One of my goals with this blog is to help encourage and build community involvement and discussion within the publishing industry. Although many authors and publishing veterans have contributed comments here, I thought it would be interesting to conduct more in-depth interviews with other publishers, authors, marketers, PR experts, etc. To kick things off, I asked Ted Savas, founder and publisher at Savas Beatie to answer a few questions. Everything I've been covering up to now comes with a "large publishing house" bias; the beauty of a Q&A with Ted is that he can talk about the opportunities and challenges of a smaller publishing operation. We covered a lot of ground...too much for one blog post. With that in mind, here's the first installment of my Ted Savas interview.
JW: What’s the market like today for a small publishing house?
TPS: First, thanks for this opportunity for an interview. I appreciate it very much.
In today’s market, it has never been easier to publish a good book and let others know about it. The advent of computers, email, and the Internet makes all this easier to accomplish. That has leveled the playing field in some respects. The downside of the technology revolution for most publishers (in my humble view) is the same beast: technology.
JW: What do you mean?
TPS: Let me give you an example. Ten years ago, we sold a
significant percentage of a print run on any given title at full retail price
to customers by simply mailing a catalog to them and taking orders. The rest
sold through normal trade distribution channels. It took some effort for a
customer to locate a used copy of a book on the secondary market. The development
of the Internet, Amazon, discount chain stores (with an egregious returns
policy akin to legalized larceny) and eBay turned that model on its head. The
ability to buy new books at a steep discount, or easily discover what is in
someone’s closet in Seattle or Poughkeepsie and thus bypass normal purchasing
channels undercut the first edition retail market. This has had a significant
impact on publishers, as well as brick and mortar independent bookstores.
JW: Is it possible to succeed given how the publishing world works today with print-on-demand and other self-publishing alternatives?
TPS: Yes, but you have to be enormously energetic, creative, and offer outstanding books. I am a firm believer that small and mid-size publishers should focus their efforts in a niche, and then carve out and expand their success within that niche by crafting better books than their competitors, and delivering them more efficiently to their customer base. Once you achieve that, successful expansion beyond that point (if desirable) becomes possible.
JW: Your niche is history.
TPS: Yes, our traditional niche has been military history, with an expertise in the American Civil War. Over the years (first with Savas Woodbury, and then Savas Publishing, and now Savas Beatie), we did that very well and gained a significant international following for our titles. A focused approach makes it easier to establish who you are as a company, who your customers are, what they want, and how to sell books to them.
JW: What to you think of print-on-demand and self-publishing?
TPS: I might be one of the few people in traditional publishing who thinks print-on-demand and self-publishing is a good thing. I like to think of it this way: It is very difficult to get a book published because a handful of houses and agents act as gatekeepers to what is a rather exclusive world. Huge numbers of manuscripts—many of them worthy of publication—are sitting on dusty shelves because agents and acquisitions editors told the author “No, thanks” one too many times. Most people eventually give up. For the reading public, that means a lot of good material someone somewhere would have found worthwhile will never be read because a very thin handful of people guarding the main gate told the writer, “You can’t come in.” Perhaps it is my libertarian bent, but POD and other alternatives are just fine with me.
JW: You mentioned a company has to be “energetic” and “creative.” What are some of the ways your company is energetic or creative?
TPS: Creatively, we often seek out good material to fill needs that exist in the marketplace, rather than select a good book and try to sell it. Some of the energy this company has is infused within its structure and personnel. We are small and dynamic, and so can make decisions quickly without a lot of bureaucratic fuss. If you have good people in the right positions, you don’t need bureaucracy. That makes us more nimble and flexible than a lot of our competition. An “energetic” angle often overlooked rests with picking the right authors. We are very careful about whom we publish because I like to build cooperative partnerships, not impersonal publisher-author relationships.
JW: Can you expand on that?
TPS: Sure. Many larger publishers are focused solely
on the manuscript, not the manuscript AND the author. Once a manuscript is
accepted, many houses do not consult with their authors on anything, the book
is released and after a few months, dumped into a remainder bin somewhere. I
think that is terrible, frankly. I will not do business that way. Savas Beatie
works with our authors every step of the way, from cover design to edits,
layout, and even marketing plans. We retain final say because we are
underwriting the project, but we offer genuine, meaningful consultation. If you
expect the support of an author, he better like how the book looks and be proud
of it. Ours are never surprised with the final product.