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.

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:

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:

(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:

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.

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

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