It may be cliche but there’s a Chinese proverb that comes to mind: “When someone shares something of value with you, and you benefit from it, you have a moral obligation to share it with others.” But publishing is a business, and because the purpose of business is to make money, business obligation overshadows moral obligation. The wonderful news is that although I run a small publishing house, I do what I do for the fun and love of it. I have no business obligation to company secrets. My duty, then, is to clear the path of shrubs and bramble for future writers who may benefit in some small measure.
In 2008 I finished my first book—unpublished writers do this all the time: call a manuscript a book or a novel because they’re imagining their work in its ultimate form. So, in 2008 I finished my first book. Perhaps like every other writer who doesn’t know where to start, I began scouring the Internet and Yellow Pages for “Caribbean publishers”. In retrospect, I was hoping to secure a publisher that would stand the cost of publishing, printing and marketing; plus—I’m chuckling—pay me a handsome advance.
I called around, sensing I was more of a bother to the publishers. Some recommended I send them my manuscript. But I didn’t trust the idea of mailing or emailing my work to people I didn’t know, so a new chapter of investigations into copyright opened. This took me to Legal Affairs where the staff were helpful but only told me things I could have learned from a textbook. The most useful thing I learned about was “the poor man copyright”. It involved posting a copy of the manuscript to myself by registered mail. When I collected the package, it was all stamped with little red circles. Inside each circle was the date, marking each stage in transit. To date, the package remains sealed in a safe location.
Nevertheless, the enthusiasm from publishers wasn’t forthcoming. Wherever I called, the “right man” to talk to was never around. If he was, his secretary was more protective than his wife. I’m still waiting on some to call back. Clearly there were no serious publishers on the island. I was thinking local. Looking outside never occurred to me.
To get it done, I had to publish the book myself. This meant a couple things: I had to open a publishing firm; I had to get an ISBN number because all books have ISBN numbers, right? And I had to find a printer who was inexpensive, trustworthy and could print by December because Christmas was perhaps a good time to sell books.
Choosing a name for the company was more difficult than establishing it. Prior to “my book”, I was working on a Caribbean recipe website registered as potbake.com. Completing the registration form at The Ministry of Finance, it occurred to me that I could use the existing website for the publishing firm. I could have written “Potbake Publications” but the name didn’t embody other interests such as film and software so, without giving it much thought, I scrawled Potbake Productions. Since then I have experienced moments of regret, embarrassment and ridicule at the selection, but I have grown to love it as a homemade recipe.
During this time, I was simultaneously working on securing a printer and ISBN number. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t rocket science. The ISBN Programme for the Caribbean Region is administered by the Regional ISBN Agency, Caribbean Community Secretariat. The Secretariat’s website has request forms and details on processing. Following the instructions took me to The Technical Services Department in NALIS with a bank draft and application form for 10 ISBN numbers as I might—just might—want to write a second book.
By the end of November I had the ISBN numbers and a printer I could work with. It was a chance meeting really, one of those great things that just happen. Another printer, just before he ended a telephone conversation we were having, said:
“Try this number. Ask for Fareed Mohammed. His printing company, Graphic Scripts Printing, is in Cane Farm. Tell him I referred you.”
My heart leapt for Cane Farm was nearby. We must have met that very day, going through process and qualitative and quantitative concerns: 500 copies would cost ‘x’ amount per copy, 1,000 a lesser amount. As silly as it sounds, I remember being utterly confused that the cost per copy decreased as the numbers increased. Mr. Mohammed patiently explained that although they were capable, Graphic Scripts’ primary business, as most other “publishing” businesses in Trinidad and Tobago, was printing—not publishing in the traditional sense where the publisher absorbs all costs and pays that handsome advance you might be thinking about. Truth being told, you’re fortunate and remarkable if you score such a deal as a first-time author. I had to take a loan. In essence, what I was doing, without knowing it, was self-publishing my book.
If you want to save money you’re going to have to do a lot for yourself. This often means depending on those close to you. I was fortunate to have technical skill and a strong support team. I designed the book cover. Others proofread or shared their views on the cover design. In my spare time I worked on nothing else. If you rely on your talent alone, chances are the final product will be sloppy.
Despite Graphic Scripts’ tight schedule, they printed and bound 1,000 copies of 90 Days of Violence by mid-December. My calculations are usually off, but when I did the math, calculating the number of houses on each street and people I knew in the area, I arrived at a startling conclusion: I could sell 1,000 books in one week. The same day the books came home, I slung a market bag with eleven books over my shoulder. If the bag had enough room I would have taken one hundred. I walked through the avenues of Trincity, stopping to talk to residents. Turning the book over in their hands, each congratulated me, but no one bought.
When I returned home disappointed, my dad said, “You think you’re selling bread?”
And he was right. A book isn’t a necessity. As with all habits, it is a luxury to those who can afford it. The very best have to accept that their work isn’t going to sell as well as they would like. But there are avenues of opportunity: social media for networking; there’s the national library where you’re guaranteed to push off at least 35 books; The Rudranath Capildeo Learning Resource Centre also accepts books for consideration in school libraries; through Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon.com has made self-publishing an electronic breeze, an excellent resource for visibility and building capital; local bookstores are opening up more to Caribbean writers. But to date, experience shows that in the Caribbean the best resource for publishing, marketing and selling your book, is you, the author.