Jonathan Amid interviews Brent Meersman about Missing Ink Publishers.
Brent Meersman (photo: Amit Raz)
Brent, please tell us a bit more about Missing Ink Publishers, described as an authors’ cooperative publisher.
Working only with well-established writers and published authors, Missing Ink is an authors’ cooperative publisher in which the authors receives 100% of the profits from the sale of their work. Authors discuss and edit one another’s manuscripts and employ experienced freelance professionals to sub-edit, proofread, and to design both print and e-book editions of their work. So, it’s a community of writers, responsive to the creative as well as the commercial needs of authors. We publish fiction, non-fiction and poetry too.
The publishing industry is difficult at the best of times. Why did the authors at MI decide to band together, and how feasible is it to have authors receive 100% of the profits from the sale of their work?
It’s completely feasible. We don’t work on a royalty. Whatever the book makes after all expenses are paid goes to the author – as simple as that. Obviously, if the book makes a loss, the author or authors who have shared the risk will take the knock.
In capitalism, whoever puts up the cash takes the profit, and that is what publishers do. It’s important to note that the author has already invested a lot in the book through unpaid labour, so it isn’t true that the publisher takes the risk solely or makes the whole investment.
So, let’s say your novel sold only 1 000 copies and retailed for R190 a copy. Typically, you’d get a 12,5% royalty from a publisher, which would amount to a cheque for about R12 000 usually paid six months after publishing. The same author through Missing Ink would get a cheque for at least R35 000, and it could be substantially more if there are many direct sales.
Furthermore, after the initial costs are covered the profit rises very steeply. So if you sold 2 000 copies you’d get not twice R35 000, but over R100 000. With a normal publisher you’d get a cheque for only R24 000. So it’s a no-brainer for us. We have already surpassed these figures.
What are the benefits, financially but also creatively, of keeping things in-house?
First, let me stress two things. I am dead against authors self-publishing. I think it is a bad idea, unless you’re James Joyce or Marcel Proust (both of whom self-published – Ulysses and Swann’s Way). If authors want to self-publish they must first become publishers. You have to do everything a publisher does, and as well, or better.
Secondly, it’s high risk for first-time authors. One of the main reasons Missing Ink is working is that all its authors were already published several times by mainstream publishers. That may change as Missing Ink grows a name.
Creatively, publishers vary. Some are very good with their authors; others do things one hates. It is marvellous to be 100% in control. As things currently stand, I feel it is the best decision I’ve ever made as a writer.
How do you balance being about “what writers want” with the business side of things? Put differently, how does one attain that middle ground between the “creative” and the “commercial”?
I don’t agree with the premise of your question. There is no middle ground. And sometimes there is no conflict between the commercial and the creative. If, however, you are asking whether we would steer a writer away from how they want to do things towards writing in a way that may sell more copies, the answer is no. I’d simply advise a writer that the book they envisage is a hard sell, and it’s up to them then. As we’re not a company with shareholders, employees and overheads, we don’t have the commercial imperatives of a big publishing house. So we’re not in the least tempted into prostituting our authors’ talents for profit.
Pieter-Dirk Uys (photo source: Missing Ink Publishers)
John Matisonn (photo source: Missing Ink Publishers)
As an author yourself, what is it like being edited and discussed by other authors, and then editing the author that possibly edited your work? How do you manage possible conflict, or is Missing Ink one happy family at the best and worst of times?
It’s fantastic. The relationship between author and editor is very special. And not everyone can swap hats. We avoid conflict up front because we don’t assign people in the way that publishers have to. One author asks another. The author asks someone they feel comfortable with and trust; and whoever agrees to edit will agree only if they want to edit the work. If there is no economy of favours at work – you edited me so I’ll edit you – then the author will pay the other author a professional editor’s fee. Again, it helps to be working only with established writers who have been through the process.
How difficult is it to run an independent publisher in 2014 in South Africa? What are the biggest challenges you have (to) overcome, and where have you been successful?
On many levels it could not be easier. All the services – typesetting, editing, proofing, printing, design – are there. Then there are e-books and print on demand. In that sense, it is the easiest thing in the world these days to set up a publishing company.
The biggest hurdle remains the distribution of print copies if you’re not a big publisher. We have overcome this mostly thanks to Xavier Nagel agencies. We appear to have cracked it. Though we’re far from perfect, it is respectably on a par with my experiences of the big publishers.
The biggest challenge is sales, of course, and in that we face exactly the same difficulty as any publisher and it’s neither harder nor more difficult for us than it is for them.
Our authors are a bit more motivated to get out there, though, because they have a tangible stake in the work.
Missing Ink publishes both fiction and non-fiction. Please tell us a bit about recent fiction and non-fiction titles, and about the kind of work that you are looking to offer the broader reading public?
Readers should go to www.missingink.co.za for our latest titles. We’re only a year old. Our first title was published July 2013. If there is a niche for us it will probably develop in the direction of literary fiction. The big publishers are abandoning it, the way they abandoned poetry years ago. The economics no longer make sense for them to do it, but it does make sense for us financially.
I should add that there are many books we wouldn’t attempt, because they are beyond our resources and capacity. And if a blockbuster author like Wilbur Smith walked through the door, I’m not sure I could offer him anything either.
Also, I see myself as a hybrid author. Depending on the book – some I’d do only through Missing Ink, other books I have in mind I would do only if I have a mainstream publisher backing them.
Does being an independent publisher make it easier to be more daring, controversial or challenging in the work you produce, and does this influence your work as a writer?
Possibly. We don’t have to go through committees. But I’ve always dug in my heals. If I have to compromise on how and what I write according to somebody else’s views based on their hunches (because it’s really no more scientific than that) about sales – well, I’d rather not write. The sales logic leads inevitably to turning writers into copycats. No thanks.
To keep to the topic of content: Which stories in South Africa, and indeed the world, do you think are being told well, and with verve and originality; and conversely, which narratives do you think we need to be seeing more of? Are there any taboos for you as publisher and writer?
You’re asking me to write a book with that question. Where does one begin? In terms of the world, writers used to go and fish out stories and bring them imaginatively to life and to the attention of the world. But people are telling their own stories these days. We are exposed to narratives from the very remotest places. It is an amazing time we live in. So much of the human enterprise that was hidden has now come to light.
We’re lucky in South Africa. We are surrounded by stories that haven’t yet been told or have not yet been formed. We have a constant influx of incredible stories from the whole continent. We are a society that is still undergoing violent and dramatic convulsions. What was true yesterday is no longer true today. And we have a history that has hardly been written. What could be more fertile ground for a writer?
There are very few taboos today, but there are always unsaid truths. It’s also always worth interrogating all master narratives, prejudice, ignorance and so forth. But perhaps a bigger challenge these days is to tell things with sensitivity rather than through shock.
What are your thoughts on the state of the publishing industry globally and in South Africa right now, and do you think enough is being done by government to help independent publishers?
I’d love to be paid by the government to write! It happens in some places in the world. But I can see a system like that leading to a black hole.
I don’t know if government has any answers, but what I do think it can do is just buy more books! If it bought just one copy for every library in the country of each good, newly published South African novel, that would be enough to sustain our writers. It’s actually that easy.
The English language publishing industry is undergoing huge changes. Most notably, consolidation.
In South Africa it means fewer outlets. When my first novel, Primary Coloured, was published in 2007, I could send the manuscript to about eight or ten publishers. It was accepted by two. Now, for South African novels, it’s half that.
Secondly, publishers are placing more and more emphasis on fewer titles – the blockbusters. Everything gets aimed at just one book on their list – like The Da Vinci Code or 50 Shades or Harry Potter. The one book by the grace of which all the rest of us go.
There’s a lot to complain about, but none of it helps. You have to just get on with writing.
Among Brent Meersman’s books are:
Primary Coloured, Human & Rousseau, 2007
Reports before Daybreak, Umuzi-Random House, 2011
Five Lives at Noon,Missing Ink, 2013
80 Gays around the world, Missing Ink, 2014