In late 2016, I started an independent book publishing company. The motivation behind starting it was centred around creating a platform for unpublished authors and poets to showcase their works. For a while, I had been trying to get a co-authored anthology published but hadn’t found a home for this work to be brought to life. I am of the opinion that traditional publishing houses are formulaic in their approach to publishing authors, taking the safer alternative from an investment and return standpoint.
A comparable analogy is the film industry where the major companies seem to be only focusing on blockbusters, movies that cost a fortune to make with an upside of returning six or seven times what it cost to make them including associated marketing costs. Watching some of these blockbusters, I find some of the storylines to be labored, over-thought and in other cases incoherent. But because we’re often chasing the top- and bottom-line, we limit ourselves to what we know will bring in the revenue and never what could bring us the revenue.
In light of the aforementioned, there are only a few individuals and companies that are flipping the script and taking well thought out risks that are delivering incredible rewards. A cliché example is Uber which runs the world’s largest taxi company yet it doesn’t own a single vehicle. Not only has this organisation transformed the taxi industry, it has established a standard which most industries inspire to attain. Within Africa, one of the leading online retailers has rolled out a competition to find a logistics company that is able to offer a comparable service to Uber, only it will be transporting goods instead of people with orders being delivered in real-time.
Returning to my fledgling publishing business, I often think from a transformative standpoint but often encounter significant resistance to the direction I’d like my firm to take over the longer-term. This implies that I need to invest a bit more time in unpacking the value that the business will deliver for all stakeholders. The more informed they are about the business’ value chain, the easier it is for them to understand the benefits this organisation will bring.
For starters, my business sells digital copies of the authors we publish online. By selling digital copies of our books, we’re buying into the reality that the internet is here to stay and has become the world’s central platform for commerce and culture. Because most customers want to be connected to the brands they consume, it is critical for them to be invested in understanding the culture.
The social media culture is a movement no organisation can afford to not be a part of. An endorsement on social media could be the difference needed to boost your sales or bring your cause to the centre-stage. Examples include songs that became an internet sensation, driven by celebrity endorsements. One that comes to mind is Sauti Sol’s (a Kenyan music group) “Kuliko Jana;” a song sung from start to finish in kiSwahili. However, the acapella melody was so infectious that all with a musical ear gave it the thumbs up and its video on Youtube is under a hundred thousand views shy of the four million view mark.
For your business to be relevant, you thus have to exist in culture and leverage platforms such as social media to test your products and obtain instant feedback on whether what you’re doing is making the difference or not. Your approach has to be authentic, however, with you leveraging this platform in a genuine and relevant way. No point in leveraging social media in a ‘me too’ way because you won’t get the results that you’re looking for.
With this in mind, we leveraged social media as a platform to introduce ourselves to the market, get them to buy into what we stood for and also share some of our works for their feedback. In addition, we followed as many people and organisations that were likeminded asking them to weigh in with their opinions on initiatives we were rolling out. Lastly, we challenged a few noted authors and publishers to endorse our efforts including them critiquing our work and giving us an honest opinion on whether we were on the right track or not. This invaluable feedback and “collaboration” has enabled us to steer our organisation in a direction that has delivered results for us sooner than we anticipated and we continue to refer to these inputs to guide us on our journey to remain relevant and future-fit.
As mentioned initially, the book I wanted to get published before I started our company was an anthology of poems. Feedback I got from most publishers is that poetry was no longer viable and because of this, they were reluctant to work on poetic projects. I think of this as short-sighted. A transformative approach would be to look outside of the industry to find solutions that could enable them to continue to publish poetry in a profitable manner.
The music industry is an example where transformation has been required to conform to changing market trends. Sadly for musicians and music publishers, new music can now be accessed for next to nothing through the internet. This has adversely impacted their sales numbers with going platinum through physical copy sales now being a preserve for megastars like Adele, Ed Sheeran, Beyonce and Drake. The aforementioned are the only artists that can afford to make money from physical album sales. Yet this isn’t the case.
One of the global megatrends is that we now exist in a gig economy. With fewer permanent employment jobs, the younger generation has adopted a consultancy’s approach to doing business, looking out for gig after gig to earn an income. Music businesses have also done the same. As soon as the album is out, most artists are announcing tours. The tour is centred around the newly released album and the returns for putting the album together are earned on the road. If you don’t tour you’re strongly limiting your earnings.
Other artists such as Jay-Z are also entering into strategic partnerships with high volume businesses whose products are consumed in bulk. These businesses buy your music in bulk and sell the album with each unit of their own product that they sell as a value-add. Some of these businesses also push for exclusivity to become your music’s only outlet. Such a move could be of mutual benefit with customers that typically wouldn’t buy your product now having to do so because that is the only place where they can access their favourite musician’s latest album.
In light of this, we are adopting a “gig model” for our published poets. Instead of relying on physical copy sales, we approached a few sponsors to support us to “live launch” our artists and rolled out live listening sessions for our artists published work. We also noticed that other poetry publishers that still believed in the genre were also doing the same. An example is uHlanga Press that launched Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia during the early part of 2017. Her anthology is South Africa’s best-selling book for 2017 driven by her and her publisher’s book tour. Most of her reading sessions had a cover charge, and over the course of the year, she may have read her book across more than hundreds of venues.
In my opinion, this is where most of her revenue was generated as opposed to physical copy sales via bookstores. The tour also provides the opportunity for her to interface and be connected to her readers, critics and other relevant stakeholders.
Establishing and maintaining an emotional connection with your stakeholders is now paramount in an era where social consciousness continues to take centre stage. Your supporters are often believers in a purpose that is more than your product or service and them purchasing it is an indication that you are helping them to push this cause forward and their voice be heard. So for my publishing company, touring is crucial for our poets as this is the channel that will enable us to publish them profitably. In addition, we have approached a few businesses to also buy our books and hand them out as part of event gift bags or corporate gifts. Some would call this “selling out”, but I like to think of it as staying in business.
Other things that my publishing prioritises is selling the majority of our books as digital copies. Physical copies are restricted to books we sell when our poets/authors are on tour. From the onset, we have always wanted to be an online publishing company. Because of this, we run a lean business with very limited staff and a virtual office to ensure we have minimal overheads. For our authors, their most significant cost is our editing and book designing service. Once this service has been provided and we’ve run a few quality assurance checks, the next step is loading the book onto our e-catalogue. We rely heavily on social media from a marketing standpoint, and because we exist in culture, we’ve mastered how to position ourselves from a social articulation standpoint.
As a result of us incurring minimal costs when compared to major publishing houses to develop our author/poets’ books, our digital copy book prices are also low. We’re more concerned about reaching a wider audience and thus push for volumes as opposed to charging a premium. With our business being based in an emerging market, we understand that the majority of our market earns low incomes. Because of this, we have priced our books at a selling point that aligns with what we think our market can afford for a book that will be read for entertainment purposes. But this is only the beginning.
As mentioned earlier, our platform is centred around bringing the unpublished author/poet to the centre-stage. We’re also invested in growing these artists through entering their works in regional and global literary competitions. A win for any of them boosts their careers as literary artists and benefits us as the publishing house that afforded them the opportunity to showcase their work. Their success also benefits both of us through contributing to growth in their sales. The endorsement of a win would, therefore, enable us to push our price point down up to a point where most of our market can now afford to buy our books.
For me this is the best way to build a transformative brand, that lives in the culture, is aware of the market’s context, stays connected to relevant stakeholders and provides products and services that the market affords with ease.