I’ve struggled to define successful independent art publishing because the accepted standard of success looks a lot like failure to me. I’m admitting this in hope of reconciling two divergent impulses; my desire for commercial validation and my interest in unpopular culture.
In a recent interview, musician and label owner Ian MacKaye insists that he didn’t care if he sold 100,000 records or 500,000 records or 100 records. Would he care if he didn’t sell any records? “Success is in the doing,” he argues. “Did you make what you were trying to make?” I believe in this idea, but it strikes me as solipsistic in practice.
I want to participate in the book economy, but I’m still determining the form of my endeavor and how I’ll measure its success. I’m interested in creating a sustainable ecosystem to invest in artists, designers, writers and other authors that is driven by books. And “books” is really just shorthand for all reading experiences.
Speaking to Stanford business students, Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins, suggests that publishers are the venture capitalists of the creative industry. “You think about the role we play, it’s the financing… it’s the editorial, helping shape and package the book for the best possible sales that you can get, and the marketing to actually deliver it.”
In the print-on-demand zine Economic Design: April 9, 2009 designer Zak Kyes proposes a similar idea. He wants to “establish, with a patron, a platform for the production of publications. Part of the edition would be housed in the physical structure of a private library/collection…and the rest would be distributed through the cultural economy.”
The premises above rely on a pool of someone else’s money. The publisher is the steward of this investment. At minimum, the publisher doesn’t lose the money, but the goal is growth. Murray says that at HarperCollins a book is successful when it “sells more than [it was] expected [to] sell.”
It’s not helpful to analyze independent art publishing by strict financial metrics. Good to Great author Jim Collins recommends another approach for establishing an “economic engine” in the absence of a profit motive. He asks us to consider, “How effectively do we deliver on our mission and make a distinctive impact, relative to our resources?” Collins divides resources into three parts: time, money and brand.
“Time” (how well you attract people willing to contribute their efforts for free, or at rates below what their talents would yield in business), “money” (sustained cash flow), and “brand” (how well your organization can cultivate a deep well of emotional goodwill and mind-share of potential supporters).
How much capital a publisher needs is dependent on the aims of her program. The publisher must establish specific, meaningful, attainable, relevant and timely performance goals in line with her mission. More importantly, she must be disciplined and accountable to the “brutal facts.”
I have a few hypotheses about what metrics will be important for my imprint Dominica. I’m sharing these to encourage others to set their own standards.
Everyone involved in the production of a book should be paid. In theory, this widens the available talent pool. Free work often aligns unevenly against social and racial identities. I’m committed to expanding our community. While money is primarily an “input” in the social sector, in this case it’s directly related to one of my outputs, investment.
Read It And Weep
I make books for the reader. Described by writer Jeffrey Eugenides as “That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for. I want my books to be worth the reader’s time…” I am interested in the people Mat Johnson calls geeks, those with an “overwhelming passion for the idiosyncratic intellectual crush.” iPad, Kindle, browser, link, book, blog, zine, screen. Follow the reader.
Subject Not Object
Poet Nikky Finney reminds us of The Slave Codes of SC in her 2011 National Book Award acceptance speech:
A fine of one hundred dollars and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read, or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature.
This is the legacy that I inherited. Dominica is a publishing company dedicated to exploring blackness as a topic, reference, marker and audience in visual culture. I don’t feel comfortable asserting myself as “black,” but I’m excited to explore that tension.
“Success” is a misleading concept. It’s often discussed as if it were fixed rather than mutable. My personal formulation of achievement has changed dramatically in the past year. It’s liable to change again. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter what the goal is, it matters that I’m accountable to my own idea of greatness.