20 Habits of Successful Independent Publishers
by Curt Matthews
Over the years, my work at IPG has given me experience with more than 500 different indie publishing companies ranging in size from very small to quite large. Also, I have been an independent publisher, having founded Chicago Review Press, now a prosperous midsized house that publishes 60–70 new titles a year.
What follows offers 20 observations in three categories about the way the most successful independent publishers tend to conduct business. These observations are no doubt idiosyncratic, biased, and incomplete. The point is to stimulate some new thinking and, more important, to suggest that indie publishing is distinct from what big publishers do, and unique in terms of standard business practices.
● Successful indie publishers spend very little time thinking about how the industry should function or talking to people who do that. Instead, they thoroughly learn how the business actually works and how to prosper within it.
● They focus on a niche, but they are always looking for new or, better yet, related niches because they know that the half-life of a particular niche may be about 2.5 years or less.
● They attempt to sell their books into many markets, be they trade or library or gift or special sales, instead of relying on only one. They create electronic editions of every title they publish. They want a lot of baskets, even if they have only a few eggs.
● They develop a business plan, a set of goals, even a mission statement; but they nimbly alter any of these (perhaps not the mission statement) when circumstances change.
● They keep their fixed overhead as low as they possibly can. They make use of freelancers and outside services whenever the price and quality are reasonable. They hire additional staff only as a last, desperate, measure.
● They use consultants only when they need solutions to very clearly identified business problems. They know Mother is cheaper for sympathetic hand-holding.
● They never tell anyone that their author will be on a big national TV show or that their book is going to be a major motion picture until the show is in the can or the filming has commenced.
● They never bet the company on any one book. They understand that the first requirement for success is to be able to stay in the game, and that staying in the game brings experience, contacts, and reputation—advantages that cannot be gained in any other way. They don’t imagine they are in the bestseller business.
● Successful indie publishers publish only books that are rich in content. They know that the books with strong content are the ones that can perform as backlist, and that strong backlist is the sine qua non of successful independent publishing.
● They have special access to the information needed to make their books content-rich—years of personal involvement in a subject area, a close relationship to a special-interest publication, a means of identifying individuals especially qualified to write books for a particular niche—some special advantage or edge.
● They work with their authors to deliver manuscripts shaped for very particular audiences, and they don’t hesitate to push their authors until they get what the target audience needs. They know that for every book that fails because the audience is too narrow, hundreds fail because the audience is too broad.
● They always have their book covers and interiors designed by professional book designers, even if they have nieces who went to art school.
● They understand how to conduct market research wisely. Instead of wasting funds on focus groups and other auxiliary market research, they focus their efforts on their consumer audience and conduct research about similar, competitive titles to gain a firm grasp of how each of their books is unique to the marketplace.
● Their books are cleanly designed, copyedited, and typeset, but they never ask their customers to pay extra for a level of quality that is not wanted—for instance, 80 lb. paper or a sewn binding in a book that will be read only once or just a few times.
● They put an enormous amount of time into imagining the ideal realization of each book so the finished product is harmonious and (this is the really hard part), somehow, exactly right for the book’s subject and intended audience. They spend a lot of time in bookstores looking over the merchandise with a skeptical eye.
● They don’t think for a second that publishing a title as an e-book somehow makes strong content and excellent design irrelevant.
● Successful indie publishers treat their employees with unusual care and consideration, because they know a productive employee at an independent press could earn a higher salary working in a different industry—almost any other industry.
● They remember that the publishing community is small and that their reputation will precede them. They underpromise and overdeliver.
● They understand the power of the printed word and know that what they do as publishers can have a cultural influence, for good or ill, completely out of proportion to the dollars generated by their books or the number of copies sold.
● They are serious people, well worth knowing.
Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. He has served on the IBPA board and also served as its president. To read his blog, go to gonepublishing.wordpress.com.