Winning in a Risky Business

Posted on Posted in News
Originally published in the Monteal Gazette, October 26, 2013

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

MONTREAL — On one point, just about everyone can concur: These are trying times for those in the book-publishing industry — like all print media. With some of the giant publishing houses having gone under recently, not to mention some of the giant bookstore chains, one would have to assume these are not the best of times to enter that volatile world.

Even with the explosion of ebooks, statistics suggest the market has been shrinking fast and that the odds of churning out profitable pulp — not to mention simply getting product into a bookstore — are overwhelmingly against a publisher.

So what could possibly possess the normally shrewd Sarah Scott, a former Gazette reporter and noted Canadian magazine writer, to launch her own publishing house? Scott’s Barlow Publishing just released its first book, The YOU Factor: A Handbook for Powerful Living, by “life coach” Leslie Strong.

Scott denies she took a tumble and did serious damage to her cranium. She cites the same reasoning for getting into publishing as for her moving back to Montreal the year after the Montreal Star folded in 1979 — a most inopportune time for an anglo looking for newspaper employment.

But the Montreal native did luck out back then. She landed a job at The Gazette and, among other posts, was the newspaper’s bureau chief at the National Assembly in Quebec City. She spent 17 years at the paper before moving to Toronto and freelancing for Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, Report on Business Magazine and CBC’s The Fifth Estate, among many others.

Her work has netted silver medals and honourable mentions from the National Magazine Awards.

Ever self-confident, Scott figures she’ll luck out again. “I tend to swim against the tide,” she cracks. “Makes life more interesting.”

Scott, still based in Toronto, may have better odds than others in her new venture. That’s because it’s her writers taking the financial risk for having her publish their books. They will have to fork out for everything from the editing to marketing to printing services that Barlow Publishing provides.

“But then again, the authors will get 100 per cent of the book royalties, as opposed to the 10 to 15 per cent they would get from most publishers.”

Though this approach might sound a lot like vanity publishing — wherein anyone can pay whatever sum it takes to have their own book — Scott balks at the comparison.

“Yes, the writers pay in both cases, but my authors are not just writing for themselves,” she insists. “They are authors — many of whom have already been published — trying to reach a large audience and getting the reward for so doing.”

Scott points out that The YOU Factor, for example, is available for sale at Indigo and Paragraphe in Montreal — where the book was officially launched on Wednesday evening, with Strong and Scott in attendance.

And it’s not just a question of getting the book into a store, but also of an author being able to come out ahead financially. Scott figures that a writer who sells over 5,000 copies — which is considered a bestseller in this country — could profit more in her system, even after paying the cost of publication.

Still, though it may not sound all that impressive in John Grisham-like terms, that is an elusive amount for most authors. As is the case with movies and music, the reality is that one out of 10 books will turn a profit.

To that end, Scott hopes to even the odds by offering authors the services of book-publishing veterans.

“Pretty much all the people I have working with me come from the world of traditional publishing — acquisition editors, cover designers, production, marketers,” Scott says, noting that among these people are former employees of Penguin and Key Porter.

“They work with the authors to bring the quality up to a really high level. Vanity presses tend not to follow the same model. The only difference from traditional publishing is that the author pays, but the end product will be just as good and the reward possibly better. And by the way, authors with some traditional publishers are often required to foot the bill for editing and marketing costs too.”

Scott estimates that it could cost a writer as little as $10,000 to have their 200-page opus designed, printed, published, distributed and marketed by her company.

“Admittedly, it’s not me taking the risk. It’s the author,” she says. “On the other hand, if the book turns out to be a big bestseller, it’s the author who wins — not me.”

One of the authors Scott is working with is Rebecca Eckler, who has had bestsellers — relating to lifestyle and parenting — with Random House and HarperCollins.

“She’s coming to me with her latest, because she knows if she sells more than 5,000 copies that she will be better off with me,” Scott says.

“I have another author, Paul Garfinkel, a world authority on anorexia in the mental health field, who could have had his book published with an academic publisher but who didn’t want to go through all the rigmarole.”

Those who turn to vanity presses or self-publishing tend to have personal stories relating to their lives or those of friends or family members. They are looking more for legacy material and have no illusions about creating work for large audiences.

“The authors I have are not like that, although we would not say no to someone who wanted to do a high-quality job on that sort of project,” Scott says.

“We’re primarily dealing with people with ideas they want to promote and sell. They are people who want quality production and who want to have their books available at quality stores like Indigo.

“If people are just looking to slap it down on print, they are better off going to self-publishing. Coming to us would be almost like going to Holt’s if all they really want is Walmart or Home Depot. We want to be more like Holt’s,” fashion maven Scott quips.

Scott is only handling business and lifestyle product for now, in print and ebook formats. “I would never abandon print. Despite strides made on the ebook front, my statistics show that three-quarters of non-fiction books are still read on paper.”

She is not handling politics or fiction — not necessarily mutually exclusive categories.

“Nor will I take on anything that is an invasion of privacy, or books with libel issues. I can’t take on the sort of investigative reporting that I used to do. That requires a much bigger publisher who could withstand the legal onslaught.”

Which brings us back to the initial conundrum: How does one survive in the rough-and-tumble book publishing biz today? All the more so when the publisher forgoes royalties.

“I’m making money now. What I’m not doing is making bets on books like traditional publishers. And the only reason many of them are in business is because they get a lot of government money,” Scott says.

“If they call me a vanity publisher, they should talk about where all their money comes from — especially when nine out of 10 books lose money. Not that some of those books shouldn’t be written, but the point is that I get no government money.

“Basically, I’m a service provider, and the response has been so positive. What I’m doing is just a shift in the traditional model. This is going on in one business after another — in film, in music and in publishing. Times change.”

Scott has no desire to get back to journalism again. “I had a really great run for 10 years on the magazine front. But I could also see this revolution that was happening in publishing that’s undermining the magazine business,” she says.

“Though I was extremely busy writing, I started to see it would become difficult to make a living at that for very long, that it was time to move on.”

bbrownstein@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: billbrownstein