Reality of Starting a New Publishing Company

We all live in two worlds, the world of Lake Wobegon and the real world. Lake Wobegon is a great place to relax, but business happens in the real world where people lie, cheat and steal. If a company you do business with cheats and steals, it's time to call a lawyer. The lying part often has more to do with ignorance, incompetence or laziness than intent to defraud you, and what may appear to you as fraud may actually be a case of caveat emptor, being sold a bill of goods. One of my favorite movie lines of all time comes from "The Long Hot Summer" in which Paul Newman tells Joanne Woodward something to the effect of - "Life is long and full of salesmanship." Starting a new publishing company is a process in which you're going to be sold some services that aren't going to meet your expectations, unless your expectations are very realistic indeed.

The "real world" situation I'm describing above applies all the more to new publishing companies and self publishers because we are very small fish in the publishing ocean. In Lake Wobegon, it wouldn't make a difference to the printer or the bookstore whether you are starting out with 100 copies of one title or 10,000 copies of 100 titles. In reality, it makes all the difference in the world. The customer service rep you deal with as a new publisher, working with a business for whom you don't represent even 1 hundredth of one percent of their current sales, may be even newer at their job than you are. They may not know the answers to the questions you are asking, they may not be able to do High School level math. The things they tell you may turn out to be untrue, but they aren't necessarily lying, they're just poorly trained. The good customer service reps get promoted over time to work with the good (ie, BIG) customers.

It's not fair, from your standpoint, it is fair from their standpoint. I've heard from new publishers who expect hand-holding from every vendor they deal with, when the profit on the business they are bringing that vendor won't pay for an hour of the customer service rep's time. In other words, you're asking them to lose money on you, because you see it as being necessary overhead for their business. They might not agree. The most frequent argument I hear from new publishers who believe they have logic on their side is, "I may become a big publisher one day." You may, you may not, the odds are on their side that you won't. The odds are also on their side that if you do become a big publisher, you'll put aside your personal feelings and deal with them if they can give you the best value for your money. Another movie classic you may recognize, "Tell Mike it was business, not personal."

If you're starting a publishing company and you're sensitive about the way you'll be treated, you may be best off working with a new printer or a new distributor. They're desperate for your business and will treat you like a big customer because to them, you are. The problem is, you won't get the benefits of working with a business partner who has national clout, one who all the bookstores deal with, one whose systems will treat your books just like everybody else's books, for better or for worse. Don't confuse customer service with service, there's almost no connection between the two. The service you are paying for is the printing, distribution, etc, that is detailed in the agreement you sign. A reputable company will make good on mistakes they make, but don't expect them to be polite or apologetic about it. You're just another new publisher.

I usually try to candy-coat this sort of advice a little, but I was inspired by a nice "Thank You" from a new publisher today who accepted my "reality check" and advice to count his blessings rather than attacking me as a corporate apologist. The truth is, I'm as likely as the next guy in the bar to rant about corporate incompetence and greed, but I'm convinced that fighting City Hall every step of the way is a bad way to start a new publishing company. If your personality is all about the "I'll show them who they're dealing with" thing, then knock yourself out, but be aware that they don't have to deal with you. They don't have to accept your business, respond to your e-mail or voice mail, or give you satisfaction for anything that falls outside that signed contract. All you're accomplishing is burning your bridges, and there are relatively few bridges open to new publishers who are trying to make a living at publishing rather than throwing money at a cause.

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