Spotlight

Self-Publishing Journeys: Kellie Magnus












Why I self-published. And why I hope fewer Caribbean writers have to.


Many years ago, on a trip to Jamaica, I had a conversation with my then eight year old niece. I’d become frustrated by how attached she was to American television and movie characters. We took a trip to a bookstore in Kingston to find her some local books and I was horrified by how few there were and how poorly they compared to the American ones on the shelves beside them.

I was living in New York at the time. I’d probably have forgotten all about it had a little red-headed Rastafarian not come to take up residence in my brain. He was persistent. When I wrote the first Little Lion story, Little Lion Goes to School, I circulated it to a few friends in publishing. The responses were encouraging, but…there was always a “but”. “I love it but does the boy really have to be Rastafarian?” “I get that he’s supposed to be different, but can’t you just make him blind?”

It didn’t take me very long to realize that my best option for getting the book out was to publish it myself. I emailed an old friend, Mike Robinson, and asked if he’d illustrate it. I called a few bookstores in Jamaica to get advice on the market for children’s books. It wasn’t positive: don’t print more than 3,000 copies, I was told. It’ll take you at least three years to sell them. That seemed nuts to me so I decided to print 5,000 copies. I knew nothing about children’s books and Mike knew even less. But together we cobbled out our first version and launched it in Jamaica.

It sold out in six months.

What we learned was there was a market for Jamaican children’s books, both at home and in the diaspora. Jamaican parents desperately wanted books that connected their children to their culture and their way of life. Jamaican children wanted books with children who looked like them and scenes and situations that they could relate to. I lost track of how many cards and emails I got from parents thanking me for putting an otaheite apple on the cover of the book. (I’d like to take credit for that, but that was Mike’s idea.)

It’s been ten years since the first Little Lion came out and that demand has not lessened. What’s sad is that the supply of local children’s books hasn’t increased that much. As the years went by, I dabbled in publishing more and more. I put out two more Little Lions and a couple of board books for babies. I joined the Book Industry Association and the Caribbean Publishers Network. I traveled around Jamaica reading at schools and talking to parents and teachers. I went to the big book fairs in New York and Bologna and Frankfurt and London to learn everything I could about publishing. And the more I learned, the more I realized that self-publishing, while it offers great opportunities for writers, is only a tiny part of the answer for Caribbean readers and, particularly, for Caribbean children.

Advantages


Don’t get me wrong. Self-publishing, especially now, gives writers unprecedented opportunities to get their books on the market. It gives them control. It frees them of the gatekeepers that ask absurd questions like the ones I quoted above, gatekeepers that don’t necessarily share the same goals we do. Self-publishing allows writers to control the look and feel of their books and how and where they are marketed and sold. Mainstream publishers in the US and UK don’t necessarily understand the nuances of our market. (For instance, in New York, I sold more Little Lions in patty shops than in bookstores.)

In the Caribbean, self-publishing gives writers what is often their only shot at getting published. In 2014, there are still only a handful of houses that publish children’s fiction. Hell, there are few houses that publish fiction at all. In small countries where the cost of capital is high, publishers are, perhaps understandably, cautious. Our industry focuses on textbooks, where the money is safe (for now). Self-publishing gives books that would never see the light of day a chance to find a home.

We’ve all heard the self-publishing success stories from outside the region. We have our success stories here in Jamaica; writers whose books outsell titles from the larger publishing houses. That’s worth getting excited about. Self-publishing can give writers a much higher return than a traditional publishing contract, if the books sell well.

But that "if" is a challenge.

Disadvantages


Behind that "if" is all the work that self-publishing requires.

The challenge of self-publishing is that it means the author is responsible for all the tasks that a traditional publishing house would undertake: the editing, the design, the illustration, the marketing, the printing, the distribution and the financing. In the children’s book market that can be difficult. And expensive.

Self-publishing means your book won’t languish on your publisher’s back burner – but when you’re the publisher, the odds of it languishing on your own back burner can be pretty high. Writing is an art; publishing is a business. The truth is that not many of us are good at both.

What worries me these days is not how few Jamaican children’s books there are on the shelves (even though there still aren’t nearly enough.) What worries me is how bad many of them are. The best of intentions don’t always guarantee the best product. When cash-strapped authors publish independently, the quality can suffer. There are many well-written, beautiful, self-published books on the market, but too many of them are poorly written or edited; need improvement in design and illustration; or are inferior in paper and print quality.

Then there’s the money.


On top of that, the self-published books are often more expensive. There are clear cost efficiencies and synergies in printing, marketing and distributing a line of books rather than a single title. Because of cash constraints self-publishers often send books to print in cost-inefficient quantities that result in absurdly high unit costs. The print-on-demand advantage hasn’t yet taken hold in the children’s book market and in the Caribbean, where e-reader and tablet penetration is still relatively low, print is still king.

Even though social media has made more effective independent marketing possible, it’s also harder for self-publishers to recoup their marketing costs. The result? A combined perception of local books as more expensive and lower in quality. That has serious consequences not just for the individual author, but for all of us.

The Big Picture


For me, the biggest limitation to self-publishing – when it’s done by under-capitalized authors working in isolation – is that it doesn’t begin to tap into the economic opportunity publishing offers.  Caribbean stories deserve a place in the multi-billion dollar children’s book market. Publishing a book here and there isn’t enough. Tapping into that market requires focused effort and commitment to understanding and building a publishing business and creating the necessary supporting infrastructure – editorial support, marketing and promotions, distribution.

Let writers write. Someone else needs to stand up and build a business. A few people need to stand up and build an industry. That’s why I’ve stopped self-publishing and shifted efforts to try to build a children’s publishing house. The opportunity is too big to be someone’s side hustle. As much as I wish my fellow Caribbean self-publishers well, my strongest wish is that the Caribbean finance community would take the opportunity of children’s publishing seriously.

Until we get there, can self-publishers contribute effectively? Yes. But it takes partnerships. There are many things that self-publishers and small publishers can do to improve the quality of the work we produce and our collective opportunity for earning money from the books we publish. Fora like Anansesem and CaribLit that allow industry players to identify each other and facilitate collaboration between are critical.

Self-publishers can ensure that they hire in the appropriate editorial, design and illustration skills. We can share information, best practices and contacts. We can collaborate on print runs and consolidate shipments to reduce costs. We can conduct collaborative marketing and retail initiatives – a full page ad in the paper promoting six children’s books is probably more likely to be seen than a tiny ad that a single author could afford. Ditto for a collaborative catalogue. Ditto for sharing a booth at a book festival. We can take the cooperative model that’s worked well in other industries and apply it to publishing.

We can develop partnerships with the private sector and secure support from like-minded donor agencies to ensure that we put out books at the highest possible quality. We can make sure that we understand the needs of other markets so that we have a shot at selling books across the Caribbean and the diaspora and selling rights into other international markets.

And yes, I know there are lots of authors who have worked by themselves, published incredibly crappy books and found success. But I think when it comes to children’s books we need to try a little harder.

Caribbean children deserve it.




Kellie Magnus is a Jamaican children's book writer and publisher. Her books include the popular Little Lion series as well as several titles in the Ministry of Education's Literacy 123 series used in primary schools. Her publishing imprint, Jackmandora, released Jamaica's first board books for infants Trixie Triangle and A Book for Baby which were used in the BookStart Jamaica Pilot Programme to promote reading to children from birth.

Kellie serves on the boards of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica, the National Library of Jamaica and the Early Childhood Commission.


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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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1 comments:

  1. Read this with great interest, and am on board with Kellie's business analysis of the current state of affairs in the Jamaica/Caribbean self-publishing market. The proposals for collaboration are spot on - an amalgamation of talent and business acumen will increase efficiencies through focused effort on production and business development.

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