SO YOU WANT TO BE A PUBLISHER…
10 Years in the Trenches
By K. H. Koehler
In January, 2012, my partners and I celebrated 10 years of KHP, which was launched in January of 2002. Prior to KHP, my experience in anything even remotely related to publishing was retail. And it probably saved the company from the dark fates of many of the other, now defunct, publishing companies that had cropped up around the same time.
Like so many other publishers, my ambitions had always been to be a mere writer, but the market had been in a state of constant flux at that time. Things were evolving so that normal roads to publishing which had been open to authors for over a hundred years were changing, or closing completely. It was an interesting odyssey, a rough climb, but I can’t say I regret it. Along the way, I had the honor of publishing such popular notables as Steve Vernon and William Meikle, to name just a few.
Now, more than ever before, authors are becoming publishers—either their own, or the guiding light to other, newer, authors who find themselves on this strange odyssey. I see a few successes, followed by many more failures. And the more I watch authors fubar their start-ups, the more it makes me want to offer a few suggestions along with my condolences. So many of these writers could have made a good go of things had they only adjusted their business models in small but significant ways. And learned to wear more hats. A lot of hats.
Voila! So here we go. Mind you, I’m not some 80-year-old NYC Publishing expert. I’m just a 39-year-old trench worker, but hopefully you can gain something from my experiences, should you decided to take the plunge:
Become a High Fashion Model
One of the most important things is to have an appropriate business model. By this, I mean you know what your goals are and you know how to reasonably attain them. You need to keep in mind that publishing is essentially a retail business, no different than any other retail business that you visit every day—and, perhaps, have even worked. Almost every day you walk into an establishment and plunk your money down in exchange for a product or service. Now, you’ll likely do the majority of your publishing business online, but it’s the same principle. You are offering a product to a (hopefully) needful customer. Thus, one of the best ways to build your business model is to look at the successful retail businesses around you and ask yourself what makes it so. If you have retail experience in your past, then you’re that much closer to your goal of being a successful retail outfit. Don’t be afraid to tap into this reservoir of knowledge and experience.
Become a Dictator
Establish order in your company. Your company is like a human body in that all the elements need to function together in an effective way to maintain good health. If something goes awry inside your body, you get sick. Your company is no different. Chaos and conflict work in a book of fiction; there is no place for it in your company. Every officer of your company (assuming it’s more than just you helming the ship) needs to be aware of his or her function. He or she should be qualified to handle the workload, and there should be good, and frequent, communication. But as a small company, you may also want your officers flexible and fully able to fulfill multiple functions, in the event an officer leaves or is unable to fulfill his or her duties. Life happens, so don’t go into the enterprise with the idea that things will remain in some kind of stasis. People—and things—are always changing. The one constant, the one thing in control, is you.
Become a Trench Worker
Just as you must retain control of your company, you must also be able to fill in for various missing parts. So, yeah, you’re the best, you’re the champ, you’re the master, Frank…but you’re also the lowest common denominator. You’re the one everyone is going to turn to when the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan. Be sure to be prepared.
Become Bill Gates and Steve Jobs
Utilize technology. In publishing, like in science fiction, it’s all about the tech. And I can guarantee you that at least 75% of your company will be reliant on the internet, website traffic, and a huge array of computer programs, everything from word processers and art programs to email programs, website templates, and beyond. If you don’t know your tech, be sure to brush up on the latest advances—and no, playing Mafia Wars on Facebook doesn’t count. Because the day you need to lay out your paperback in a fairly complex and not-very-responsive program like, say, Adobe Pagemaker, nothing you’ve ever done on Facebook is going to prepare you as you descend into tech hell and the barren landscape of the Blue Screen of Death. And don’t rely on your officers to “handle it for you”. They may know less than you do.
Become a Web Spider
Maintain a decent, working, and reliable website to hawk your wares. I highly recommend running WordPress on your web host for high functionality and easy edits, and learning the language of HTML, which is invaluable and a lot easier than you might think. You can learn it in one weekend through free online web tutorials like http://www.htmlgoodies.com/primers/html/. There are also YouTube videos to help you along. Choose a pleasing and professional template. I recommend something from Themify.me. They’re affordable and reliable, and you can customize your playground with just a few clicks. Be sure your website is clean and uncluttered, functional, and looks good on mobile devices. Don’t go for “the free shit” if the “free shit” looks like, well…shit. You may even choose to employ a web designer. Beware, though: they don’t come cheaply and it’s not something you can’t learn yourself in order to save on the cash flow. I’ve been maintaining my own website for years. I don’t need a “webmaster” to run things. I just roll my sleeves up and jump into the world of cascading style sheets. It’s even a little bit fun.
Become a Publisher
Keep in mind that you are now a publisher. And just like with superheroes, with great power comes great responsibility. You can be the friendliest person evah among friends and family, but once you step into the publishing arena, a certain level of professional behavior is now expected from you. People (both potential authors as well as potential customers) will be watching you more than you think, analyzing you, and waiting to see if you succeed or fail, turn out to be a good guy or an assclown. You won’t be able to say or do anything publicly without people judging you based on it. Think before you open your mouth—and think again before you post anything. Remember, the internet is forever. A public forum is no place for a meltdown, no matter how righteously angry (or right) you might be. Also, make an effort to keep a professional distance between yourself and your authors. vendors and other professionals. I’m not saying you can’t meet up and hang out with these folks, but once you become a publisher, you cannot simply un-become a professional whenever it suits you. And remember that familiarity can breed contempt, even among people you might otherwise trust. If you have a bad habit of abusing the free drinks at a convention bar and making a fool of yourself, for instance, you might want to avoid the sauce and retain your dignity. After all, come Monday after a wild weekend, you still need to work with these people.
Become a Human Being
No one likes a little Hitler, so keep in mind that even if your company is doing well, you are not God’s gift to the publishing world, and your word, though maybe trusted and respected, is not the holy gospel. Seriously, you are not all that. There are many others out there just like you, and probably even more successful than you are. Modesty and a humble approach to life is free, and somewhat charming, in my opinion. Developing a certain level of success does not mean you get a free ticket to being obnoxious, overbearing or inhumanely demanding on your people—and definitely not on your authors or customers. Your customers pay your salary, as they say in retail, so respect them (even if they manage to piss you off sometimes). Remember too that it’s a long fall from a very high horse. And usually, once you’re down, the ones you’ve managed to cheese off are standing there, Casino-style, ready to give you a few swift kicks to the ribs. You don’t have to be the publishing world’s little darling, but try to avoid making people love to hate you. Because they will.
Become a Kid
You probably got into this mess because you thought it would be fun—or, at least, more fun than what you were doing before you got this zany notion of being a publisher. Things won’t always be fun, of course, but if your new job is making you completely miserable to the point of wrist cutting, you’re probably in the wrong line of work. Have the honor, good sense, and good decency to get out early and without hurting too many folks. After all, you may wind up doing this for a long, long time. And if you’re not having at least some fun while going at it, what’s the point?
Become a Stand-up Comedian
I try to approach tough challenges with a sense of humor. It doesn’t always work, but it sure does entertain me.
Become a Bank Manager
Let’s face it, we’re in this because R. Kelly was right: money makes the world go round. You don’t need to love it with a crazed Scrooge McDuck dysfunction in order to handle it correctly. And if you can’t, you might want to admit that early on and hire or assign someone who can. Because, otherwise, you won’t be in business for very long.
Become Your Customers
And you won’t be in business for very long if you can’t customize what you have to appeal to your audience, so takes steps to observe your consumers to see what they’re most interested in buying. Keep in mind that the genre or style of book that is selling well right now may or may not be the kind of literature you yourself would normally read. Be flexible. After all, this isn’t about you anymore; this is about consumers. You can be the biggest fan of the smallest thing, but when it comes to selling products, you better have someone there to buy what you’re shilling. Close friends and family are only going to buy so many books. Set personal tastes aside and try to look at things objectively—not only as a professional but also as your own audience. It will open up a whole world of saleable products to you.
Become a Good Businessperson
To wrap this up, I’ll say you need good instincts but also a solid moral compass to navigate you through the turbulent sea of publishing. There will be many temptations along the way. You may feel compelled to be rude to someone being rude to you. You may be tempted to cheat just a little on reported income to the IRS. You may be tempted to explode all over a message board over a trigger you’ve encountered. There will be days when you wake up wondering why you do this, and if there’s some way out of it. You will encounter vendors with no interest in responding to your concerns, authors who may challenge and frustrate you, associates who exasperate you, and programs that will confuzzle and crash on you. It will put up walls between you and other people. It will also tear walls down between you and people you would never otherwise have met or worked with. Every day will be a challenge, a frustration or a victory, but it’s as much the road we’re on as the destination. You can make it a fun and interesting ride, or you can make it the most miserable pilgrimage of your life.
It’s all in your hands, man. So hop to it.
K. H. Koehler is the author of various novels and novellas in the genres of horror, SF, dark fantasy, steampunk and young adult. She is a writer, a geek, a fan, a pet-owner, a dreamer, a professional cover designer, an associate editor at KHP Books and owner of K. H. Koehler Books. The snarkmonster often follows her around, so beware.
Visit her site at http://www.khkoehler.com.