Some thoughts on small-scale anarchist publishing

Anarkismens ABC

In December 2010, I and a few other people published 200 copies of Anarkismens ABC, a Danish translation of Alexander Berkman's ABC of Anarchism. Since I had never tried publishing a book before, I have decided to note down some of my experiences with the process, in the hope that it might be useful for others thinking about experimenting with small-scale self-publishing.

Background:

The idea to publish a book came from our experience in running a small anarchist library and bookshop in a Copenhagen social center. When starting the library, we decided to prioritise Danish language books in order to make the material as accessible as possible. While Danish people are generally quite good at English, most people aren't that interested in reading long books in English, particularly if the books are rather abstract or philosophical. We succeeded in getting many Danish books for our collection, but we were then faced with the problem that many of these books were from the 1970s, were in poor condition and were often on rather obscure topics of little current relevance. For all these reasons, a few of us involved in the project decided that it would be useful to publish a book on anarchism in Danish (admittedly an obscure topic, but one, I would argue, of continuing relevance).

Since it had been approximately 40 years since a book on anarchism had previously come out in Danish, we wanted the book to be an introduction type book, that assumed little previous knowledge on the subject. We also wanted to ensure that the book was written in an accessible language, that the layout would be of high-quality and that the book would be affordably priced. Since there was only a few of us involved at that point, we also wanted to make sure that the book was already available in translation, so that we wouldn't need to translate it ourselves.

 

Proofreading Hell

Eventually, we decided upon Berkman's ABC. We had found an old linotype translation from 1973 which we began scanning into a computer. Once all pages were scanned, we used OCR software (optical character recognition) to convert the image files into text and then embarked on a proofreading odyssey to correct for scanning errors and modernise the language somewhat. This was the longest part of the whole process. Proofreading is a tiresome business at the best of times and this text was really in a poor state. Not only were there many errors in the scanning, but there were also errors in the original translation. We outsourced the work to several different people by posting a call for help on an online anarchist debate forum, then dividing the text up and sending a piece to each person who responded.

On reflection, this might have not been such a good idea. While this process did get some of the work done, there was very little communication with the participants and several of them got bored halfway through and gave up. Even after this, the job was still far from complete and we had three different people read the text before we felt comfortable going to print. Once the last proofreading was finished, it was time to layout the text.

 

Layout

Luckily, I happened to know a talented graphic designer who was conveniently (for us) unemployed at the time. She made a very fine layout for the book, although it took her a while to get around to it. Although we weren't working with strict deadlines in this case, this highlights a recurring problem with running projects on a voluntary basis; that people often forget about things or don't get them done. I personally (and I presume a lot of other people) have problems with pestering and badgering people to finish their work when they're doing it for free. This means that deadlines will often slip by the wayside, leading to projects often fizzling out or being forgotten about. This is a terribly demoralising experience, especially if you have personally put a lot of work into something. In this case however, the delay was not significant, we had already spent a huge amount of time doing proofreading - a month or two extra on layout was not going to throw us of course now!

 

Printing

When it came to printing, there were several considerations that guided our decisions. Firstly, we wanted to make it cheap to print and cheap to buy. Secondly, we didn't want to make too large a print-run, in case we didn't make our investment back. For these reasons, we decided to go with digital printing.

The difference between digital printing and offset printing for publishers is one of scale and price. Digital printing tends to cost a fixed price per unit, so printing 200 copies will cost exactly the same per unit as printing ten copies. On the other hand, offset printing tends to become cheaper per unit the more one prints. That is, a print-run of 10,000 will have a substantially lower cost per unit than a print-run of 100. For these reasons, off-set printing incentivises large print-runs. This is fine when you're sure of selling a large number, but who wants to risk that when you're printing for a small market or have little money to begin with?

While many people romanticise the look and feel of off-set print, I'm personally inclined to think of digital printing as enabling a revolution in the way in which small-scale actors can get their message out. As Herman and Chomsky have written, increased capital costs in printing during the 19th Century led to increased centralisation in the news-media of the time, thus putting many radical and working-class oriented publishers out of business. In our own time, digital printing means lower entry-costs for publishers, thus enabling many radical groups to publish far more cheaply than they would have been able to before.

In the end, we printed 200 copies of the book for the price of 3,070 kroner (or 411 euros). The full specifications are as follows: 142 pages, size 120 x 185 (black and white on both sides), on 100g Munken Print Cream. Binding: 260g Chromocard (Full colour on one side), Spine 11.05mm. It came to cost more with tax and shipping, but this is the basic price. This was dead cheap, meaning that we could sell books for very little and still make a small profit.

 

Distribution

When starting this project, it was very hard to tell how many books we would manage to sell. In my experience, distribution has always been weakest link in anarchist publishing and the one that is easiest to overlook (my experience prior to this was in helping to publish the newspaper of an Irish anarchist group, the Workers Solidarity Movement as well as a few other smaller projects). Anarchism is unfortunately very much a fringe ideology and is not the type of stuff that is typically stocked in your local bookstore. There are of course some small radical bookstores and distros, but these would typically buy only a small amount at a time and their reach is very limited. This meant that we needed to experiment a little bit with distribution.

On the one hand, we decided that we wanted to make an effort to get into bookstores and libraries. If we did get in, we would reach a lot more people than we normally would, if we didn't, it would be learning experience at the very least. To do this, we needed to register as a publisher in order to get an ISBN number. This was surprisingly little effort, we had to fill out a few forms and then make sure to send the registration office two copies of the book when it came out. This meant that the books was registered in a national system that all Danish libraries and bookstores have access to. Although we didn't expect it, we received a surprisingly large number of orders through these channels. Unfortunately, due to delays with registration, they took some time to come through and we were sold out before they started to arrive. The high number of orders has probably a lot to do with the fact that Danish is spoken by a relatively small number of people (around six million), meaning that few new books in Danish come out every year. For the same reason, it is unlikely that an English language publisher in the same situation would have the same experience.

On the other hand, we wanted to figure out a way to cut out the middleman by experimenting with “informal” distribution. This meant that we gave discounts based on how many books one bought. By doing this, we hoped to incentivise people to buy extra copies, which they could then give to their friends, parents or whatever. The table below summarises the price system we used.

1 book to print: 18DKK (inclusive shipping)

1 book: 40 DKK

2 Books: 60 DKK (30 each)

3 Books: 75 DKK (25 each)

10 Books: 200 DKK (20 each)

 

Our sales figures showed that a very large number of our customers chose to buy multiple copies. Our biggest customers were radical distros and bookstores who tended to buy in bundles of ten (these accounted for 132 of our sales). However, of the remaining 63 books (some copies were given away to contributors and reviewers), 53 were sold in bundles of 2-9 while only 10 copies were sold individually.

There are a few things to be said for this method. On the one hand, our success in selling a lot of copies very quickly is undoubtable (we sold all 200 copies within a month and a half of launching). On the other hand, the extraordinarily low prices for distributors meant that we earned very little on the books (we earned a small amount over our printing costs). This means of course, that our distributors did earn something on the books. Presuming that they sold all books at the unit price of 40 DKK; through publishing the book, we contributed 2,640 DKK (132 x 20) to a variety of radical book stores and distros across Denmark. Not a huge figure, but a nice contribution anyway.

 

Conclusion

Publishing Anarkismens ABC has ultimately proved to be a successful experiment. Selling 200 copies of an anarchist book in a month and a half was a wonderful result and validation of our efforts. We now have the money to publish another run and are beginning to prepare a stable collective that can continue to publish for years ahead. It is worth remembering that many of the decisions we made were based on very local conditions, so the same things might not work for you in your context. However, I think that there are several ideas worth trying out again:

 

  1. Small runs of digital print: This makes it possible to publish on a small-scale for very little money. Once you have re-couped your investment, you can start to expand. If you don't, you might want to reconsider your approach.

  2. Get experts: A good graphic designer, proofreader etc makes all the difference. Having access to people with specialised skills means cultivating a network, keeping an eye on who can do what and what they're up for. Obviously, it's not always possible to find experts willing to work for free, but do your best!

  3. Flexible pricing: Set a standard price for individual copies. Make it ultra cheap for radical distros to buy big bundles, but also make it more attractive for people to buy extra copies to give to their friends. Sell the book to bookstores and libraries for the standard price, they can afford it.

  4. Go official: Try to register as a publisher and get an ISBN number. This makes it far easier to get your book into mainstream outlets, meaning that you can get the book out to new audiences that you would never otherwise have reached. Of course, this also carries with it some issues of legal responsibility, so if you're going to publish something that might get you sued / arrested, you might want to ignore this step.

  


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles