On the nature of independent publishing • 16 February 2008 • The SnowBlog
On the nature of independent publishing
'Independent publishing' is a term that covers a vast range of companies, and people. Indie publishers range from tiny one or two-man bands, to companies employing fifty to a hundred people. They range from those who use their savings or personal assets to fund the business, to those who are grant-maintained, to those with a wealthy patron, to those who raise debt and equity funding. Their publications range from the deeply specific to the broadest of trade ranges. So it's a bit ambitious to try to pin down what, exactly, an independent publisher is, or should be. But I thought I'd share my own ideal - the company we try every day to build. First of all, I consider myself to be a business person more than a creative person. The creative side of me might like the romantic idea of sitting in a townhouse in Soho, sipping port and flicking through manuscripts, but that won't make any money. Once you have signed up authors, you have a responsibility to them - and, indeed, to future authors. Your first priority absolutely has to be to make money, or at the very least to maintain cash flow, because without money, you are no use to your authors. Snowbooks goes through phases on the making money side of things, not helped by the spectre of sale or return, but so far, just about, we have maintained our positive cash flow. My sole aim for 2008 is to turn a healthy profit.
Secondly, I consider the nuts and bolts of the business' processes to be my main role. The last two days have been spent reconciling three bank accounts, ready for the next VAT return, drawing up a contract, sending my weekly ONIX record to Nielsen, making sure my cash flow forecast is in order and going through my invoices due and payments due file to make sure I'm up to date. The smooth running of the business takes priority over anything else. What would happen if I didn't update Nielsen? Customers would not be up to date with our titles. What if I didn't send the VAT return in on time? I'm breaking the law. What if I don't get paid on time? Cash flow suffers. What if I don't pay the printers on time? Why should they bend over backwards to help me, as they do all the time, if I let them down. There's a horrible phrase I remember from my consulting days that described the bare minimum that is acceptable: 'hygiene level'. Having the finances and basic processes under control at all times is a hygiene level requirement. Before Christmas, we had a real squeeze on our cash flow, which I knew about a month before it happened because I pay attention to these things. We told our printer, who very kindly agreed to give us an extra 30 days on a few invoices, which we've now paid after the sales revenue came in after Christmas. If you are on top of these things, you can do something about it when the pinch comes - and by understanding your cash position at all times you make damn sure you don't overspend.
None of this is to say that I am a paragon of organisational virtue. As I said, this is my ideal, and I get it wrong some of the time. But I think it's really important to understand what your role is, and what you should be aiming for.
I believe my role is to take someone else's creative output and to apply sufficient business acumen to make it a commercial success. The last thing an author needs is someone who considers themselves equally creative. No - by signing up with a publisher, an author pays for commerciality, business skills, sales skills, marketing skills, sound financial management. It doesn't matter how small the publisher is, or how cutting edge or cool their list: the publisher's job is to run the business properly and make some money for the author.
It's true - business process work like this is made more palatable because it's easy to believe in books, compared to, say, if I was running an airconditioning unit business. Books are important, lovely to create and easy to get passionate about. But if a publisher considers themself anything other than a business manager, they're on a hiding to nothing.