Supplement / November 2011 (Issue 15)


The Things We've Learned along the Way: Notes on Starting Signal 8 Press (Hong Kong)

by Marshall Moore



I must be certifiable. Starting a publishing company in the midst of all this industry turmoil? That's the message—implicit and explicit—I've gotten more or less since day one. As if that madness alone weren't enough, I also had to go and set up a company with two imprints, one of which hybridizes publishing and distribution in a way no one else out there has done yet. Oh, and we're incorporated...in two countries, no less. If I weren't already used to myself, I'd probably think I was mental, too. At the very least, there's been no end to the explaining.

Perhaps you've heard of us. More likely, you haven't. Signal 8 Press publishes original titles, in English, with an Asia-Pacific focus. I have to be careful here, lest I begin to regurgitate the verbiage from our website and our countless please-review-this-book e-mails. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that there was room for a small press with this geographic specialty to focus on the North American market...and, perhaps, succeed. The way we release books isn't what I'd call ground-breaking, but we do it in a manner that no one in the region seems to have emulated yet. The model is more like what indie presses in the US are doing nowadays: we use Lightning Source for just-in-time book printing and also release the books more or less simultaneously as e-books. Our first three books have been met with glowing (even rave) reviews, I'm pleased to report. People are even buying them, too.

BookCyclone is our little monster hybrid, working with authors and other publishers to convert their books (backlist and new releases, regardless of genre or geography) into e-books, which we also distribute. After a lot of research into what was involved in producing e-books for Signal 8 Press, I had begun to notice the big hole in the market: indie titles, backlist books, even the new releases from presses outside the US/UK mainstream...books that would be viable in digital form if we could find a cost-effective means of handling the conversion. There are any number of outfits that will happily overcharge you to convert your Word manuscript into a Kindle-Nook-and-tablet-friendly e-book, and there are plenty of other places where you can upload the thing and sell it, but not so many options that do it all. For authors with backlist titles in need of resurrection and publishers too short-staffed to deal with the whole e-book thing, this would be a single-stop solution. The timing seemed right, as well the e-book market itself was still a squalling newborn in the West and a couple of stiff cocktails away from conception in Asia. If we could make deals with authors and publishers in the region to serve as their e-book partner, we'd theoretically be in a very good place. With all this in mind, I called my business partner, Jerome Yau, late at night and babbled at him. We talked it over and couldn't find anything wrong with the logic. Subsequent discussions, plus a lot of research, convinced us that the idea had merit. So we added a whole second imprint to our to-do list and have been confusing people (but learning a lot) ever since.

Things got complicated fast. The nice people at the Books Registration Office here in Hong Kong just could not get their heads around the concept of imprints, nor why we wanted so many ISBN numbers. Their perspective was something along the lines of So your company is called Typhoon Media, but you're publishing books as Signal 8 Press and BookCyclone, and you're doing what again, exactly? It took several conversations (Jerome handled that particular piece of heavy lifting; I lack the talent for sustaining diplomacy with puzzled bureaucrats) and a compromise on our front matter before they came around to our way of seeing things, but we now get batches of ISBN numbers large enough to meet our needs. That one only took a couple of months to sort out.

BookCyclone, though...let's just say that the light at the end of the tunnel is now visible. Complicated? It's been like a hike through the Chunnel at times. Wearing leg irons. With landmines littering the track. Lesson One: if you think you're getting a really great deal on an e-commerce website, you're probably not. We vetted a number of web developers, didn't go with the lowest bid, actually choosing one that had done an outstanding job with the site for a British train operator, of all things. We sent them our specs and our logo, and waited...sure enough, we had a decent front page in a couple of weeks' time. After which, nothing. Weeks turned into months. My increasingly angry e-mails led to apologies and promises that a fully functioning site was imminent. Which it wasn't. Throughout all this, I'd begun contacting publishers and authors to drum up business. One of the perks of being an author myself is that I know people. Friends stepping up and letting us convert their books helped us get off the ground. (In exchange for being our guinea pigs, we're paying them very high royalties.) Miraculously, a couple of publishers stepped up as well: they liked the logic behind what we were offering, didn't have e-book strategies in place and thought the terms of our contract (not to mention the very high royalties) were attractive. The only glitch, of course, was the bloody website...or lack thereof. Ultimately, after the developers wasted even more of our time on promises and inaction, I fired them and threatened them with legal action. We got our money back but not our time. Worse, our credibility had taken a hit. Lesson learned: sometimes a bargain's a really bad deal.

Lesson Two: hire locally, when you can. Jerome vetted web developers here in Hong Kong, met with the ones whose work we liked most and explained what we needed. And voila! A year later, we finally have a website that works. Delays led to delays. Technical glitches emerged. New technical glitches emerged from the old technical glitches, like Russian nesting dolls filled with plastic explosive. There were episodes of epic fail. For example, I'm not quite sure how it escaped the developers' notice that we wanted a website that would let a consumer download an e-book file after purchasing it, for example, but it did, and that Charlie Foxtrot alone cost us a couple of months. Lesson learned: at least when you hire locally, you can glare daggers at your vendor across their cluttered desk.

Lesson Three: there are a lot of flakes out there, people who will appear to love and support your business idea without subsequently following through. I'm not sure whether this is a publishing-industry quirk or whether it's a more general piece of evidence that misanthropy is usually justified. Case in point: one publisher liked what we were doing and, after two or three meetings and countless we're-on-the-brink-of-doing-the-deal e-mails, dropped off the face of the Earth. There have been several other, similar occurrences: weeks or months of we love you punctuated by a weird, reverberating silence. Publishers aren't the only ones to flake out like this, either: a couple of e-retailers walked us most of the way through the process of setting up supplier accounts and then dropped out of touch altogether. Lesson learned: introspection is always a good idea. It's both necessary and wise to check in with yourself now and then to make sure you're sane and sound and your breath smells minty and fresh. If you continue to pass the not-nuts test, then other people are the ones behaving badly.

Lesson Four: bookstores, at least the ones in Asia, and certainly the ones in Hong Kong, do not want to sell books. Or rather, they might, but they can't be bothered to communicate with the people who publish the books. This would be understandable if there were robust, coherent, comprehensive distribution channels in this part of the world. Since there aren't, this disinclination to answer e-mail and follow up on phone calls is mystifying. (We are not the only local publisher to have had this problem.) As we were moving the first two Signal 8 Press titles through the pipeline, I started contacting major bookstores here in Hong Kong, as well as others around the region. From most of the bookstores here in the city, the usual response was no response at all. We're even publishing Xu Xi's next book, which local readers are quite likely to be interested in. (As they should be. It's really good.) Various others teased us with politely excited bursts of interest, and sometimes even prolonged ones, before subsiding back into whatever unreachable realm they inhabit. What could possibly be behind this? It's not as if illiteracy is a plausible explanation. One presumes bookstore people can read and write. Perhaps this is unduly generous of me. Or perhaps they're so inundated with e-mail that they don't bother answering it. But there's a trick to dealing with e-mail: if you take a few seconds to bang out a reply, then you're done. One way or another, it's baffling that there is so little support for local and regional presses. Lesson learned: our original idea, which was to focus on e-books and the North American market, was probably the right one. People there are more inclined to reply.

Lest I give the impression of hating what I do, let me course-correct now: in some ways, I'm having a ball. Although it hasn't been easy, the education I've gotten out of this venture has been incredible. What's more, my perspective on what is possible has broadened. It's as if I'm in the right part of the world at the right time. As the US and Europe flail (fortunately, they still want to read amid the flailing), the rest of the world is finishing its second cup of morning coffee and getting ready for the day. I've had the incredible privilege of bringing some fantastic books into print. I've met and worked with a number of authors whose work I admire. As an author, I now have control over my work, which is infinitely preferable to the protracted and terrifying degradation of trying to claw my way to some major house's midlist and hoping I can stay there. Major publishers have worked hard for years at making themselves irrelevant, and now the job is nearly done. Although the majors may well outlast my own modest venture, I can at least speak from experience in the industry: I've learned a thing or two along the way and can therefore snark with authority. It's refreshing.

What lies ahead? Well, the market has changed since we started this venture. Several of the bigger e-book retailers are hopelessly backlogged now, a situation that didn't exist this time last year. We've been forced to put a moratorium on several: Books on Board, Kobo, Google Editions and Apple. Even much larger e-book distributors (I'm thinking Smashwords) are having trouble because of the crush of content these e-retailers are struggling to process. Is this cause for alarm? Not really: Amazon basically owns e-books, accounting for the great majority of our sales. Even better: Amazon's really easy to work with. Barnes & Noble, in a distant second place, is also a case study in getting the e-book thing very close to right. The rest…would matter more if they had market share, which they don't. With this in mind, we've recently decided to extend the scope of BookCyclone to include—on a select, curated basis—e-books from other publishers, alongside the ones we have reprinted ourselves. We are not backlogged, we answer our e-mail and there's nothing quite like us in Asia. There's room for BookCyclone to create, curate and occupy its own niche. Signal 8 Press is bringing a second editor on board and will be ramping up slightly, while keeping a tight focus on putting out excellent books. Other very positive personnel changes are in the works as well. We'll be able to take direct orders via our website soon, too. Xu Xi's new book Access is coming out in November, followed by my own (years-delayed, but that's a saga for another day) fourth book, The Infernal Republic.

Overall, there's cause for optimism: although the industry is going through changes that many find baffling and unpleasant, and the region's fragmentation makes the situation here even more complicated, opportunities exist. We're making changes in order to capitalize on them. What Typhoon Media Ltd looks like today will change in the next year or so, but I'm confident. As I've said for years, Hong Kong is a place where things are possible. Weirdness is inevitable, but what it all boils down to is that we're publishing great books (with eye-catching cover art) by amazing writers. That's what got me into this venture in the first place, and that's why I'll be attempting to stick around.

 
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