Craft beers, artisanal cheeses, small-batch bourbons—these and many other niche businesses thrive today by providing quality products for audiences seeking value and exceptional experiences. So why not small-batch publishing?
Caleb Mason runs Publerati, his independent publishing enterprise, from his home in Vinalhaven on a coastal Maine island reached by a 75-minute ferry ride. There, he happily publishes books like Joyce Kornblatt’s Mother Tongue. “Kornblatt marks a 20-year comeback with a perfectly crafted novel,” according to a PW starred review in June. “This author’s worthy return is full of grace and substance.” The key to success, Mason says, is relying not only on good writing but also technology that allows for a focus on scale—the same approach as at your favorite microbrewery.
“That is the only model that makes sense for the kind of novels I’m publishing,” Mason tells me in a recent interview for the Velocity of Content podcast from CCC. “I do paperback editions and I do e-books. I price them $10 apart, thinking it’s worth $10 more to the person who really wants paperback. But all my e-books are under $10, because for digital content to compete with other digital content, like Netflix and everything else we’re used to, the pricing needs to make sense in the overall marketplace.”
“These are literary novels. Their market is going to be small. How do I make publishing work for this group of people who I think are still deserving? The only way to do that is to keep costs incredibly low. All my books are print-on-demand—there must be an order in hand for the book to be printed and to be shipped.” While there’s no bridge to the mainland from Vinalhaven, Mason has built himself a digital bridge. “I wouldn’t be doing it without the promise of digital. The big thing of my lifetime is personal computing and the networking of people and content. It’s just such a revolutionary opportunity,” he says.
On Vinalhaven, Mason’s publishing business sits among the lobster boats and the summer cottages. “There are a lot of paradoxes about living on this island. Even though we are remote, the community is very tight-knit, and people pull together to help one another. The remoteness, though, gives you some space, some freedom, a chance to think and to do the work you really want to be doing, free from distractions,” Mason notes. Idyllic summers on the island inevitably give way to stormy winters. While islanders do endure seasonal periods of isolation, Mason’s livelihood isn’t threatened. “If the power goes out, the island has a backup generator,” he says. “Actually, our power tends to go out for less time in a storm than it does on the mainland.”
That weatherproofed and digital connection to the world led Mason to find Joyce Kornblatt, who lives in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, Australia. She had been a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Maryland. “I connected with Joyce when I posted to a mutual friend’s page on Facebook, believe it or not,” Mason recalls. “I think she checked me out and I checked her out, and we both reached out to each other in unison. She sent me [Mother Tongue]. I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years, and the reviews are carrying that out.”
Typically, publishers must work to satisfy multiple, sometimes competing sets of customers: authors, booksellers, and readers. Mason says, “I think authors are my happiest customers. With all authors, I like to make sure they understand what I’m capable of doing, what I’m trying to do, and to make sure they haven’t already exhausted other opportunities,” he explains. “I pay authors higher royalty rates than they get from traditional publishers, but I don’t pay advances. The problems I’ve solved the most have been for authors. That’s not to say they don’t wish I could do better for them, and I keep trying.”
What makes authors and publisher both happiest of all is to reach readers, and as many as possible. He approaches the effort more as starting a relationship than as acquiring a customer. “I’m really interested when I hear from readers directly how much they loved the book. I know every author, no matter where they’re published, loves that feedback from a single human being who really gets their work. Because writing is a ton of work, and it’s nice to get that reward.
“I would almost rather readers see me like a book club or a collection, where they know when they buy something from Publerati, they’re getting a certain quality within a certain niche genre,” Mason says.
“It’s back to the microbrewery model,” he adds. “I only make so many types of beer here.”
Christopher Kenneally hosts the Velocity of Content podcast from the Copyright Clearance Center.