The business of small presses: 4 things we learnt the hard way

The business of small presses: 4 things we learnt the hard way

It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that we’re in the middle of a golden age for small press publishing. In just the last few years, the UK has seen the launch of 404 Ink, Silver Press, Dead Ink, Charco Press, Dodo Ink and many others. Small presses are ‘doing the heavy lifting’ in publishing BAME writers, and are more visible and more successful than in decades, largely due to their ability to exploit the verticalization of audiences and unbundling of publishing services enabled by the internet.

When you decide to start a small press, however, nobody gives you an operating manual. You’re building something from scratch, often without publishing experience, and trying to compete in a crazy business with insane cashflow standards and giant incumbents. Too much writing about small presses elides the unglamorous business side, so we decided to share a few things we’ve learnt in our first year at Tilted Axis Press.

1. Hardbacks are risky and unnecessary

Publishing a novel is difficult enough to start with, so why double your inventory risk by producing both hardback and paperback editions? With a few exceptions, we’ve found publishing B-format paperbacks from day one has made our print runs larger, kept our costs down, allowed us to price our ebooks more competitively, and set us up perfectly for future POD plans. Here are sales curves for two of our paperbacks:

Sales curves for two Tilted Axis paperbacks

As you can see, sales remain pretty healthy even six months after publication. To the people who question whether publishing in paperback only affects our ability to get books into Waterstones, I can point to their decision to scale out our recent title The Sad Part Was – a book of translated short stories, no less! – to hundreds of stores. (Thanks, Waterstones!)

Nobody has ever asked us ‘why don’t Tilted Axis do hardbacks’? That is because the majority of readers, even literary readers, don’t care whether they’re reading a beautiful hardback or a scruffy used paperback. (Nobody has ever asked me for French flaps, either, but that’s a different story…)

2. You really do need printed proofs

We started out imagining we could save money by not printing proofs. Everyone in the business has a Kindle, we thought, so we’ll just create a secret website for epub and mobi proofs, and reviewers can sideload the files. Easy and cheap, right?

Reader, this was naïve. As it turns out, plenty of reviewers won’t take you seriously if you don’t send them a printed proof. Most professional readers just don’t like ebooks – a problem I’ve written about previously in the context of literary awards – and if you can’t get over that first hurdle you’ll be ignored, no matter how good your stuff is. We know that Panty didn’t get as much critical attention as it should’ve because we didn’t print any proofs – a mistake we’re going to rectify with Abandon, our second book from Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, whose proofs will be abundant.

3. Returns aren’t as scary as you think

I used to work in a bookshop where a significant proportion of stock got returned – maybe ten or twenty percent. When we started planning Tilted Axis’s first print runs, I anticipated a return rate of twenty to thirty percent. After all, I thought, nobody knows much about our books, so how will booksellers be able to sell them all?

I was hugely pleased to see that this fear was largely unfounded. To this day, Tilted Axis’s returns rate is a staggering one percent. This should not have surprised me, really: booksellers are good at their jobs! But it speaks to staggering efficiency gains in distribution, as well as perhaps an increasing preference to discount old stock rather than return it, which is best for everyone involved.

4. You have to get direct sales right

Tilted Axis revenue by channel

Where would translation presses be without subscriptions and direct sales? We started out deliberately trying to avoid becoming reliant on subscription revenue: we wanted to reach new readers in stores, as well as people who already knew about us. But we also knew that lots of readers want to buy subscriptions or bundles, so I spent a few days building a nice Squarespace site with integrated ecommerce, and everything else is handled by Stripe. We even get Slack notifications when we make a sale! Hanging onto the retail margin means we can afford to subsidise shipping, making international sales more feasible and allowing us to offer free shipping on domestic sales. To this day, direct sales concluded through our website make up nearly a third of our revenue. And that’s pretty sweet.

There is nothing quite as exhilarating and terrifying as starting a small press, but there’s never been a better time to do so, and if you’re thinking about it, I urge you to give it a go. Just don’t forget the old joke:

Q: How do you make a small fortune in publishing?

A: Start with a large fortune.

If you want to chat about the business side of small press publishing, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.