This is the 100th edition of SHuSH, the official newsletter of the Sutherland House publishing company. The inaugural edition was released May 30, 2019, so today is the start of our third year of newslettering. It’s a good opportunity to review what we’ve learned so far (and while we like to think we’ve learned a lot in 100 weeks, it’s probably truer to say we’ve know a lot for a three-year-old).
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, one reason we’re writing this newsletter every single week without a break (except at Christmas), is that there is a dwindling supply of news and commentary about books in the mainstream media. Another reason has been to force me to lift my head from my desk, keep up with what’s going on in the industry, investigate issues, fill holes in my knowledge, etc.
I’m dividing my learnings into four parts: what I’ve learned about Sutherland House (my business); what I’ve learned about the publishing business generally; what I’ve learned about the culture of publishing; and what I’ve learned about SHuSH readers.
What we’ve learned about Sutherland House. I had no experience in book publishing (except writing books) when we launched so I had no idea what to expect out of the gate. Our objective was to sell books, mostly by Canadian authors, on both sides of the border. We wanted to publish eight books in each of our first two years and break-even in our operations, with the expectation that we would grow to profitability as our backlist developed (for many publishers, backlist sales, which include any sales of books published prior to the current year, are a third of their annual revenue), and we became eligible for grants. We did not plan for a global pandemic.
We accomplished most of the above, although not always in the manner we anticipated. We would have fallen short in our second-year revenues without a couple of contract jobs outside of our regular publishing program. Federal covid relief also helped. We got a temporary break on our rent and our employee’s salary.
It’s hard to know what the pandemic, the closure of bookstores, and the canceling of all public literary events cost us because we have so little history, but in-person events accounted for about 20% of our sales in year one and disappeared in year two. A few of the books on our list last spring underperformed because of the lockdown. In those months, it was incredibly difficult to get media attention for anything unrelated to the pandemic, and bookstores had quit ordering.
Our backlist is now accounting for about a third of our sales. I thought that was good because it’s not yet a long backlist. Then I thought, maybe it just means our front-list sales aren’t strong enough. How do you know?
Grants have been slow to come but going into year three we are eligible for the Ontario publishing tax credit (which is essentially a rebate for 30% of certain publishing costs), and the Canada Book Fund, which writes you a cheque for a portion of your revenues (usually in the neighborhood of 12-15% but for various bureaucratic reasons we’ve yet to fully benefit). The Canada Council, which gives juried grants to book publishers, has accepted us as a sort of junior publisher, so we are now eligible for its junior program. I’m interested to see how that will turn out given all the charming things we’ve said about the Canada Council.
Our original goal was to publish only non-fiction that we could sell on both sides of the border, so we were not captive to the relatively small Canadian market. Like all plans, it was brilliant until we met the market and it told us what was available for us to publish. We acquired more good Canadian-only books than expected, and fewer good manuscripts with international prospects, so the mix has shifted, but we’re still predominantly publishing books we can export.
It’s been disappointing to me how unsuccessful I’ve been developing ideas for books in my own head and getting others to write them. Often I can’t find a taker for my ideas, or I do and the projects languish. It might be different if we wrote authors big cheques to motivate them, but we don’t. Most of our projects come from writers who know what they want to write about and are passionate about their subjects. On occasion, writers come to us with a handful of ideas and we sort through them and develop the best of them but, again, we’re working in their wheelhouses, not mine. That’s fine.
About two-thirds of our books come to us directly, either through our contacts or from people calling us cold (which we invite). The other third of our projects come via literary agencies. We particularly enjoy our relationships with agents Beverley Slopen, Michael Levine, and Samantha Haywood, and we recommend them to writers looking for an agent.
I’d like to receive more proposals than we do, so if you have an idea or know someone looking for a publisher, it’s email@example.com.
I knew I’d enjoy the day-to-day work, and that has gone as planned. I spend most of my time editing manuscripts. I still do almost all of the editing myself, and I find it takes about 100 hours on average to edit a manuscript. The process of developing an idea into an artifact is still exciting to me, whether the artifact is a newspaper, magazine, or book. I like the tangible part of it. I like driving up to the warehouse and getting boxes of books, stacking them on our office shelves, taking them to my buddy Dennis at the Mount Pleasant/Manor Road post office—the best postal outlet in the world. I often deliver book orders within Toronto myself. It’s probably not the best use of my time, but it’s fun.
I’ve enjoyed the building of our office, which began as an empty space, and now has tables, desks, chairs, shelves, a carpet, plants, a fridge, a coffee machine, a microwave, and things hanging on the walls. I’m not using it much these days, but its very existence feels like an accomplishment.
I enjoy working with my tiny staff, which has grown. It started with just Employee No. 1 (above, demonstrating our handy Cosco hand-truck) and managing editor Matt Bucemi. Lena Yang has since joined as our part-time art director. Sarah Miniaci, who recently left Smith Publicity in New Jersey to hang out her own shingle in Toronto, is our dedicated public relations chief. Serina Mercier has accepted a contract as our marketing director. Our new intern is Alanna Sabatino. They are wonderful, and they make me feel old.
I’m reasonably confident that we’ll hit our five-year goal of profitably producing 16 to 20 books a year. I’m not confident about my goal of an 18% profit margin, a la Knopf. It’s not out of the question but a lot will depend on how our future books perform, and whether or not the world gets back to normal. To be honest, after the last fifteen months, I’ll be delighted if we avoid the red and continue to grow.
What I’ve learned about the book business. Regular readers of SHuSH will not be surprised to hear that one of the biggest surprises, for me, has been libraries. I managed not to consider them when I did my initial research about the book industry and missed the fact that three out of four books read in the US and four out of five books read in Canada are free library copies, which makes it difficult for anyone trying to make a living making or selling books. I’ve written a lot on this. I’m not going to repeat all the arguments here. I will simply say that there is a valuable role for libraries in our society, but encouraging readers to borrow rather than buy new releases should not be one of them. It kills author incomes, bookstore revenues, and publisher revenues.
Another big surprise has been the sheer volume of books published every year. About 300,000 annually in North America, and closer to a million if you count self-published books. Yes, a lot of them are crap, but there are audiences for crap.
The high volume of books produced by conventional publishers and self-publishers has also served to reduce author incomes for everyone save the Obamas. The pie gets a little bigger every year, but there are many more authors sharing it.
The self-publishing industry is analogous to YouTube. Most of what emerges is worthless and rarely seen, but enough niches are served and enough stars are born that millions are encouraged to keep producing new material, and millions engage with the content.
When we started, I knew, theoretically, that there were a lot of books being published, but I didn’t expect that it would be next to impossible to come up with a book title that hadn’t already been used five times or a subject that wasn’t already well covered. I didn’t know that a new book has far less than a 1% chance of making it into even the largest bookstores. Or that the average US nonfiction book sells less than 250 copies per year. Or that the average academic book sells 60 copies. That last one cracks me up.
I also knew, theoretically, that publishing any book is a crapshoot: you can’t be certain what will take off and what will die on the shelf. I now know it from experience. I’ve over-reached and paid for it. Small publishers can’t put all their chips on one book certain that it will make their year, because it’s never certain and we don’t have the deep pockets large publishers have. We need to be disciplined about the size of our advances and our sales expectations.
On a similar note, deciding how many books to print is a headache. The temptation is always to print more, because the more you print, the lower your cost per copy, and the higher your profit on each book sold (the initial set-up of the press costs a lot while keeping it running is relatively inexpensive). But if you increase the press run too much, you’re left with a lot of unsold books, which reduces your profits. If you print less than you need, you have to go back and print more, and two short print runs mean a much higher cost per copy than one long press run (because you’re paying the set-up cost twice). Also, if you print less than you need, you can get caught without enough copies to fill orders. We’ve done that, and hurried to print more copies of a fast-selling book (which can take several months if there’s no press available), only to have the sales stall by the time the new copies hit our warehouse. As I said, a headache.
I had an idea, at the outset, that Amazon was huge and important in the book world but I didn’t realize how huge, and how variously important. It must be selling 60% of books in North America right now, and its share of ebooks and audiobooks is way higher.
On the positive side (there are positives), Amazon is straightforward to deal with, its terms for physical book sales are decent, it pays its bills, it doesn’t order a lot more copies than it needs (resulting in fewer returns), and it helps you reach millions of potential buyers that would otherwise be impossible to reach.
On the much longer negative side, the terms on which it sells ebooks and audiobooks are unfair and in my opinion an abuse of its market dominance (if you want to sell your ebooks on a platform other than Amazon, you have to double Bezos’ commission). Amazon also cheats by selling and delivering books, especially hot-selling books, below cost, to the detriment of other booksellers. Lots more on its nasty pricing practices here.
Also, the Amazon site is getting ugly and unwieldly. It pushes ebooks and audiobooks (on its proprietary platforms, Kindle and Audible) ahead of physical books, and its presentation of physical books gives equal weight to charlatans, fly-by-night firms, and legitimate wholesalers and retailers. There are seventy-four purchasing options for Barack’s book:
The publishing industry is not always well served by its services. There are a lot of freelance publicity and marketing firms, most of which will waste your money.
There are a few good printers, but you can’t get a good hardcover book printed in Ontario, and there are only two decent hardcover printing options in all of Canada. One of these, however, is Friesens in Altona, Manitoba, as good as any printer anywhere. We use them a lot, although they are so busy they’re difficult to schedule. There are more choices for paperbacks, and many are quite good.
Most of the publishers I know are not thrilled with their distribution options. Distributors, who take about 10% of each sale, warehouse your books and ship them to bookstores and handle all the invoicing. The major complaints are that books are slow to get to the store, the service isn’t great, and the online tools are antiquated. None of the distributors looks especially solid from a financial perspective, which is worrying given that most of our revenue flows through them.
Almost all independent publishers employ sales agents to sell their books into bookstores. This is a weird practice. It allows the publisher to concentrate on the fun stuff, i.e., making books, but it outsources the important stuff, i.e., selling books. Most of us are too small and underfunded to have in-house sales staff, but most of us wonder whether we’re really putting our best foot forward by handing over sales to a firm that may simultaneously represent twenty or fifty other publishing houses.
Marketing is the most important thing book publishers do, especially in a market with a surfeit of books, yet it is probably the thing that all of us are worst at, from the big guys on down. Why is a larger conversation for a later date.
Interestingly, nobody knows how to advertise a book. Ads in conventional media don’t move copies. Ads in social media can be effective but I haven’t seen anyone win at it consistently. Ads on Amazon are, at best, modestly effective. We’ve talked to a lot of people and worked with a number of specialists, and the results are always disappointing.
I’m distinguishing marketing from public relations, which is a competition for the fleeting attention of conventional media, and here there are big differences. The big firms are good at it, at least for their bigger authors. We’ve done well at it ourselves, thanks largely to Sarah Miniaci and our own media contacts.
While conventional media isn’t what it used to be—it’s no longer true that every city has a decent daily newspaper with a robust book section (or any book section)—there are more newsletters, podcasts, blogs, Instagram influencers, and YouTube channels all the time, and many have rabid audiences. Getting their attention can make a huge difference for a book.
I did not realize the extent to which book reviews, which I define as considered opinions about books from knowledgeable and usually dispassionate critics, are dead. Not completely. London remains relatively well served with the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and some good newspaper book sections, and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Review of Books are still on the scene, but they cover an incredibly small sample of the year’s books. Outside of those outlets, it is rare to find an intelligent reviewer grappling in a serious way with the content of a writer’s book. The only reviews received by the vast majority of books are short, descriptive, and largely promotional. They sit on Amazon or sites like Goodreads, where even Hitler has four stars. I’m hoping newsletters will pick up some of the reviewing slack. Like this guy: I don’t always agree with him but he is great.
What I’ve learned about the culture of publishing. There are wonderful people in every corner of the book business. A very low asshole quotient. Most people are happy to share, happy to help, interesting to know. They love what they do, and it shows in all their interactions. People at telcos make far more money and are far more miserable.
Another thing about the people. I’ve met hundreds and hundreds over the last couple of years, and not one has been cynical about the business. Everyone has wanted to produce or sell good books, to be associated with quality. They don’t all define quality the same way, but the criteria always reach beyond commercial concerns.
That’s important to remember because other aspects of the culture of publishing are bewildering. Read Quill & Quire or Publishers Weekly or (best of the bunch) the Bookseller and you’ll find them preoccupied with identity and diversity. The big publishing offices are more demographically homogeneous than banks: overwhelmingly white, well-educated, and female. Yet they worship diversity, except for diversity of political viewpoints. (I know some dissenters from this worldview; they keep their heads down.)
People at the big publishing houses also selectively identify with what their companies produce. I’ve written before about Random House Canada's difficulties in coming to terms with the fact that Jordan Peterson pays its bills. We also see Simon & Schuster tearing itself apart over whether or not to publish conservative politicians while blithely producing books about how to become a mermaid, how to communicate with angels, and whole lines of astrology.
For all their attachment to intellectual trends, people in the senior ranks of big publishing companies tend to be reluctant to try anything new in their business practices. Things change slowly in the industry. I put that down to the senior people being veterans of a mature industry. As Robert Conquest said, all people are reactionaries in things they understand.
Intentionally or not, book publishing (the conventional as opposed to the self-publishing side) is a closed industry, or at least difficult to break into. Most publishers won’t look at unsolicited manuscripts. Many won’t work with writers who don’t come with an agent. Many agents are not taking new clients. I suppose this is because they have found that they can get enough good projects this way. I still find it surprising.
In Canada, there is enormous deference to granting agencies, especially the Canada Council. I hear all the time from people in the industry who don’t agree with the council and its decisions—many think it is rife with politics and bias, but they are loath to say so on the record. They fear that dissent could affect the amounts they receive. That caution is perhaps understandable given that most independent publishers (the multinationals are not eligible for grants) are barely profitable. It is also a good reason to scrap the Canada Council and distribute its funds in a manner that does not politicize the whole sector.
If I were to leave book publishing for another part of the book industry, it would be bookselling. I greatly admire the independent booksellers I’ve met and the nature of their work is attractive to me. They have shops (all in their own ways beautiful), they stock their shelves, they meet their customers, they hand them books, they accept payments, perhaps exchange a few words. They are part of a community, a neighborhood. They host events and meet the authors they stock. Perhaps most importantly, what they sell means a great deal to the people who buy it.
What I’ve Learned About You. There are 3,500 of you in an average week. Like just about every audience I’ve ever addressed, you are most interested in bad news. If I want a lot of you, I need only write about people dying or dead. Or something scandalous (Barbara Amiel’s memoir, or Philip Roth’s biography). You are not much interested in celebrities unless they come with an especially compelling story; it was hard to get you to read anything about Trump, even though I only wrote about Trump as a bookselling phenomenon.
You like suggestions on what to read, chatter about authors and the industry, and insight into how things work. You have more appetite than I expected for rants on libraries and the Canada Council (I knew you’d like rants on Amazon—everyone loves to hate Amazon).
Most of you read because you like to learn. It’s not about relaxation or escape or professional development. You like to learn for learning’s sake.
You’re one-way communicators, not much interested in the comment section (which makes me sad).
You’re pretty good about helping me promote SHuSH, which is enormously appreciated.
On that note, I have signed copies of my latest, reviewed today in the Wall Street Journal and coming out next week, that I will send to each of three randomly selected individuals who share this link on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn: https://shush.substack.com/?unlock=true.
Our Newsletter Roll (suggested additions welcome)
Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press
Kate McKean’s Agents & Books
Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book
Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark
John Biggs Great Reads