Publishing as a Zen practice by Colleen Higgs


One of the tricky things about being a publisher is that you have to be both a gambler and someone with OCD tendencies. I’m not sure that these qualities fit together comfortably. You have to be willing to go out on a limb, trust your gut and put your heart and soul into backing a book. But you also have the ability to pay attention to detail and to juggle a great many things at once. Some of these include: sensitivity to language and meaning, to keep in mind where each of several books is in the production process, to remember to follow up with people, to keep cash flow flowing, to sell books, to make books, to communicate with those you owe money with and with those who owe you. You have to be able to deal with artistic temperaments as though you are a psychologist. You have to be able to say, no and to have good boundaries and clarity about what you will and won’t do.


I once wrote a Facebook post that turned into blog post at Bookslive and then became an article that was published by Publishing Perspectives. I’ve updated that article and list for this column and I think it is something to bear in mind when deciding if you are cut out for publishing.


Publishing is not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes I wonder why I decided to go into publishing, using my own money when it’s a business that is fraught with so many hundreds of possible places where you can go wrong or make bad choices. There’s always a new possible error, mistake, blunder, oops, disaster. Some cost money, some cost face. It’s a business that keeps you humble and on your toes. A lovely bookseller told me that she worked in publishing only briefly, she found it way too stressful.


I think I was able to become a publisher, start my own imprint because I had never worked in a publishing house. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. Probably if I had, I would have had the presence of mind to make a different decision. Perhaps for me it was right that I didn’t know better. Now I’m eleven years in and over 150 books later, it is still very tough financially. But the rewards are many too. I promise to write about this next time.


I think publishing is teaching me a kind of Zen practice, of doing my best to make sure there are as few mistakes as possible and trying not to repeat the same ones and forgiving myself and others, and taking it in my stride and learning not to allow a publishing version of ‘road rage’ to get the better of me. Breathe in, breathe out. Beauty and error. Error and beauty. I have learnt to apologise to authors, to anyone who deserves an apology and to come clean as soon as possible. A quick straightforward apology is better than blaming or fingerpointing, however tempting these might be.


Some of these mistakes and blunders will happen because of others but you as the person at whom the buck stops, have to take responsibility.


This is what I work at being, sometimes it takes days, weeks before I can calm down enough to remember that however important, it’s never important enough to stress myself out enough to develop a heart attack or some other stress related illness.

Here are a few of the errors; please feel free to add your own, unless of course you have never experienced any. In which case, go away; this is not for you…

  1. Allocate a previously allocated ISBN to a new book
    2. Allocate the right ISBN but the book is printed with the incorrect barcode/ISBN on the back cover so that the ISBN on the imprint page and the back of the book aren’t the same
    3. Random blank pages in the book
    4. Spell the author’s name incorrectly on the cover
    5. Typos
    6. Book can be bound so that pages fall out
    7. Book bound incorrectly so page numbers are out of sequence
    8. Printing not good enough, too light, pixellating happens
    9. Badly bound so it looks like a cat has eaten the book inside out
    10. Incorrect printer in imprint page
    11. Forget to acknowledge a donor
    12. Not have wide enough inside margins (gutters)
    13. Spine incorrectly aligned
    14. Spine too narrow
  2. Spine too wide
    16. Spelling error in the blurb on the cover
    17. Incorrect no of pages in catalogue or in BookData database
    18. Publish a book that the reps don’t want to sub – because they don’t like the content
  3. Print too many copies of a book, way too many (new publishers beware) and this happened to me last year again, even though I knew this rule and it has almost brought me and my business to our respective knees
    20. Budget according to an old specification that has now changed to a more expensive one, be shocked when you get the new bill
    21. Misplace an invoice book so you can’t work out the royalties correctly
    22. Give authors too big a discount and thus run into cash flow problems
    23. Pay authors their royalties in books
    24. Think that if you go with a cheaper printer, the whole job will cost less
    25. Think that if you go with a big, established printer that you will definitely get excellent service
    26. Get some facts wrong in the book
    27. Turn down a manuscript that goes onto become a best-seller

28.Take on a title that you know is going to be a best-seller and it sinks like the proverbial lead balloon, even though the reviews are good.
29. Contents page numbers don’t match the chapter page numbers or the page numbers the poems are on

30.Forget to send out invitations to a launch until a few days before
31. And then you get forgetful, because you have learned (the hard way) to always check the ISBN on the imprint page and back cover and catalogue against your spreadsheet of ISBNs that you get from the National Library and then one day you don’t check because lately you always get it right and then …. whoops, it’s wrong

  1. There will be a tiny print error that you don’t pick up on the proof, because the PDFs were perfect. But the printer and the designer don’t have exactly the same software. (Always check the printer’s proof carefully and not just the PDF).
  2. When reprinting you forget to check that the book will have a matt cover, and the print run is glossy. The author is unhappy. So are you.



Colleen Higgs is a publisher, a publishing activist and a writer. Modjaji Books, the publishing company she started is now eleven years old, and is an award-winning, internationally recognised small, independent feminist press. She compiles an African Catalogue of Small Publishers every two or three years, she is currently working on making the catalogue available as an online database to increase the visibility of small and independent publishers in Africa.  She has had two collections of poems published and a collection of short stories, Looking for Trouble (2012). She lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her teenage daughter.

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