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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Independent Publishers: How do they survive?

Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-28

Untitled Document

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? I put these questions to Moira Richards and Norman Darlington, joint proprietors of Darlington Richards Press.

Moira, Norman, 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?

Moira lives in a small South African town, Norman lives in rural Ireland, and although we’ve never met in person, we’ve been working together for some years now – collaborating on renku poems, sharing information and thoughts on renga/renku, book and article resources, and managing online renku exploration spaces such as The Renku Group.

We’ve both had extensive experience over the past decade or so, editing a variety of online and print publications and, in particular, the renku sections of various journals. By the end of 2009 it had become very apparent to us both that there was a need in the world for a print publication in English devoted exclusively to the old Japanese renga/renku poetry genre.

By the time Journal of Renga & Renku demanded to be born, it was nothing more than a natural progression for us to form Darlington Richards Press and to take on the project together. Serendipitously we had, at the same time, opportunity to publish Hortensia Anderson’s haibun collection, The Plenitude of Emptiness, which gave us a chance to get experience of publishing with a small book before taking on the far more extensive and complex project which is Journal of Renga & Renku.

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?

Journal of Renga & Renku (our primary project) is a substantial publication, especially in terms of poetry journals – it’s A4 page size and about 200 pages in extent. Print-on-demand helps us keep stationery, postage and storage costs to a minimum and we donate our time and expertise to the project, as do the journal’s contributors. We’re never going to make a living out of the business, but it’s costing us no money.

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?

We published a poetry collection, Hortensia Anderson’s The Plenitude of Emptiness, and the first issue of Journal of Renga & Renku during 2010.

Hortensia is widely admired for her work in the haibun form and we knew there would be a lot of interest in her book, and we also had a pretty good idea how to reach the people who would want to buy copies of it. We market The Plenitude of Emptiness via our website as well as with a Facebook page. Her collection has also had deservedly excellent reviews published in some half-dozen or so journals.   

The inaugural issue of Journal of Renga & Renku was very well received, and again, we have a pretty good idea of who our target market is and how to reach them. Our print-and-post-on-demand partner, lulu.com, makes it very easy for us to sell and distribute to all parts of the world and we’ve sold copies of the journal in Japan and the Antipodes as well as in a number of European countries and across north America. University professors and university libraries are a particularly good source of sales, which means the journal is likely getting more than one reader per copy.

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 renga/renku poetry genre is largely invisible, particularly in the English-speaking world of literature. If we weren’t publishing contemporary, as well as translations of classical, renga/renku poetry and scholarly articles on the subject, then probably there’d be nothing much available about the genre other than some contemporary work in a few online literary journals.

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?

A good partnership is a good partnership and Darlington Richards Press is a great way for us to pursue our shared renga/renku poetry interests, and is also great fun. If a big publishing house wanted to buy us out? With all modesty, there are probably very few people in the English-speaking literary world who have as much knowledge of classical and contemporary renga/renku as we hold between the two of us – if someone wanted to buy Journal of Renga & Renku and pay us a salary to do this work, that’d be wonderful, but we’re not holding our breath. J 

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 second issue of JRR is due out at the end of 2011 (it’s an annual publication) and we’ve a couple of book manuscripts in mind for the near future, depending on our time resources.

The first issue of JRR has been indexed in the Modern Language Association (MLA) International Bibliography’s Directory of Periodicals and that information is due to appear online in July 2011.

The Association for Asian Studies also approached us, expressing their interest to index JRR articles in their online Bibliography of Asian Studies. We expect that listing to appear online towards the end of this year too.

Both the above listings should increase awareness of our journal and of Darlington Richards Press. Meanwhile we’re working very hard – through social media like Facebook, articles in literary journals, and anything else we can think of – to make a concerted effort to raise the profile of the renga/renku genre itself, especially in mainstream literary circles, where there is still very little known about it.

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?

We tend to scout around and look for work that we think needs to be published and publicised. JRR, for which we put out an annual call for content, includes a large proportion of material that we’ve actively sought out and solicited from authors.

Once we’ve secured permissions we sort through other content offers to sequence and build a cohered and balanced volume of work for the journal. We source artwork to complement the text and after designing and proofing and proofing and proofing, we create individual shots on Scribd of every completed page/contribution to send to each author for final checking and approvals.

It’s a lot of hectic to and fro communication between the two of us at year’s end, and particularly so last year when Ireland was snowed in with no rural internet access for a couple of weeks. We ended up having lots of very succinct editorial meetings via sms!    

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

We maintain very close contact with our market and to date we’ve not determined a demand for any format other than hardcopy, even though we make a lot of use of Scribd for proofing copy and marketing previews/excerpts: tinyurl.com/preview-jrr1. Our print-on-demand-and-delivery solution, lulu.com, does allow us to offer our products in pdf and e-book format as well as in hardcopy and we’ll probably explore softcopy alternatives at some stage sooner rather than later.

Do you get 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?

We’ve made (unsuccessfully) one or two funding applications, but continue to look out for anything suitable – it’d be great to at least be in a position to purchase reprint rights for some copy and to offer contributor copies.

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

Yes! Anyone wondering about venturing into independent publishing, go for it – it’s much more doable than it might seem (especially if you have a great partner), it’s lotsa fun, and you really can make a contribution to the world of words, albeit just a tiny mark.