Wizard Grits: The Secret Life of the Indie Publisher

I never thought I’d be doing this. I recall sitting in a foxhole as a paratrooper, reading the book of Psalms and thinking, hey, I kinda looove this. I always thought the point of poetry was to confuse.  Thousands of couches later, five books and literary festivals all over the world, I want to take a second to share the addictive effects of writing which led to the strange world of becoming a full on publisher.

For the last ten years I have been launching books of poetry into the world via my press, Write Bloody Publishing, which began as a labor of love for poets I’d meet on the road who only had crappy looking chapbooks to sell. Our first year we sold 40 books. This year we sold over 22,000 physical copies. Our small mode of success all came from “punch in the gut” lessons that led to nuggets of truth. I want to share these with you, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes, as an author or publisher. So you load up on some useful knowledge which can be applied to your own writing or book-producing life.

Write Bloody now has over 100 titles, but when I looked back I realized I blew it, in some way, every single year. As I was mentoring a local young press here in Austin, I realized I have spent many years dumbfounded and naïve in terms of making money at publishing. It shouldn’t take you this long. I don’t want you to have to pull your hair out, sweating over the returned books and bizarre profit margins.

Most of us have the same goal in the indie publishing world of hunting down the unknowns and letting their voice be heard. I hope my chuds and fails, I hope they can help that vision expand. Here are your nuggets.

Make them like the first poem. Every book is a first date. They gotta like the way you look and then see what you’re about.

I spent a lot of time on cover art, hashing it out with the authors and tweaking every little nuance. Don’t do this. Once you have something cool, which means cool enough to suck the eye in and let the book be opened, stick with it. That’s all you want and, even more so, need. Also, don’t let authors choose cover artwork. They are talented but don’t speak the language of design. Learn the language of design so the cover artist isn’t pulling their hair out when you say, “It doesn’t pop,” or, “There’s too much orange going on.” Work with authors and ask them their current favorite covers, but don’t let them grind you down when they might not even be sure of what they want. There will always be tiny changes that DO NOT MATTER or help the movement, mood, or sale of the book. Put it in the contract that authors can comment but the final design will be determined by publisher. Authors don’t have a clear idea that time equals money and the more edits they make to the art will not increase the sales of the book, or the “wow” of the cover. Tinkering will grind down your budget fast. You can also just save a ton of money and do a minimal approach like Wave books to cover art. Their books look great, and they show their great taste in author selection with great font design.

Make them like the first poem. Every book is a first date. They gotta like the way you look and then see what you’re about. If the cover looks good and the first poem rules, you have sold a book. It isn’t always like that. 50 Shades of Grey has a horrible gloss cover with no spatial design or fascinating color palette. They still sold a ton of books. But if you are struggling in a tiny market like poetry or short fiction, your covers have to rule.

I know what works, but I am not good at texturing and adding dimension in Illustrator. I hire freelancers and hunt them down if I like another cover, or a rock poster. If design isn’t your strong suit, don’t skimp on hiring someone to do the cover, but don’t hire the most expensive. Make talented friends.

You will have some bigger sellers than others. I have learned, as author and publisher, that the bigger sellers love the people. They have long lines to get books signed after an event, and they sign something unique in each one. At the end of the Sarah Kay reading at AWP, there were over 120 people in line. We learned to have a handler prepping the names, a money taker, and the author sitting to sign. The handler keeps the conversations down to 30 seconds max. The book becomes a souvenir of the reading, and you gain a life long fan once it is signed.

Use this to your advantage. Do you have an author that can be funny, tell stories and be moving? Put them on the road. Our bigger sellers were champions of the road. They didn’t oversaturate their hometowns. They did a great huge book release party at home and then hit the libraries, theaters, house shows, and slams of the U.S.

The big sellers, before we signed them, had a website, press kit, press photo, mailing list, and merch. They had merch beyond just their book on the road. Cool hand towels with sayings on them, book bags, posters, koozies. It all made the road a place to make money, instead of just a promotional money dump by the press.

We tried to run a booking agency, and financially it wasn’t doable. We realized we can’t pay for the tours. But we realized that telling the author to hit the road did something to the touring author: If they didn’t put on a good live reading, they wouldn’t sell books, and thus wouldn’t be able to afford the hotel room or a good meal, and then would be tired for the next reading. Every reading, all of sudden, really matters. Being on time matters. Being nice to promoters and signing books matters. The audience begins to feel like the author gives a shit about being there, and they are often rewarded financially and with a lasting fan-base.

The constant tricky decision and choice that can make or break a press came up this year: Do we order 1000 copies and pay 2 bucks a book in China, or order 250 for 3.90 a book and print IN THE USA? You aren’t sure how long it will take to move 1000 copies. One mis-step, where you hire three new authors and all the books tank and take too long to make back the money can fold and shut down a press. It was important for us to print in the USA. We had to pay more but we also get to hold our head up higher. And the smaller quantity meant less profit, but less risk. Less risk is key in the beginning. This was so important. We also only had a storage unit for the copies so less was better and the slow growth meant we didn’t need a loan.

We used to pay quarterly. Big mistake for a small press. You should only pay royalties once a year. Books have returns. I was paying out money that didn’t exist—meaning that I should’ve waited to see how the year played out, January to December, and then waited 4-5 months due to the delay in returned books showing up. I used to pay an author for their sales of 200 books and that money was gone. 5 months later 120 of those copies would come back as destroyable returns but I had already paid out the money on 200 like an idiot. I had no idea when I started that if a book is opened and there’s a crease on the spine, that book is no longer sellable if returned. The glue makes it an awful recycle option. This was the year we cut into our profits a little more by using Eco-Libris to plant trees for the first run of books. It was a good lead to drumming up press for our publishing house, and the authors thought it was badass. It never made us get more sales, but it felt good.

2007 was the year I knew we needed better distribution. I had no idea how to cold call a distributor, one that had a sales team and hit all the trade shows for us. I thought distribution made you rich. I found out that amazon takes 50% and a distributor takes 27%. They wanted to see three years of accounting records before they would sign us. A big mistake was that I kept no records. I paid my taxes, but couldn’t show growth. The distributor told me to not get my hopes up, because most poetry titles they had didn’t sell. I became determined to keep better records and hire an accountant to help me keep monthly records. It was a hard time for poetry book sales. Bookstores were folding. I found that collecting money myself from 50 bookstores across the USA was a nightmare. The manager wasn’t in, some books might have been stolen, the check is delayed, etc.

Some writing is for the journal and stays asleep. Some is purely for the book. Some is for the book that sounds wonderful out loud. Find those pieces and create a relationship where you are on the audience’s side.

I also found out this year that shipping grinds you down. If you ship 200 books a year, no problem. If you start shipping 500 a year, it steals 8 hours out of every week. I found U-Line and they can send bubble mailers next day way cheaper than Staples or OfficeMax, and I started using Endicia, a program that helps with labels, printing shipping labels, and storage of addresses. I tried having a third party ship, but there were a lot of mistakes. I for sure needed distribution to handle it all.

Have a debrief when an author comes back from the road. Find out which cities and readings sucked or ruled. Ask if they want to tour with others. You make more money alone, but it can wear you out. I recommend touring with one or two authors max, so you can stay in one hotel room and save dough. It also gives you more stage time, which leads to more book sales.

When you do a reading, if you are at a venue with an open mic, or other readers and folks are drinking, 25 minutes is plenty. An hour is good if you are a headliner at a college and are famous. Adjust your set once you are there. What if the mood is grim and you planned all your fart haiku’s based on Eileen Myles’ Peanut Butter poem? Adjust your set, wear a watch or set your cell phone stopwatch on. NEVER ASK IF YOU CAN DO JUST ONE MORE. If there’s a standing ovation, you don’t need to ask, just do it. Have that piece planned. Never say thanks for coming out. Never say “are you still with me?” It is not your job to express yourself, and if they don’t get it, fuck ‘em. It is your job to make them know. Make them know. Some writing is for the journal and stays asleep. Some is purely for the book. Some is for the book that sounds wonderful out loud. Find those pieces and create a relationship where you are on the audience’s side. They do not need your enlightenment. They are honoring you with their time, sometimes money. Do not shit on them. Every time you do, you shit on the next 100 writers that have to fight to change their minds.

You will get hate mail from scorned writers that don’t realize that your position of power as a publisher is miniscule. They will think you have all the cards and aren’t being fair. Let them go on. When sending rejection letters, make suggestions for where else you appreciate as a press.

For us we have a mission: We know most folks think poetry is a drag and we are determined, as long as our family of authors have the energy to keep going, to change an audience’s minds and let them know that a great line of poetry is a bullet and a novel is a slow strangle.

When you get distribution, you will need to put around 100 of each title in stock, more for the hot titles. Get that money ready ahead of time if all your records for growth in 3 years looks right on.

We were asked to make ebooks. Ebooks are only 10 percent of our profit. Poetry is different. People want to smell poetry books and rub them on their butts. They want to crack them, dog ear, and rip apart and put them onto their bulletin boards. This is beautiful.

Amazon is a beast. But the public loves it. We link all our titles to only Powells.com, but most our sales still come from Amazon. They have a new rule where if your distributor runs out of stock, they will reject orders. Keep your stock hot and up to date. Strange things will occur where you didn’t know you were out of stock because a book store snatched up a load suddenly. You will be playing constant chess regarding having some money, needing to buy book stock, and not having the actual money for 6 months. Hopefully you have a financial wizard on your team. Or a real wizard made of grits.

Why am I still making books after ten years of struggle and unforeseen obstacles? Why are any of us in the indie lit world pushing up against the behemoth of the mainstream publishers? Is it a war? Is it a winnable war? Is it a war worth winning? I think we have a little something extra. For us we have a mission: We know most folks think poetry is a drag, and we are determined, as long as our family of authors have the energy to keep going, to change an audience’s minds and let them know that a great line of poetry is a bullet and a novel is a slow strangle. To show them the evidence that poetry is working class. Poetry is the future of lit. Its power is becoming common and greater. I can feel it.

swiss_derrick_061109DERRICK C. BROWN is the winner of the 2013 Texas Book of The Year award for Poetry. He is a former paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne and is the president of one of what Forbes and Filter Magazine call “…one of the best independent presses in the country,” Write Bloody Publishing. He is the author of four books of poetry. The New York Times calls his work “…a rekindling of faith in the weird, hilarious, shocking, beautiful power of words.”

Word From the Editor

I knew that being the editor of Lunch Ticket would require filling some pretty big shoes, but it wasn’t until I was directing the journal that I fully understood the extent of what that implied: it wasn’t just a matter of successfully leading a staff of almost 40 volunteers, but of building upon what the editor before me had established. The goal of that structure, though, wasn’t just to stitch together various pieces of writing and art that we thought were good, and call it our latest issue. The goal of that structure was to curate a publication that mattered.

But who am I to say what matters? And who are we to say that our publication matters? Well, that’s a great question. But hear me out, and then decide for yourself—because that, I think, is the point.

As it is affiliated with Antioch University Los Angeles, Lunch Ticket has a social justice-oriented mission. Accordingly, we seek to publish work that pushes this agenda. But how does a piece do that?

Pieces that are social justice-minded show a capacity for the moral imagination. That doesn’t mean it has to be sugar and rainbows—in fact, it tends to be the opposite: they ask the hard questions; they look issues squarely in the eye that people generally shy away from; and they tell the reader that they now have to make a conscious choice. The reader, once the piece has been put down, has been made aware of things through a point of view not necessarily their own, and must take newfound responsibility for the way they act in relation to all others. These pieces are simply trying to make sense of the world, but they do so in a way that reveals something about the state of humanity that forces us to make a choice about it, whether personal or extra-personal, because we find that it isn’t necessarily the world itself that has to be made sense of but the people inhabiting it. And as such the effects of that choice ripple outwards. These pieces close the gap between what is you and what is not you; and in so doing, their purposes pass from simply invoking feeling to having true meaning.

Therefore, I think it matters what a piece of art, in general, has to say. The pieces in this issue, then, as with all others, aren’t just shouting into a void or adding to the noise: people are listening. And I think they listen more carefully than we give them credit for.

David Bumpus