Starting a publishing company can be scary, but today it is more accessible than ever before.
By Wade Smit
People turn to publishing for various reasons.
But for me, it was the frustration I felt with the lack of opportunities to get my work published.
I write fiction, poetry, articles and research in isiZulu, a South African language with over 27 million speakers.
But despite it being South Africa’s biggest language, because of our political history, there are still not a lot of publishing houses dedicated to good content for readers of Zulu.
So I created my own, knowing the huge number of writers in the language who, like me, could not find a home for Zulu writing.
I want to share the approach I developed in creating a niche print publishing house on a small budget and making it profitable within 6 months.
And while this article discusses print publishing, the principles I outline here apply to digital publishing as well.
Knowing your niche
A ‘niche’ market is a small portion of a larger market which holds special or unique interests i.e., fantasy novels.
As a niche publisher, you need to really know your market.
You should preferably choose one that you are familiar with since this will help you relate to your customer base and understand what they want.
Ask yourself some questions about your chosen niche:
1. How much is published in this niche?
2. Is there enough demand to justify a new publishing company?
3. What will you be doing differently?
4. What does this specialised audience crave right now?
These questions are simply a way of identifying the feasibility of publishing in your given niche market.
For example, if you chose to publish medieval fantasy novels, you may find that because of the popularity of that genre, your small publishing house may have difficulty winning over new readers without the marketing clout of more established publishers with their heavy-hitting names like George R.R. Martin.
On the other hand, if your niche is too specific there may be no interest whatsoever.
Questions 1 and 2 deal with market saturation and popularity, while 3 and 4 deal with standing out and carving your niche.
Once you fall upon a target market and a focus for your company, and it feels right, you’re ready to move on.
Creating a debut title
Your publishing company is new and nobody knows who you are.
How are you going to make them notice you and care?
You’re going to need to create a new, exciting and unique book that feels fresh, answers your target market’s current desires, and makes an impact.
Therefore, it’s going to have to be a book that’s relatively easy to produce, and relatively easy to consume.
In my case, I debuted my company with a themed anthology of short stories titled ‘Izinkanyezi Ezintsha’ (New Stars).
To compile the anthology, I created a short story competition that had a humble first and second prize.
If you’ve chosen your niche market well, there will be writers desperate to have their work published and will flock to your call for submissions – provided you publicise it well.
At only 90 pages long and containing just seven stories, it was an easy way to showcase what type of stories my publishing company wants to publish and to offer potential readers diverse stories to enjoy.
Anthologies also give you a chance to practice your editing and proofreading skills, and the authors to showcase their talents.
Novels are comparatively long and more difficult to write and edit than a few shorter pieces.
You want to build up your publishing experience before diving into the bigger stuff, and anthologies are a good way to do that.
But we all know that what’s inside a book isn’t all that matters. Especially in an industry so dependent on social media and digital publishing, the aesthetics and branding of your title (and company) are going to be some of the most powerful ways to communicate your company’s identity.
Your book’s title and cover art are as much a priority as its contents. A successful and modern book cover should be minimalist, bright and simple to understand.
Developing new skills
If you are serious about starting a publishing company and making a profit, you have to be realistic about your financial capacity starting out.
Unless you strike it lucky at the lottery you’re probably not going to have a lot of money to spend.
This is why I decided that I would not only break even with my first small print run but make a profit too. And it worked!
After 6 months, with every copy sold, I have more money in my company’s bank account than when I started out.
But this was only possible because I minimised costs by doing nearly everything myself.
From book design, web design, marketing, all the way to learning intellectual property laws, ISBN registration, editing and proofreading and social media management.
Do not get intimidated. Everything I learned I learned from resources available on the internet.
Take your time, read slowly, print out web pages if you need to, because the only thing you need is patience and willingness to learn.
But there will definitely be times when you will need to enlist someone else’s help.
For example, while I found myself capable of designing my book’s interior, I had to admit that my attempts to create the cover illustration were… not good.
So, I enlisted the help of an artist, whose work I found by chance on Instagram, by sending her a query about her rates.
It was cheaper than going to a design firm, and better quality than if I had attempted to do the cover myself.
Whenever you pay someone to help you at this early stage, make sure it is cost-effective, professional and unique.
Once you have registered your company, made a simple/free website, and have your book, cover art, logo and social media pages ready to go, you need to get the word out there.
One of the biggest mistakes I made when holding the short story competition was to spend too much on social media marketing.
While it helped somewhat at getting the word out, it simply was not worth the expense and got me more impressions and ‘likes’ than submissions.
What I found most effective were the simple, free tools; press releases sent to relevant parties, from university departments to newspapers to literary festival organisers; social media engagement (following relevant people and pages, liking, taking part in conversations authentic to your brand); word of mouth and other organic marketing methods.
Something as simple as working with a local designer for my next book’s cover art has brought in his followers’ attention to the book and my company.
Local literary festivals are another great way of getting your book out there until you get a deal with a distributor who can put your book into bookstores.
Your marketing strategy is the primary tool you should use to sell the first small batch of your debut book.
I managed to do enough direct sales through social media and on my company’s website to garner the attention of a distributor.
Your entire first batch of books is your first marketing campaign.
Do not expect a massive profit or even to sell them quickly.
If you can utilise that small initial print run to establish a strong brand identity and presence and make your money back, you will have enough momentum to produce reprints and new, exciting titles.
Wade Smit is an Honours student at the University of Cape Town, as well as a publisher and writer. His isiZulu publishing company, Kwasukela Books, launched in December 2017 with an anthology of speculative fiction titled Izinkanyezi Ezintsha. Follow his story on Twitter.