A few years ago I had a harebrained idea. I decided to start a publishing company to produce my own work because I’m a coward and couldn’t face certain multiple rejections (or worse, silence) from established publishers.
However, very soon after informing family and friends of my cunning plan, a number of previously published authors who’d found themselves without a publishing home landed on my doorstep. When I talked to these authors about their work two things hit me like a B-line bus barrelling down Pittwater Road – (1) producing a manuscript is really hard work and (2) authors, in the main, have little or no input to the commercial end of the publishing equation.
Granted, what I don’t know about book publishing and selling is a lot. But you don’t have to be Einstein to see that publishing is a byzantine industry dominated by big players where margins at every point in the supply chain are shrinking every day. Additionally, in my humble opinion as a newbie publisher, this is an industry where the two groups of people who should matter the most – authors and readers – are way down the pecking order of priorities.
Who can blame authors for heading down the self/independent publishing path in droves in a bid to regain some semblance of control over the financial returns from their hard work? Likewise with consumers – why shouldn’t readers be able to procure books in whatever format suits them best to consume – print, ebook or audio? For years now I’ve used Booktopia or Amazon for delivery of print books to my home or ebooks and audiobooks to my mobile devices. This is mostly because I’m time-poor and would rather put my hand on a hotplate than trek all the way to the bookstore at the mall, only to find they have to order in the book I’m looking for anyway.
So yes, the publishing and bookselling industry is ripe for disruption. And while being disruptive wasn’t my first reason for starting an independent publishing outfit, I confess the rebel in me likes the idea of ‘sticking it to the man’ and giving the little people, like authors and readers, a leg up.
I like to think that For Pity Sake Publishing has punched above its weight in the past four years. We have five authors (of which I am one) and we’ve brought to market twelve books in various genres in all three formats – print, ebook and audiobook. We pay higher-than-the-industry-standard royalties for books sold through the retail channel. We also offer our authors the opportunity to invest in their own work in order to receive a substantially higher rate of royalty return on direct-from-the-publisher sales.
To my bank manager’s chagrin, we’re ages away from breaking-even, let alone profitability, and sometimes this frightens me. Making yet another withdrawal from one’s superannuation fund or maxing out one’s credit cards to keep the doors open are hardly conducive to a good night’s sleep. And yet, when has it ever not been thus for small, start-up businesses in any industry, particularly where the new enterprise in question is trying to ride the wave of disruption?
Recently I was having a little freak-out about how I was going to pay an invoice from the production studio where we record our audiobooks. Although I’d actually never read it, the copy of Simon Sinek’s 2009 book Start With Why that resides in my bookshelf happened to catch my eye in that moment. Ironically, I still didn’t have time to read the book so I downloaded an audio version instead, narrated by Sinek himself, and listened to it while doing everyday things like driving and chopping vegetables for dinner. I’m really glad I did.
The first story in Sinek’s introduction is about Wilbur and Orville Wright. The Wright Brothers, through sheer commitment and a tenacious grip on their ‘why’, beat the university-educated, better funded and infinitely more politically connected Samuel Pierpoint Langley to the punch of getting a man airborne in a flying machine. It’s a great comfort to me that small groups of skilled but vastly underfunded people can still come out on top.
Sinek’s second example is that of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs and their vision for putting computer power into the hands of individuals and small enterprises, enabling them to take on the big kids in the corporate playground. As Sinek observes, Wozniak was not motivated by money but by a nobler purpose for his technology. Stirring stuff and a salutary reminder that seemingly ‘pie-in-the-sky’ nobler purposes are not mutually exclusive with stratospheric commercial success.
Sinek begins Start with Why by saying he’s not trying to fix things that aren’t working or ‘to upset the solutions offered by others.’ He observes that most answers we get are valid when they’re based on sound evidence. However, to quote Sinek to the letter, ‘if we’re starting with the wrong questions, if we don’t understand the cause, even the right answers will always steer us wrong, eventually.’
This is the baseline premise of Simon Sinek’s exhortation to ‘always start with why’. More importantly, to my mind, is the act of reacquainting oneself with one’s why when the going gets tough, which it invariably does.
And when it does, I find it most effective to use sensory ways to remind myself as to why I’ve established a start-up in the highly disrupted publishing and bookselling industry:
- Witnessing an author’s eyes well with tears when she holds in her hands the book she never thought would be published.
- Having a reader tell me they ‘absolutely loved’ one of our books.
- Receiving an email from an author thanking me for the prompt and larger than expected royalty payment.
- Feeling utter joy when narrating my own work into audiobook formats.
Starting with Why won’t enable you to avoid feeling the fear that all entrepreneurs and small business people feel. But it’s a practice that consistently helps me put those fears into perspective.