plan in these articles is based on that figure being 200; once it gets up to 300, you can take a deep breath and consider the following steps:

  • Print more copies. Due to the economics of printing, 300 times 1/5th of the cover price gets you a lot more copies than 200 did — you’re getting into traditional, ‘lithographic’ print territory, and once you’re there, getting an extra 100 books each time can be as little as £30. If your average sales are 300, you should be getting 500 copies printed each time at least; this is the key factor in scaling up quickly.
  • Offer bigger discounts. As you start selling 300 copies or more of each title, you no longer need to cling onto your £3 segment like your life depends on it. You could consider offering the ‘trade’ a larger discount (50% for example), which will put you in the same game as the big corporate publishers. To that end, you could also think about sale-or-return: if your 300 initial sales are secure, the fate of the other copies you print becomes less crucial.
  • Think about a sales agency. If you can afford to give up 10% of the income from your existing sales to the trade, you could think about joining a sales agency (or at least having some kind of ‘reps’). For literary publishers in the UK, Inpress is the most sensible starting point; there are others, though there was a major closure last year. They won’t work miracles, but they will definitely sell more copies of your books; and it’s nice to sit in your armchair with a cup of tea, knowing someone else is out there sweating over how to put your publications in bookshops.
  • Hire freelancers. Of the nine days I described in part two, are there any which really drag for you — which you’d rather avoid? You can bring in someone else to do those parts; you could already, paying them £7.50 an hour, but with sales up to 300 you can offer a decent rate and bring in some top people. Alternatively, if you’re not too personally attached to your brand, you could hire someone to do the entire process; a whole extra stream of titles coming from your label. You need someone with a degree in literature and a passion for graphic design (or the other way around), but these people are out there and can be trained. (Hi Rosa!)
  • Spend on promotion. At the start of part 3, I listed some sure-fire ways to sell a lot of books; if you have excess cash, you can invest in those and keep tweaking until you find something that works.

With that last point, we’ve arrived at where I am in my small-press publishing journey; there must be a way to make back more money than you spend on promotional activities, I just haven’t found it yet. When I do, I’ll come back and write a new post (perhaps a new series?); and if you get there before me, I hope you’ll do the same.

If you’ve enjoyed this series of articles, please do get in touch and let me know — more importantly, if you think you’ve spotted any errors, or if you have any questions about what I’ve said, definitely drop me a line. I don’t see any small presses as ‘rivals’ or ‘competitors’; in an ideal world, all our books will find their readers, and we’ll all pursue our businesses in absolute contentment … but we’ll only get there by sharing what we learn along the way.

Thanks for reading.

Written by

Founder @valleypress. Have mostly written here about small press publishing, but am starting to branch out. Stay with me, people!

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