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Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Book publisher to be distributed south of the border

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Howard Rotberg

When sales of 1,000 units are considered pretty good and 5,000 puts you into the bestseller category, it may be time to go looking for a bigger sandbox to play in.

At least that’s the strategy of upstart Mantua Books, a mini, if not micro, publishing company based in Ontario that’s looking to the sunnier climes south of the border to help put it permanently in the black.

Mantua is a small operation but one that feeds on big ideas: it focuses on politically incorrect authors that mainstream publishers seem to ignore. The brainchild of real estate developer Howard Rotberg, Mantua has carved out a niche for itself by offering works by conservative commentators whose books are beyond the pale for larger publishers. These are authors who unabashedly favour Israel and defend traditional western civilization, with its freedoms and rights, he said.

Rotberg, whose day job involves developing affordable and “infill” housing and renovating heritage buildings, has poured his soul and plenty of his own money into Mantua Books. It’s more than a business, and he’s more than a publisher. In fact, he describes himself as “a soldier” in a war for traditional western values and for Israel against an alliance of leftists and Islamists. Mantua is the vehicle by which he fights the good fight to place before the public authors who stand up for these traditional causes, he said.

“I see it as a war of ideas and censorship by a mainstream media and publishing houses and academia. My role is to found and run and grow a publishing house that is friendly to authors dealing with Israel and the fundamental freedoms in the West that need to be heard.”

The deck may be stacked against him – the mainstream press rarely reviews Mantua’s offerings, he said – but he’s finding an audience for his stable of authors. In a few months, Mantua will begin selling its books in the United States thanks to an arrangement with a U.S.-based distributor.

That will give him access to a vast new market – sales to American libraries alone will make a difference to his bottom line. “Canada is only a small part of the international market. Success hinges on getting American and international distribution,” he said.

In the past year, he’s penned agreements with a U.S. and an international distributor. One of Mantua’s books, Romance and Revolutions, has already been distributed in England.

Rotberg launched Mantua in 2003, but the company was pretty much dormant until 2007. Since then, it has published, among others, High Noon for America: The Coming Showdown by Jamie Glazov, Those That Bless You, I Will Bless – Christian Zionism in Historical Perspective by Paul Merkely, and Delectable Lie – A Liberal Repudiation of Multiculturalism by Salim Mansur.

As Mantua became more widely known, quality authors came on board, but developing a distribution channel proved the most difficult obstacle to success, Rotberg said.

Technology is also playing a part in making Mantua’s books available to the public. In fact, “the publishing industry is undergoing a huge transformation. For smaller distributors, it’s a good change,” Rotberg said.

The traditional model of selling through bookstores is being challenged by ebooks, the digital, downloadable form of the medium, he continued.

Books that sold for $20 or $30 in paper versions can be sold for $9.99 digitally. That removes the very costly process of printing and shipping, which cut into publishers’ profit margins, he said.

Ebooks are also more appealing to young people, who are used to viewing written material online.

Gone are the days when young people decorated their apartments with shelves containing hundreds of books, he said, adding that digital books take up less space, are portable and less costly.

About 20 per cent of Mantua’s sales are ebooks, and that’s expected to climb to 50 per cent in five years. Currently, the vast majority of sales, 60 per cent, are paper books sold through Amazon. Another 10 per cent are sold through Mantua’s website, and the remaining 10 per cent are sold in bookstores.

But by going digital and circumventing the need for print editions, is Mantua sowing the seeds for its own demise? Rotberg believes there’s still an important role for traditional publishers, even in the digital age.

“We promote the book, help authors set up lectures, book tours, retain publicists. We help authors with the editing process,” he said.

At Mantua, which Rotberg operates with a couple of volunteer assistants, he does all the editing himself. Mantua hires PR and marketing consultants in whatever markets the company is trying to reach.

As a small, self-financed publisher, Rotberg has brought the company “from zero” to  “a break-even proposition.”

“We are growing with every year. Our books are selling in the four figures in Canada, which is very good for Canada,” he said.

“The reason we’ve become profitable now is that as a mature publisher with the good titles we have, distributors are interested in working with us. That drives costs down so we can make money.”

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