By Paolo Chikiamco, Publisher, Rocket Kapre Books
“Virtue, then, is a kind of moderation inasmuch as it aims at the mean or moderate amount.”
– Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.
Being a philosophy major, I’m of the opinion that the great thinkers of the past have something important to say about every aspect of life, even our modern life. As such, I hope you’ll humor me as I open this talk on a decidedly modern topic – the opportunities for independent publishers in this digital book revolution – by talking about Aristotle and the Golden Mean.
For Aristotle, virtue or excellence is that trait which, when possessed in the right amount, keeps something in good condition, and allows it to perform its function well. One of the key phrases there is “possessed in the right amount” – Aristotle believed that virtue could only be found at some optimal point between two extremes, that of excess and that of deficiency. To use the most common example, the virtue of courage is found between the two extremes of cowardice and recklessness.
What does this have to do with publishing? Right now, publishing is defined by two extremes. First are the Big Publishers, the ones with substantial investment in the old status quo of print books, the entities with big-name authors, enviable capital and long-standing connections with distributors and media outlets. At the second extreme are the Self-Publishers, a class of authors which have always been with us – for authors, such as Aristotle himself, were releasing their works to the public long before third-party publishers existed – but who have in the past been stigmatized, as well as sidelined from the most lucrative types of commerce by an inability to match the scale of access and distribution available to Big Publishing. (In the Philippines, the most visible form of self-publishing – social networking aside – is the burgeoning indie komiks [comics] scene.)
Of course, “in the past” here must be taken to mean B.T.I. – Before The Internet. While I would not go so far as to say that the playing field has been leveled – although I’d argue that it is on its way there – the fact that the publishing landscape has been irrevocably altered cannot, at this point, be doubted.
“Nothing endures but change.”
During this conference, you’ve been exposed to the changing face of publishing, especially in the West, and the problems it brings for Big Publishing: issues with regard to ebook pricing, royalties, digital rights, DRM, and inadequate business models. There are opportunities for Big Publishing as well, but the simple fact is that, having reigned atop the Old World of Publishing, they have the most to lose by the transition to the New.
For self-publishers, it’s a different story. In the New World of Publishing, the Internet, ebook readers and print-on-demand outlets give authors the ability to distribute their work internationally, on a scale unthinkable even to Big Publishing (BTI), and at a fraction of the cost. Having spent so long at the bottom of the barrel, self-published authors have nowhere to go but up, and hence the New World is nothing but opportunity. In fact, in an era of social networks and blogs (and just recently, plugins like Anthologize which can turn a WordPress blog into a functional and ready-to-sell ebook) where it can be said that we are all publishers, some wonder if third-party publishers are needed at all.
If all that one wants is to make a book, as a text, available to the world, then the answer is no, you don’t need a publisher. On the other hand, if the goal is to make a book as a commercial product, one that is visible and viable, then – unless you’re an established author or are willing to put a lot of work into the book above and beyond actually writing it – yes, you still need a publisher.
But in the New World, the Big Publisher is not your only option – nor is it necessarily your best option. In a publishing world dominated by the two extremes, the most “virtuous” means to get your book to the market may be through an entity which can combine the strengths of Big Publishing and Self-Publishing, and in so doing (because the strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other) minimize their weaknesses. The best option could be an Independent Publisher and small presses: entities with more resources and business savvy than your typical author, but which retain a flexibility and personal touch absent from bigger publishers.
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”
– Isaac Asimov
At Rocket Kapre, I write and edit speculative fiction by Filipinos, and in that field, most of the authors I know are artists. They want to write stories – full stop. This paramount love of writing is the only reason we even have speculative fiction authors here – God knows that none of us, not even our best and most popular authors, are making a full time living out of it, even though that is the ultimate dream. Yet, while authors would love to have a bestselling book, very few have the time or inclination for the back-breaking, non-writing work that is required to turn a well-written book into a commercial success.
Publishers, on the other hand, even if they love their genre, always have an eye toward commercial viability. They’re the ones who study the market and how to market, who traditionally handle both big and little details from ISBNs to getting the book into retailers. While it’s easier to get a self-published book on the shelves of retailers in the Philippines, abroad the stigma still remains.
Also, while authors are increasingly being asked to share in the burden of book promotion, publishers still play a key role as intermediaries, since many authors, even avowed self-publishers, have an aversion to self-promoting. Publishers, on the other hand, don’t have to be modest when describing the genius of their authors. Nevertheless, the larger a Publisher grows, the larger the potential divide between the interest of the Publisher and those of the individual author.
Independent Publishers can retain the commercial savvy (and earn the credibility) of larger entities, but they also tend to remain small, and as a consequence, are usually very focused on a particular niche or genre. The smaller size (less red tape), fewer authors (more attention to each author), and greater focus will ensure that the individual author seldom feels that there is a conflict of interest between himself/herself and the Independent Publisher’s bottom line.
Having a strong online process can also make it possible to promote a book/brand well, even without the budget for large scale physical events, such as book launches: Rocket Kapre Books is a fledgling press, and yet free and easy access to content on the site, including our online zine Usok, allowed us to receive coverage on local and international websites, including Locus Magazine, probably the leading English language SF news/reviews magazine in the world.
However, it cannot be overly stressed that a Publisher not only adds value after the work is complete, but helps ensure that the book is the best it can be. While some self-publishers rejoice at the way the Internet has allowed for a circumvention of the traditional function of Publishers as “Gatekeepers” of the literary world, rare (if not non-existent) is the draft or manuscript that does not benefit from a close reading by an objective third party. Even the most critical author will have blind spots, especially when dealing with a text they have become overly familiar with, blind spots which an objective editor will not share. While the rigor of editing benefits the book and the author, it is this promise of quality control that benefits the prospective reader, who can be assured that any book released by a publisher was filtered by at least one objective pair of eyes before the reader spends his or her hard earned cash.
Here, again, an Independent Publisher can provide the best of both worlds, providing and guaranteeing editorial oversight, while the smaller size of Independent Publishers allows for a more personal relation with both authors and readers. With capable and consistent editorial work, Independent Publishers can win respect and credibility at par with that of any Big Publisher – if not greater. Here, it again helps that Independent Publishers have a clearly defined niche or genre, as they can quickly establish a reputation amongst fans.
Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction.
– John Cheever
You may note my repeated emphasis on the small size of Independent Publishers, and how this can give them the advantage, in some instances, against Big Publishers. The reason for this is that small entities are generally more adaptable than larger ones, and during this period of transition to the New World – where we know the landscape is changing, but not what it is changing into – publishers need to be adaptable in order to survive; in order to thrive, they need to be willing to experiment. Many of the experiments they take when they test the waters will result in failure, but as Independent Publishers have less to lose and more to gain, they will be that much more innovative.
Keep in mind that the uncertainty of the current environment is about more than the format of the digital file, of PDF versus EPUB vs MOBI… Anyone who believes that the final form of the digital book will be static lines of text on a screen is fooling themselves. The book as a medium for delivery of content is in flux, and small, risk-taking ventures are at an advantage.
Lacking rigid corporate structures or the baggage of the Old World (huge warehouses, piles of returnable books), Independent Publishers are the publishers best poised to position their businesses atop the rapidly shifting sands of the New World, to grab opportunities as they present themselves – especially in the digital space.
Here’s an example of an advantage of adaptability: having a quick turnaround. After the devastation brought by Typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng in late September of 2009, I decided I wanted to put together a small charity anthology. I pitched the idea to authors on September 30, and before three months had passed, Rocket Kapre books released Ruin and Resolve: Pinoy SF for Charity, with nineteen stories and five poems – many of them made specifically for the anthology – from Filipino writers here and abroad.
“To live alone one must be an animal or god.”
– Frederick Nietzsche
In speaking of opportunities, I cannot stress enough how the Internet creates and facilitates opportunities for collaboration, and how these collaborations can add value to your products. We saw that from Ruin and Resolve, where I managed to put together the book through email correspondence with authors and the cover artists. Filipino artists have also become key collaborators with me on Usok, the online magazine of Filipino-made speculative fiction which I host on site.
Kevin Lapeña, who I’d commissioned for the cover of the first issue of Usok, approached me with a proposal: he’d just co-founded a group for digital painters – CG Pintor – on the popular art website deviantart, and he wanted to know if I’d be willing to tie up with the fledging organization. Their artists get exposure on the website, and our stories for Usok receive artwork from some of the most promising digital artists in the country. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership, and yet had Rocket Kapre Books been an impersonal corporate Big Publisher, I doubt that Kevin would have made the offer, or that he would have received his reply a day after his email. The arrangement has worked out well: the international exposure helped get an older piece of Kevin’s published in a German artbook, and I was able to renew interest in Usok #1 when I re-launched it with the beautiful artwork – an endeavor that would probably not have been financially viable with a print magazine, but was easily executed with an online zine.
The Internet also allows an Independent Publisher to collaborate with the most important partner of all – the readers. Having at least some of your content online can give a publisher access to invaluable data about who reads your products, and how they use them. One day, I was looking at the daily statistics for Usok when I saw a sharp spike in views – it turns out a high school class had used the stories for an assignment. The ease by which the Internet facilitates distribution of content means that the biggest problem a book will have is still discoverability, but a strong web presence will allow you to connect with your readers – compare sending a link to a class to forcing them to find copies of a book – and in the process discover what interests them.
As I mentioned, for an Independent Publisher, the means to distinguish yourself from other content providers is to clearly define your niche, and information about the readers who visit your site – which posts are most popular, which posts receive the most comments, which posts have the most links – can be important to fine tuning your focus, so that you can give your readers what they want. Big publishers tend to operate as a “Brand”, their communication to the consumer only one way, from them to the consumer. Independent publishers have the opportunity to go beyond the creation of a brand to the creation of a “Community”, one where there is a mutually beneficial two-way flow of information. Book readers are a passionate lot, and they want to be heard, want to be involved.
This is how an Independent Publisher can succeed in the New Era of digital and immediate content: by serving as a bridge between the author and the readers, adding value – in-house or through strategic partnerships – to the work that passes its hands, and ensuring that nothing gets in the way of a good story.
I began with a philosopher, and now, allow me to end with a poet:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot; Little Gidding
A Paper for the Future of the Book Conference 2010, by Paolo Gabriel V. Chikiamco was originally published by Rocket Kapre and has been reprinted with Mr. Chikiamco’s permission.
Paolo Chikiamco is a Filipino speculative fiction writer, reader, and critic. He is the publisher of Rocket Kapre Books, and the editor of the Usok webzine. He also writes and edits for the Philippine Online Chronicles.