Small press and non-digital survival

It’s a fact of the publishing world that new ventures rise and old ones fail all the time. Running a small press is incredibly hard work, and there’s not much, if any, profit to be found. So many small presses are run for the love of it, with their owners also keeping a full time job and using their own money to keep the press afloat. If a small press can break even, financially, it’s considered a success. Of course, there are those which do actually turn a profit, even if it’s not a full living wage, and those presses could go on to eventually become financially successful ventures. But it’s not easy and by no means definite. With the way the publishing world is currently changing, there are a lot of pitfalls along the way, just as there are a lot more opportunities out there. Never before has the phrase “Adapt or die” been more relevant.

So it was with sadness and some consternation that I read about the closure of Wet Ink the other day. From their announcement:

It is with great regret we have to announce that Wet Ink is closing down after seven years of publication; the current issue, number 27, is the last.

We were hoping for number 28, but it isn’t feasible.

Basically, the reasons are financial. Retail sales are weak, advertising and sponsorship are almost impossible to obtain and subscriptions levels haven’t been enough to make up for the shortfall in other areas. Despite all of these problems we are not interested in only going digital, as it isn’t for us a meaningful alternative.

Now I quite understand that some people are married to the physical artefact and not interested in reading ebooks. I understand that many publishers aren’t interested in learning new skills to engage with the digital marketplace. Even though those skills are easy to learn and implement, I get that some people aren’t interested. And, as a result, the publishing endeavours of those people will die because of it. What confused me more in the case of Wet Ink was this line:

Despite all of these problems we are not interested in only going digital, as it isn’t for us a meaningful alternative.

(The emphasis is my own.)

Only? Meaningful? The implication there is that survival is only likely with a purely digital product, which is simply not true. Digital production doesn’t mean only ebooks. With technology as it is today, it’s quite possible to build any publishing venture into a print and digital product without any compromise on quality and with far lower operating costs. Print On Demand technology is responsible for producing some truly beautiful books and magazines these days, without the high cost of physical print runs. Also, the difference between producing a print product and then adjusting that product for the ebook market is negligible in terms of time and effort.

A press that is producing a quality magazine with high running costs can switch to POD and ebook production quickly and easily and still produce their own favoured high end print artefact, as well as making ebook versions available, thereby maintaining any existing (print) subscriber base and potentially attracting a whole new set of electronic subscribers. That’s adapting to the modern era and giving yourself a chance at survival.

To suggest that it’s death or digital, as in suggesting that it’s a choice between losing money on beautiful books or giving in to those awful ebooks, is misinformed. It’s a perfect example of refusing to adapt, therefore dying.

I feel for the people behind Wet Ink, I really do. It sucks when something you love becomes unsustainable. I quite understand that there are people who don’t want to learn or embrace the new digital ways. But it’s a shame that a well-respected journal like Wet Ink has to die because digital isn’t seen as a “meaningful alternative”. What’s not meaningful about keeping a good thing alive?

Adapting to the modern environment is something people have always had to do. Every industry goes through many changes and old technologies die or change. Publishing, until recently, has been strangely insulated from change. But not any more. It’s very sad to see Wet Ink die, just as it’s sad to see any journal die, thus reducing the variety of publications out there.

I wish the people behind Wet Ink all the best. And I hope other publishers stay on top of this changing world and manage to adapt so their publications don’t die too. Still, even if they do, young turks will come along with new ideas, embrace the new technology and opportunity, and exciting new things will appear. Publishing isn’t dead or dying – far from it. It’s never been more vibrant.

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