The Curtain Rises — by Martine Syms

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.


Get Money


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.

Love and Loss — by Martine Syms

I want to talk about loss; forgetting, disappearance, ends, deficits.


It’s been two weeks since my last article. I apologize for my tardiness. I had a feeling that I shouldn’t put a timeframe, but in a way it’s a continuation on the theme. I’m not being paid to write this series. And why should I be? No one else is being paid to do Paperweight. That’s fine. But I’m two weeks late and no one bothered me because I’m doing this for free. Or maybe no one bothered me because we (all 100 of us) were busy buying and selling artifacts at the NY Art Book Fair.


In business, profit and loss are related concepts. Income minus expenses equals profit (or loss). The helpful, but terribly written, how-to book Accounting Comes Alive defines income as “value generating activity” and expenses as “value sacrificing activity.”


It’s taken me a while to truly understand that “value generating activity” always comes with expenses. “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” is a pop song about cost of goods. You have to breakeven before you can profit.


Breakeven Point (BEP) is calculated using the formula below:

Breakeven point = fixed costs / (unit selling price – variable unit costs)


Let’s say I’m making a book. Each book cost me $5, I plan to sell it for $15. My fixed costs (editing, graphic design, marketing, etc.) are $2,000.


$2000 / ($15-$5) = 200.


My breakeven point is 200 books. But what if I only make 200 books? I won’t make a profit. What if I really want to sell my book for $8. I’ll need to sell 667 copies and expand my edition size, or lose money. What if I want to maintain a small edition size and make a profit? I’ll need to raise my selling price.


It may already be clear that art publishing has two major barriers to profit: 1) the audience is extremely small and 2) within that audience only a select group of people are willing to pay premium. I believe this despite the NY Art Book Fair’s attendance of over 20,000 visitors. While those numbers are promising, I’m more interested in the conversion rates. I’m proud to say that Golden Age maintained a 30% conversion rate. Unfortunately, our volume was too low for it to matter.


Last Time: Business Models
Next Week (Maybe): Success, that distant apex

I’m a Business, Man — by Martine Syms

What is a business model?


At Harvard Business School, Professor Tom Eisenmann teaches that “a business model is an integrated array of distinctive choices specifying a startup’s unique customer value proposition and how it will configure activities—including those of its partners—to deliver that value and earn sustainable profits.”


In Business Model Generation, authors Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur suggest that a business model “describes the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers, and captures value.”


Both definitions hinge on the word “value.” This abstract concept hovers around “money,” and maybe “art.” Since the most recent Financial Crisis (and probably before, but I’m young) the art world has been searching for new models—disruption—to match the changing economic climate. The greater publishing industry has already been disrupted. Art publishing, the grey area in this venn diagram, is ripe for business model innovation.


Adam Huttler, Executive Director of Fractured Atlas, offers a helpful analogy for the current art publishing business model: “…Someone offers you a bet. He’s going to flip a coin; if it’s heads you lose $100; if it’s tails you win nothing.”


Would you take that bet?


Huttler uses this metaphor to explain the position of art administrators, but it works just as well for art publishers. But is breaking-even success?



Next week: Love and Loss