Paul Collins is the publisher at Ford Street Publishing, an independent Melbourne publisher. He also runs Creative Net Speakers’ Agency and is the author of over 140 books for children and young adults. In our first Publisher Spotlight for 2021, Paul contemplates over 45 years as a publisher and author.
The publishing and writing industry has changed a lot since I entered it in 1975.
In the early ’80s, I published Australia’s first high adventure fantasy novels from a small office attached to a secondhand bookshop. I even typeset books on a hulking IBM machine that had dials to tell you when to go to the next line. One dial was colour-coded, the other had numerals. If a line ended on, say, yellow and the number 8, I would type y8 at the end of the line. When I’d finished a page of such rows, I’d hit a button, and the page would print out ‘justified’. The tricky part was that the dial might land between yellow and blue. Type a b when it should’ve been a y, and that line would be out of whack.
To save typing out the entire page again – there might be five lines incorrectly spaced – we would type out the lines, cut them out and paste them over the printed page (I tell students that’s where cut and paste comes from). If there were typos – they could be many – we’d type out the word and paste that over the typo. Tricky to get straight, so sometimes we’d type a few words out so the line would be easier to superimpose over the error/s.
I mention the above because today designers with InDesign can do all that for you and it comes out (mostly!) perfect. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, we had to re-type the entire manuscript on a machine like the above. And that was costly. An 80,000-word novel would cost around $1,000 to get typed – a stack of money back then.
So current technology saves both time and money. But it also makes us work faster and harder. In the decades I mentioned (and into the ’90s) I might have received ten letters a week. People used to be careful and say everything they needed to in those letters because it would be two weeks before expecting to receive a reply. It’s just too easy to dash off an email without thinking. My ten letters (that’s a maximum guess) are now 40 emails in a day. If I count all the spam etc., I get two dozen emails before midday. So time is no longer on our side. My modest effort in the decades mentioned was so simple. I’d give the printer the laid-out sheets of text and, voilà!, it would come back as a printed book. I would have the stock delivered to the distributor. I’d send out review copies, and that was it. Nowadays, social media can easily be a job in itself, and all the digital and print-on-demand (POD) platforms would fill another job. Admin and reading email could well give another person a job.
One of the upsides is that the internet is a great leveller. I’ve always been a micro-press. That is a one-person show. Needless to say, I’ve had small distributors that don’t have the market penetration of the bigger distributors. The internet puts Ford Street’s website up against even the biggest publishers’ sites. With their great SEO, major publishers may come first in search engine results, but we’re still there beside them. Brick-and-mortar shops only have limited space on their shelves. Understandably, they’ll take the big-name authors over lesser-known authors. So this means you’ll be lucky to see Ford Street titles in many bookshops – but on the net, you’ll see all of Ford Street’s books and every other micro press’s books. So too, with digital publishing. I see no reason why smaller presses shouldn’t be rubbing shoulders with the major publishers’ digital books when it comes to distribution and display.
It’s funny how people have the perception that if a micro-press publishes a book, it can’t be any good. ‘Hey, if it were good a bigger publisher would’ve published it.’ Right? Wrong. In recent years this micro-press won the Gold INKY award, the Family Therapist’s Award and the big one, the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Picture Book of the Year award.
What do I like about being a micro-press?
It means I choose what I publish, and if I find a promising but unpolished manuscript I can choose to work with the author and hopefully turn it into a gem. This kind of editorial nurturing was more common to publishing in the past, but it seems to me that this rarely happens within most large publishing houses now, driven as they are by marketing teams and strong competition to sell ‘units’. A-list authors have to come from somewhere, though. A-list authors rise from B-lists. Knock out the B-list and exactly where the A-listers are supposed to come from?
For me, every author/illustrator is on my A-list.
I do not have to appease a marketing team.
Distribution. Publishers who distribute other publishers’ books present their books first. So if a bookseller runs out of time or their budget is gone, lesser-known publishers may not be represented in bookshops.
Competition from high-discount book stores. Major publishers mostly dominate sales to high discount stores. Books sold in places like K-Mart are often sold as loss leaders to draw in customers. Regardless, the more books you print, the cheaper the cost per book. No matter that they’re sold at a 70% discount, big sales are still profitable.
Cashflow. Creatives, printers, designers, editors, scanners are all paid upfront. But from the moment a book goes to all the above, to the moment it brings in money, can be eight months to a year. So if you’re a micro-press publishing 15 books, that’s a lot of money tied up before you can expect recompense.
Lack of staff. A micro-press owner needs to be a jack-of-all trades.
Export (distribution problems).
Inability (time/money) to visit major book fairs: Bologna, London and Frankfurt.
Speaking as an author … what are the challenges?
Low pay. Most authors, like me, have manuscripts lying about that took up to a year to write but have never been published. So that’s no pay for a year’s work. But that’s all part of the gig.
You have no benefits such as sick pay, holiday pay, an employer’s super scheme.
Isolation. COVID-19 has shown that solitary life doesn’t suit everyone.
Contracts. Agents don’t usually send out manuscripts. Some charge 15% commission of their authors’ ELR/PLR/CAL income.
And the benefits?
Self-employed, no travelling to work.
ELR/PLR/CAL/workshops for helpful advice.
Most people don’t realise that authors/illustrators generally make more money from school/library/festival visits than they do from their actual writing. An 80,000-word novel can take up to a year to write. The average advance might be $4,000. Spread that out on an hourly basis, and you’ll see creatives are working on a low wage. But then take into account royalties, PLR/ELR/CAL and presentations in various venues, and it works out pretty well.
Like many authors, my way around financial shortcomings is to have several jobs. It certainly makes my life varied!
– Paul Collins
Book cover supplied by Ford Street Publishing.
Stay tuned! We have more great articles aimed at promoting the importance of the published word scheduled for 2021.