When considering putting up a small press, knowing why you want to is the first order of business. It is easy to romanticize the making of books (and it is certainly a great pleasure to work out of passion) but a small press is part art and part business, and both parts require pretty serious work. But with a clear primary purpose, you could put every little trouble in perspective.
Do you want to produce books because the work of your friends are turned down by other publishers? When you think hard, how certain are you that it’s not a vanity press that you’re making? Do you want to produce books because it’s sort of totally cool?
While I think that there’s always something to be said for creative exuberance and going for it whatever your reason may be, I also believe that some reasons are better than others. For example, putting up a press to publish books that cannot find a home in any existing presses seems like a great reason; in the long and short runs, it benefits all who are interested in books and fresh directions.
Another good reason, to my mind, is a desire to improve upon an aspect of what is currently available. Some writers have put up small presses to elevate the aesthetic qualities of Philippine titles, something that Gilda Cordero Fernando did earlier in her life. Acknowledging that local publications look poorly produced, she put up her own press with a friend that elevated the aesthetics of local titles.
A more recent example of a small press that endeavored to do the same is High Chair, a press that I co-founded (but which I no longer work in); we wanted better paper, more elegant graphics and more artistic covers than the customary. We also wanted, without having articulated it programmatically, the freedom to create poetry books whose pages, in Yeats’s phrase, are bound together by something other than glue: we wanted to produce books with concept, a compositional standard that we share with many other poets of our generation.
This feature essay is a rundown, based mostly on experience, of the challenges that you might face should you put up an independent small press. It follows the structure of the making of a book, so that you might get a better picture of what you’re in for should you pursue book publishing.
The Right Stuff
It’s one thing to put up a press, and quite another to gain access to the manuscripts that you want to publish. As though I should say it, make sure that you have access to the raison d’être of the press: strong work.
One of the challenges that you might face in this area is the fact that most good, practicing authors are already professionally associated with publishing houses. Further, if the author is on the academic track, publication via a small press does not always count in the points-system that some universities employ when promoting teachers. (At the University of the Philippines, for instance, note even books published by the late Tony Hidalgo and current UST Press Director Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo’s Milflores Publishing generate points.)
That you haven’t produced a book before could work against you; as you yourself might think, a press with some history inspires more confidence than one without.
In response, you could supply proof that your press can do a better job in certain areas that authors care much about but that some more established presses might overlook. Given the volume produced by large university presses, they do not consistently have the benefit of devoting an extensive, intensive period of time to design manuscript development; a promise of keener attention is your plus point. But more importantly, trenchant understanding of the author’s body of works carries the most convincing power. And needless to say: a contract, and a pen.
The Game of the Name
Once you know that you do have something to publish, then it’s time to establish what your small press is about. While it is tempting to publish all sorts of books—and certainly nothing and no one is stopping you from doing so—a clear idea of your principles is in order. Your grasp of the rationale of your press is key to deciding what its name and logo will be; it also projects the future of your catalogue. Back when I was still closely involved with High Chair, I wanted to publish the fiction of a writer from La Salle whose work impressed me tremendously; when I brought it up with colleague and poet Mabi David, another co-founder of High Chair, she said “But we’re a poetry press”—and that was that.
No matter how unlikely, challenges in the area of names include the unavailability of the company name. When you register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, they would run the name through their registry—it’s like getting an email username—so be prepared with two variants of the name you would like, if not close second and third choices.
Why register with SEC at all? Because whether it’s a single proprietorship or a non-profit or what have you, without a company backing your publications, there’s no way for you to get the International Standard Book Number (“ISBN”) from the National Library, and the absence of one smacks of unprofessionalism; you want an ISBN. Further, you’ll need SEC registration to issue out official receipts. Certainly you could produce books without proper registration—many people have done so—but if you’re in it for the long haul, the legal paperwork is a must.
Is the Manuscript Ready?
The premise of writing and revision is that anything good could always be made better. That is to say that even if the manuscript is written by a Palanca awardee, neither you or the author (who could be you) should be lax about the quality of the manuscript. Is the manuscript truly ready for publication? Could it be strengthened by the addition or deletion of parts? Does the organizational method of the book articulate the material’s intentions?
The questions above are even more important than mere grammatical editing, a task that almost anyone with some intelligence and a Strunk and White could do. Editing a manuscript with a mind bent on making the strongest book possible, on the other hand, takes patience and critical thought, the ability to see a manuscript without any emotionalized connection to the material or its author.
Some years ago, I visited a friend I went to grad school with at Harvard Press where she worked. While there, I discovered that Harvard Press invests loads of time on multiple meetings, where the general editor meets with the author to discuss the manuscript’s aims, ideas and forms. It’s not that the author is not brilliant—customarily, their authors have gloriously distinguished credentials; it is that, as with an idea for a story or a poem, the finest points, distinctions and observations at times become clear at the later stages. Linger in those later stages! Your job is to get the manuscript in its best possible shape.
Thorough discussions about the book could also include the task of determining who the best blurbers for the book would be. In addition, such discussions produce good copy. Brief descriptions of content that you will need for the back cover and press materials are bound to be accurate if the manuscript receives the attention that it deserves.
Design Matters
The first point of contact between a book and its buyer is the cover. Many presses clutch to their hearts the desire to make each title “stand out” and apart from the crowd of other on bookstores shelves. Except that, as you might suppose, there are as many ways of doing that as there are people, so that I can’t help but stress the value of a book cover that endeavors to capture the idea of the book and that attracts the readers most likely to appreciate it.
Remember that a cover design is not primarily about making a pretty book, nor is it a space for an artist’s self-expression. The cover is visual communication. In other words, the cover must give the reader an attractive glimpse of what’s inside. This work takes wit.
Choosing a font is not a minor task. Experiment on a number of different fonts, and print out studies. Notice how the tonal quality of the text behaves in response. Note how readability changes. Experiment on margins and layouts. Make informed, confident decisions. Later, when you start working with printers, there will be other things to consider: the weight of the paper, the kind of lamination for the cover, and the matter of color accuracy. All these are important in creating a beautiful object that is a pleasure to produce, acquire and enjoy reading—a book that is every page worth the trees cut down to produce it.
And the Word will be Printed
There are hundreds and hundreds of printing presses around, and most of them will promise to have the capabilities to produce the kind of book that you want. However, you must learn to navigate your way past the sales talk. Inspect the printer’s previous work, and check for quality and durability. There’s print-on-demand—God bless them—but I heard that their copies warp after a time; take note of such details.
Printers are often easy to talk with: they want your business. That is to say that if you need to find ways of lowering the cost-per-copy of a book, they should be ready to give you options. Given their experience and techie know-how, they should for instance be able to say, based on the size of the paper, the most economical page size for any project.
Don’t underestimate the rewards of being patient and exhaustive during this part of the process; it could save you a lot of funding resources, and the last thing you want is a book that does not meet anyone’s standards.
The Little Book Will Go to Market
The work of a press doesn’t end once the physical book has been produced. How do you let those who would be interested in the book know that you have produced it? How do you produce sales and what are your goals? How do you make sure that your investment returns, or at least, enough of it to publish the next title?
The usual methods are almost standard practice here. Time and again, hosting a book launch produces positive sales results. Sending a review copy to a newspaper or magazine along with a press release that has been tailored to speak to the publication’s particular readership could be effective. Announcing the birth of the publication in social media does its share of marketing work, and attempting to get the book reviewed—or commissioning a publishable, impartial review of it as a press release—could be beneficial to sales. Finally, entering the book in competitions such as the National Book Awards and other competitions could make a difference.
In marketing and sales, determining your reasonable goals is of utmost importance, because in comparison with other titles, most literary titles don’t do too well in the marketplace. What this means is that if your goal is massive sales, then you must be prepared to create new readers. Explore activities with schools; many have Lit Weeks or reading campaigns. Partner with student and professional organizations. Know who stand to benefit from purchasing your title. Build from there.
In the Philippines where online shopping hasn’t quite become the norm, one of the serious challenges is the relative difficulty of getting titles sold in the biggest bookstore chains. (On-line digital publishing is an option, although currently, a lot of interesting poetry is difficult to present in the format—unless the poetry is in prose.)
While the big bookstores are open to consignments, often their cut per sale puts small presses at a serious financial disadvantage. But no matter. If you have a great, relevant book, trust that it will eventually find its readers.
The Books of the Book
Keep track of the numbers of: copies of first run; copies allotted for the author; copies allotted for reviewers and the press; copies consigned; copies sold; copies stored (and where!). Other important numbers: total expenses on a title (including all production, plus marketing costs), and the net returns of sales. You would do well to project these costs before embarking and maintaining an updated book, as you need these variables to price the title in a way that will cover costs of continued operation.
Brief notes, as per request of the Likhaan website: a High Chair title’s first run is 500 copies. A book launch often produces moderate sales of about 70-100 copies. None of the authors of poetry get paid, because publication by High Chair is a virtual contribution to the continuation of its operation. Its business model resembles that of a cooperative, and it is as non-profit as non-profit gets. For all its intents and purposes, High Chair does its job.
Without Conclusion, a Conclusion
Putting up a small press and keeping it running is a collection of little troubles and little solutions. Abroad, many literary journals and bookstores have closed shop, and even big local publishing houses like Anvil find it challenging to generate movement of literary titles at capitalist speed. Perhaps the local market, in relative terms, is simply too small; perhaps most literary titles rarely capture the interest of the book-buying public. All to say that if you care deeply about good books as I do, the greatest challenge of independent publishing has to do with producing more readers who are always willing to buy books that we intend to keep.
Any new press contributes to the task of casting a wider net. At a professional level, running an independent small press costs as much as running most other businesses. The mental tasks are similar, although the financial investments and returns are conservative. If you can pursue publishing outside a main source of income while remaining true to your standards, the pleasures of facilitating, without compromise, the introduction of a new book out into the world is well worth all the investment, the legwork, and the time.
A graduate of the creative writing programs of the University of the Philippines – Diliman and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Marc Gaba co-founded High Chair, a small press and poetry journal that has been publishing poetry since 2002. Author of the book Have (Tupelo Press, 2011) and 3 chapbooks to date, and and is at work on a third book of poetry while working on plays. New poems are forthcoming from the journals Gulf Coast and The Collected Poems, Also a visual artist, he has shown work through Silverlens’ 20Square Gallery, Art Cabinet Philippines, the National Museum, and Altro Mondo Gallery, which represented his work in the curated Art Fair Philippines 2013. He currently works as a Content Developer for TV5, and as an Editorial Consultant for the National Book Development Board.