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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Independent Publishers: How do they survive?


Janet van Eeden - 2011-09-20

For some years I’ve wondered how on earth publishers survive in this less than literary country. Perhaps the one or two bestsellers like Spud can make up for the years of publishing books which won’t necessarily do as well. Then I began to think about independent publishers. How on earth do they manage to make ends meet when they have no back-up or a large stable of books to carry them through the tough times? put these questions to Robin Malan, sole proprietor of Junkets Publisher.   

Robin, can you tell us a bit about your publishing house? What did you set out to achieve when you started publishing and how long have you been going?

Junkets Publisher started as a one-off. In 2005 I had written Rebel Angel, a novel based on the life of the poet John Keats. I didn’t offer it to any of the mainstream publishers because I believed that at that particular time they should be publishing South African material, not books about British poets. But it had things to say to young people in South Africa, so I wanted to get it out there. Self-publishing that book was a great experience, really enjoyable. Stupidly, I printed more copies than I could possibly sell (though the Keats House museum in Hampstead has proved a very steady customer over six years!); eventually I gave away 300 copies to high school libraries just to clear my shelves.

The name I chose for this self-publishing venture was Junkets. When Keats’s first editor, Leigh Hunt, asked the unknown young poet what his initials JK stood for, Keats told him his name, in his distinctive inherited West Country accent. Hunt immediately said, “Oh, Jun-Kets, is it? Well, then, Junkets it shall be!” Whenever Keats wrote to Leigh Hunt he signed himself “John Keats alias Junkets”; and it’s his autograph signature that is the Junkets Publisher logo.

A couple of years later, in 2007, I was upset that some really good, adventurous new South African plays were being staged … and then simply disappeared! I decided to produce low-cost high-quality playscripts. Where possible, these would serve as programmes as well, to be sold in the foyer of the theatre where the play was playing. That relieved me of that ogre that sits on the shoulders of small independent publishers: the dreaded Distribution Monster.

The Playscript Series has grown and prospered. Junkets won the Arts & Culture Trust Excellence Award for Literature in 2009; there are now 18 playscripts in the series, making up a presentable library of new South African plays; and now Junkets has ventured into The Collected Series, anthologies of plays. The first of these is SA Gay Plays 1: the Artscape Dublin Festival plays. The second and third are in production right now, with a publication date of 1st December, 2011: Short, Sharp & Snappy 1 and 2: Southern African plays for high schools. The fourth in The Collected Series will be The Magnet Theatre “Migration” Plays, due out in February 2012.

How viable is it to be an independent Publisher? Large publishers have a huge stock of books to cushion them if one or two of their titles fail, but you don’t. Can you survive financially just by small-scale publishing on its own?

I certainly can’t survive financially, not publishing plays! Unless it’s the occasional Fugard or John Kani or Zakes Mda, no mainstream publisher risks publishing plays. It’s a very small niche. I’m constantly dipping into my own pocket for this or that. I have been very lucky to receive some funding on two occasions from the Cape 300 Foundation, and also on two occasions from the Arts & Culture Trust. But my publishing model with the playscripts is a pretty peculiar one: the author or production company and Junkets share all the expenses of production equally, on a 50-50 basis, and then share any takings on the same 50-50 basis. So it costs me half as much as it might; but I get back only half as much as I might. Whenever there is a small profit, it goes straight into the production of the next book.

How many books have you published? Which ones were your most successful? Could you tell us the numbers of copies sold, and so on, of your most successful publication?

The number of books: 18 playscripts, one novel (Rebel Angel), one collection (Yes, I am! Writing by South African gay men, co-compiled with Ashraf Johaardien) , one handbook (The Young Gay Guys Guide to Safer Gay Sex, text by me, drawings by Roberto Millan, book design by Marius Roux of mrdesign) , four anthologies of plays in The Collected Series (one out, two in production, one forthcoming).

The most successful? Of the playscripts, Mike van Graan’s Green Man Flashing  has been prescribed for the IEB Grade 12 examinations in 2011 and 2012; and Nicholas Spagnoletti’s London Road has been internally prescribed by a couple of schools. Way out in front, though, is the collection of gay writing, Yes, I am! That’s sold on the way to a thousand copies.

It does, of course, depend on what you mean by “successful”. The Young Gay Guys Guide cost me a hefty R40 000 to produce, with no funding from anywhere; but I did secure two funders for the mass printing and free distribution of the little book: the Aids Foundation of South Africa (AFSA) (through their funders The Royal Netherlands Embassy) and Triangle Project. This means that 14 000 copies were printed and have been widely disseminated through Triangle Project’s outreach programmes in the townships and housing estates on the Cape Flats and up the West Coast, as well as through AFSA’s work in far-flung rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal. So, financially very heavy for me, but hugely successful in its outcome.

What are the attractions of small independent publishers? What can you offer in terms of marketing and so on that larger publishing houses can’t?

The major attraction for me is that I can, and do, publish whatever I like, how I like, and when I like. I’m accountable to no one except myself. I don’t have any Beeg Marketing Manager breathing down my neck, saying, “This book won’t sell, we can’t publish it.”

Marketing … I do virtually none, in the conventional sense. I announce new books to a few independent bookshops that regularly stock my titles, and even a number of Exclusive Books stores. (Because of the efforts of one particular manager, I achieved the elevated status of an Exclusive Books Registered Vendor.) I do no paid advertising, except occasionally in outlets like New Contrast or English Alive.

What I do do is a lot of e-mail interaction and – especially with Yes, I am! – Facebook networking. I have early-bird discount pre-order schemes for some titles; even e-mail competitions that offer free copies and keep the books in people’s consciousness.

If a larger publishing house offered to buy you out – if those things actually happen! – do you think you would take up their offer? If not, why not?

Well, no, because what would I do then? If I haven’t sussed what “being retired” is by now, at age 71, I’m certainly not going to learn it any time soon. So, for now, I will resist any attempts at “agglomeration”.

What plans do you have for the future of your publishing house? Is there any particular style of book you’d like to continue publishing instead of others?

The Collected Series is a new departure from the single playscripts, and I have a feeling that I might develop it further. So far I have stayed true to my original concept of publishing only new South African plays. But I have been asked by a number of very well-established playwrights to publish collections of their plays. I have resisted so far, as it would mean spanning their whole careers and so publishing plays that are not new. I would need to create a kind of “Archive Series”, I suppose. I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.

I certainly want to expand my gay-interest books. So far there’s the collection of short pieces, and the handbook; and seven of the playscripts have gay interest. I’d like to publish a gay novel some time soon. Haven’t quite found it yet. (I have been offered quite a number of memoirs, but they’re not the same thing.)

Another offer I’ve had is from AFSA to collaborate with them on a whole series of small books in the mould of The Young Gay Guys Guide, addressing various issues such as circumcision, puberty, a lesbian guide, and so on. Sounds very exciting, so I’m exploring that with them.

Could you describe to the readers of LitNet the process you go through once you have decided to publish a manuscript? I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of publishing a book yourself. How do you do it?

I do a rough basic formatting of the text to conform to the Junkets “house style” as it has evolved over the 18 playscripts. Then I send it off to a proofreader, Elaine Davie. When it comes back I do a detailed check-through of the text. I send it off to the typesetter, Jo-Anne Friedlander of User Friendly. I ask the printer, Dion Martin and Siseko Sodlaka of Digital Print Solutions, for an interim quotation, more or less guessing the number of pages. The cover designer and I start talking about the cover: for the playscripts this may be based on the poster or on rehearsal photographs of the production. I get first pages back from the typesetter, and I proofread those very carefully. The typesetter and I spend time going through those: either we do it on Skype, or I visit Jo-Anne and she lets me sit beside her and we work through the corrections onscreen. I’ll then see second and third proofs. By now we will have a definite number of pages, and so I ask the printer for an exact quotation. The final version of the play is sent to the author or to the production company for checking – with the hope (sometimes forlorn) that there won’t be too many changes. With playscripts, any change can affect the page breaks, and so one sometimes has to work through the whole text again, page by page. In this way the process of refinement goes back and forth until we’re all happy with everything. Delivery date is fixed; books arrive; there’s always the excitement of taking the first one out of the box to give it a look-over – and, alas, to see who’s first to spot the one minute typo that got away!

Do you think e-books will take revenue from publishers large and small? Do you see yourself continuing to publish hard copy books in the light of the e-book phenomenon?

In my field, e-books are no threat at all. No one is going to buy an e-book in a theatre foyer, and you can’t rehearse or present a staged reading using e-books! All of our books are available as e-books from Lightning Source. But the revenue accrued from them is less than minimal, if such a thing is possible.

Do you get any financial aid from any of the arts councils? Do you put up your own money to get a book out? How can you tell if a book has a good chance of selling?

I’ve never tried getting funding from a state source. I think I’m daunted by the stories of how nightmarish the application process is! Yes, I often give Junkets Publishers a “capital injection” from my pocket. You have a general intuition about whether a book will sell. Sometimes it works and you have to do a reprint or two. Sometimes it bombs – we decided we were safe to print 250 copies of a play with over 20 performances in a 400-seat theatre, and by the end of the run we had sold precisely 28 copies!

Anything else you’d like to add about independent publishers that you think we should know about? 

Just that, in our own small way, we are a force to be reckoned with! We’re doing a job that mainstream publishers don’t do. Look at Snailpress / Carapace Poets / Modjaji Books / Botsotso / Dye Hard Press: all successful in our own small ways, and all doing adventurous stuff the big boys wouldn’t risk.