Breaking into books

Independent publishing persists against all odds - because people still dream of making their mark.

Vanquishing the book appears to be as difficult as getting Dick Clark to retire. Technology has yet to best the printed page - and that resilience may account for the steady flow of entrepreneurs getting into publishing.

Even with an iffy economy, decreases in book buying, and plenty of small publishers calling it quits, some people find publishing an attractive option.

The financial details of starting a business can be nerve-wracking, but newcomers are undaunted by negative industry trends and threats from the now de-fanged e-book.

"A book is a book is a book, and contrary to what people were saying a few years ago, they're not going away anytime soon," says Stephen Hull, founder of Boston-based Justin, Charles & Co., which specializes in mysteries and eclectic nonfiction and debuts its first books next month.

Independent publishing is persevering in an industry that's presented fewer and fewer opportunities for entry in recent decades, as consolidation and corporate ownership have reduced the number of publishers and bookstores. More than ever, small and midsized publishers are valued for the variety they bring readers and the outlet they provide for writers who can't get the attention of the industry giants.

Those are two reasons some newcomers are drawn in - the product and the people. Others, like those who self publish, do so to add heft to a résumé, or to establish the viability of their work so they can shop it to larger publishers.

"There are more and more people entering this world. I sometimes wonder why," says Jan Nathan, executive director of the Publishers Marketing Association, whose members deal in print and other media. "The one nice thing about publishing is people always think they will be different."

For Hull, it was a natural next step after years in the industry as an editor. "I actually started thinking about it seriously during the tech boom, when it seemed like everybody started a company," he says. "Part of my motivation is this is something that's mine.... The decisions are mine, and the success and failures are mine."

The exact number of new people getting into the business is difficult to determine. Unlike Hollywood, the book industry doesn't keep track of its sales and its players, especially the smaller ones. The number of new publishers applying for a sales-related tool called an ISBN number did increase in 2002 to 10,653, up from 9,786 in 2001, according to R.R. Bowker, the company that sells the numbers. But those figures include not only print publishers, but those selling software, e-books, educational videos, or a combination of different media.

For print publishers, starting a company today is both easier and harder than in the past. Computer equipment is cheaper and manufacturing fairly easy.

But while it's technically easier to publish, it's harder than ever to get noticed. Many independent publishers concede their editorial impact is small, because companies with deeper pockets can snatch good writers away. Others say they are a haven for niche topics and offbeat authors. For any small company, it can take decades to become viable.

"In general, I think a small publisher may succeed more easily than a big one, because he starts out with less baggage, he doesn't have a huge overhead to deal with, he doesn't have a lot of accumulated bad habits," says Jason Epstein, former editorial director at Random House, and author of "Book Business."

A major problem publishers face is distribution. The decrease in independent bookstores means more publishers are fighting for shelf space in chains such as Barnes & Noble. Of the estimated tens of thousands of independent publishers in the US, says Ms. Nathan, only about 900 are represented by three distribution companies who market their products to booksellers.

Hull has signed on with a distribution company, but those who don't have the money to do so have become more innovative about the places they try to hawk their wares - capitalizing on surveys that show that consumers buy their books from a variety of outlets, including specialty stores, catalogs, and the Internet.

Small publishers say the chain stores are primarily interested in books that are bestsellers, and those belong to the top companies. Publishers Weekly notes that of the books that made the magazine's hardcover bestseller list in 2002, 77.4 percent were from the top five publishers (Random House, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster, Time Warner, and HarperCollins). The number jumps to 91 percent when two other well-established hardcover publishers are added in.

Would-be publishers starting from scratch often try to disprove the idea that it takes a lot of money to turn a profit. Nathan recalls a common adage: "How do you make a million dollars in book publishing? You start with two [million]."

In the current economy, most people don't have an extra million dollars, but by some accounts it can take that much.

"It's a capital-intensive, long-term cash flow, relatively low profit-margin business. Sounds good, doesn't it?" jokes Hull, who is paying for his endeavor with a line of bank credit and private investment, including his own money. "I don't think someone starting in this industry necessarily needs a million bucks, although the closer you can get to it probably wouldn't hurt," he adds.

Others say $10,000 or even just a few thousand can be enough to get a company off the ground.

James Engstrom, a retiree in Sequim, Wash., spent about $3,000 and made about $3,000 on his business, Twenty Penny Press, last year. He has mainly offered e-books - digital versions of the Bible and Sherlock Holmes mysteries - which he says have not sold well. But starting next month, he'll use some of his earnings to offer his first printed book, a mystery he wrote himself.

He plans to use an option called print-on-demand, which means the book is printed only when someone requests it, reducing the costs he would absorb if unsold copies of the book were returned to him by a bookseller. "Returns are the thing that kill small publishers," he says.

New technologies are what Mr. Epstein says may eventually liberate the small publisher - allowing him or her to use the Internet and printing devices to download books directly to consumers and bypass retailers.

"That will change the business profoundly and make it much more interesting and varied and will restore to small publishers ... the kind of autonomy that Random House and others used to have in the old days when they consisted mainly of groups of like-minded editors working on their own," he says.

Hull is modeling himself on the old-style, independent general publisher, he says, rather than taking a niche approach. He is beginning with 12 books and wants to end up as a mid-sized company with about 40 books per year.

"I probably didn't know enough to be really daunted," he admits of his initial thoughts about getting into the business. Now, publishing is challenging every day, he says. "But it's also fun."

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