Taking a gamble with local publishing

Publisher Ken Jaikaransingh paints grim picture of Caribbean book market, reports Michelle Loubon for Trinidad’s Guardian.

Caribbean writers like VS Naipaul have penned Miguel Street and Wine of Astonishment by Earl Lovelace. Characters like ‘Man Man’ and ‘Mother Eva’ remain etched in readers’ minds. But before a bibliophile can curl up in bed with their favourite book of poetry, the author has to get the work published. Publisher Ken Jaikaransingh painted a grim picture of the local market. He identified factors such as literacy and supply and demand which influenced the publishing industry.

He had shared some of these sentiments at a seminar on publishing hosted by Bocas Literary Fest at Nalis Library, Port-of-Spain recently. Other panelists were UK-based Barbara Busby and Jeremy Poynting. Jaikaransingh said: “The market is not large enough to encourage or sustain someone who would want to publish fiction or poetry. The fact is it is hard and cruel. The textbooks work in favour of the text book publisher, but it does not work the same way for the publisher of poetry or fiction.”

He added: “They could invest a fair amount of money and be reasonably confident he would earn his input with the textbooks.” For example, it you want to publish a biography on a politician, you can’t make the prediction it would sell. “You can never tell how many people would buy the book. You won’t know how many buy at a particular price point. This is the challenge a lot of local publishers face. The point of intersection between the supply and demand. It is becoming hard to predict.” Reverting to the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jaikransingh noted “20 per cent of books on a publishing list supported the other 80 per cent that didn’t break even back in the 70s and 80s. That was the ratio.”

‘Less likely to recover costs’

Although the publisher might be willing to take a gamble, Jaikaransingh said the risks involved were “becoming extremely difficult and precarious.”The grim reality was “the more money you put toward promoting a book the less likely you are to cover your costs.” Jaikaransingh cited the example of someone wishing to produce the “next best Caribbean cookbook.” Jaikaransingh identified many factors which have to be taken into account. He said: “You have to check out the market. What price do we need? Do we need to put it in colour? If we put it in full colour, what are the costs of colour photography? Do we need to get a celebrity person like a Wendy Rahamut to write a chapter or submit a recipe?

He cited a potential quotation from the printing press. “It might range between one and 500. If we work out the cost is $100,000 for 1,000 books. You would work out the cost of producing it is $100. To make back the money ($100,000) we need to get back $100.” He added: “It is not taking into consideration the cost of money factor. “Should I put it in the book or invest it in real estate?” Jaikaransingh identified other attendant costs like marketing and promotions. It might entail a flyer, book launch or Let’s Meet The Author.

“You would not walk around Trinidad with your cookbook. You have to give a percentage to your chain of supply. The standard is minimum 25 per cent to the bookshops. “Where are you going to keep the books? Are you going to keep it under the bed or warehouse the books? “Who is going to pay for books that are damaged on transit?” These niggling details, including the author’s royalties, impact upon the ultimate retail price. He said: “If a book costs $100 to produce that book would not retail for anything less than $200. The author has to be paid a royalty. “If you work out the numbers, you would have to be extremely careful you don’t end up losing $100,000.”

Publishing in T&T

Jaikaransingh said: It’s a business, it’s like any other business.” He said: “A publisher is like an entrepreneur. In the purest sense of publishing, in the old days, an author would write a book. They would go to the printer and the printer would print. The author became his own publisher and he would pay people to walk around England. An author would go to the printery and the printer would finance it and say: “ I would take money as it comes along.” He said two types of publishing exist locally.

Jaikaransingh added: “An author would say, ‘I have a book but I don’t have the money.’ The printer would say I would finance you along the way. The whole publishing industry has evolved into publisher and investor. The publisher would take the writer’s work and get it designed, edited and marketed. It’s an all inclusive kind of business.” In contemporary times, small publishing houses are run by accountants. They are thinking in terms of dollars and cents.

“Financial people would not publish a book unless the numbers make sense to them. They are the guardians of other people’s monies. Hardly anybody would want to publish a book, if they don’t recover some investment for their shareholders.” He has also seen the advent of segmented publishing. It caters to specific genres including classics, coffee tables, textbooks and higher education books. Jaikaransingh said: “Today, you have huge publishing houses…conglomerates. They are publishing anything from academia, comics and journals. In an ironic kind of way that happens in T&T. One or two publishers are multi-segmented.”

Publishing tips for budding writers

Jaikaransingh also shared some sound advice.

• Begin with the assumption that you are not going to make a living from writing

• Get other people’s opinions about your writing

• Get a lot of critical input

• Some writers have a high regard for their writing without realising it isn’t what it is

•Be realistic about the expectations

(There are only one or two writers like the Derek Walcotts and Earl Lovelaces)

• You are lucky if you make it

• Hone your skills—by reading and “reading intelligently”

• Start looking for opportunities to showcase your work

• Develop some kind of critical following for your work

• Few people look for publishers who tend to specialise in special areas, but try to specialise

• Approach a publisher who has a track record in publishing the kind of material you have in mind, for example fiction or poetry

• The US market tends to work through agents

• Link yourself with an agent

• When you do get a publisher, never send your full manuscript

• Send a cover letter, an abstract, a summary and an extract of the work

• It would allow the person to access the work

• Most unsolicited manuscripts get dumped; a lot of them are never read

• It helps if it has an endorsement by an author who is known (that helps in getting you in the door)

For the original report go to http://guardian.co.tt/business/2011/06/26/taking-gamble-local-publishing

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