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Ahead of the Curve: How Publishers Are Proactively Managing Their Businesses

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PUBLISHED JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2019

by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —


Deb Vanasse

Publishers need to stay agile, building into their planning ways to maneuver around potential threats while also steering their companies toward new opportunities and growth.

In an industry where change is the only constant, publishers need to stay ahead of the curve. But faced with challenges from both outside and inside the industry, they often find themselves wishing for a straighter road to success.

More effective than reacting to change is taking a proactive stance. Publishers need to stay agile, building into their planning ways to maneuver around potential threats while also steering their companies toward new opportunities and growth.


Up and Up, Longer and Longer

When books are your business, paper and printing are big concerns. If you’ve noticed that prices keep going up even as production times lengthen, you’re not alone.

Erin Green

“With large paper manufacturers switching to cardboard to accommodate the mass, immediate shipping [of products by online retailers], we have run into several issues,” says Erin Green, director of Boys Town Press. “The cost of printing has gone up, and pub dates have been affected due to delays in print runs. Printers that have traditionally taken four to six weeks are quoting seven to eight weeks and then taking eight to 10 weeks.”

Tim Taylor, sales representative at Worzalla Publishing, confirms that pulp suppliers now get five times more revenue for pulp used in packaging as opposed to pulp used to make publishing paper. In addition, there’s a problem of supply and demand.

“Overall demand for publishing-grade papers has been on the decline for many years, and a glut of capacity has driven margins lower for most mills,” he says. “As a result, those mills have either closed or consolidated, both reducing the variety of grades available and the overall supply in the market.”

Tim Taylor

To deal with print pricing pressures, Taylor says planning is paramount. “Work with your printer to develop a forecast over the next 90 to 180 days, and narrow paper choices to a stocking program your printer already has in place,” he suggests. “Work with your suppliers to commit to larger volumes or series work so your printer can purchase paper more cost effectively for you and produce your products most efficiently. Lastly, work with your printer to develop a printing plan that affords your printer the ability to produce work at off-peak times during the year.”

With fewer print vendors competing for the size and format of their books, Boys Town now sends out more bids and experiments with new publishing partners, Green says. They’re also completing shorter print runs and shifting to print-on-demand when printers can’t meet deadline, or when the price breaks for larger runs don’t make financial sense. In addition, they’ve adjusted their low-level alert targets for reprints to accommodate production time lags, and they’re re-allocating resources to expand into non-print formats.


The Audio Factor

Audio is a potentially lucrative non-print format that can help publishers take the edge off print pricing pain. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Audiobook Publishers Association (APA), audiobook sales were up more than 22 percent in 2017 as compared to the previous year, continuing a six-year trend of double-digit growth.

Boys Town is increasing its budget for audio, says Green. And at SM-ARC Inc., vice president Wayne Hoeft says the company is designing an in-house recording studio. “We find the idea of audiobooks quite exciting,” he says.

Dominique Raccah

Sourcebooks is also going all-in on audio, says CEO Dominique Raccah. “We went from having some books made into audiobooks to having most books made into audiobooks,” she says. Raccah isn’t put off by the invariable challenges, especially as the company looks toward moving more production in-house. “We’ll approach it like we approach most new enterprises—experimentally and with agility,” she says.

Pursuing the growth potential in audio, publishers can expect a learning curve. “Producing an audiobook requires a completely different expertise from creating an e-book or print book,” says APA Executive Director Michele Cobb. To help publishers through the planning process, APA offers an online “Getting Started” guide. (For more on incorporating audiobooks into a publishing plan, see the “Listen Up” sidebar below).


The Giants in the Room

That giants dominate publishing is a given these days. Hoeft names Amazon as his organization’s biggest concern, noting that the retail behemoth is “cheapening the overall content of the literary field and crushing the brick-and-mortar and indie stores that are the logical marketplaces for good writing.”

And as Amazon drives out the competition, negotiating discounts gets tougher, Green notes. In addition, there’s the problem of increased consumer expectations. “Free shipping, especially within two days, is not something most of us can accommodate,” she says.

Rather than compete on the giants’ terms, Boys Town focuses on mission-driven services, niche products, and stellar customer service. To tamp down costs, Green and her team prioritize metadata and analytics that enhance discoverability of their products. To expand their reach, they’re also adding staff positions in social media and digital content marketing.

At SM-ARC Inc., the board has opted to divest from Amazon altogether, shifting most of their inventory to Ingram. They now encourage customers to purchase their products through brick-and-mortar stores or through alternate online retailers.

“As a ‘micro,’ we live much closer to the margins of this business,” Hoeft explains. “But we’re also a not-for-profit, so we don’t need to be as concerned with the bottom line and can focus much more carefully on quality, in both content and aesthetics, than on volume or income.”

This focus on quality, he says, has increased sales as well as media exposure.


Growth Strategies

Rather than fuss over the giants, publishers can focus on their own growth. That’s what Raccah did, growing Sourcebooks into a company that has over 100 employees and publishes hundreds of books annually in a variety of categories. And the growth continues—Sourcebooks sales were up 18 percent in 2017, compared to 2 percent in the industry at large.

“It’s pretty wild to look at the company I started in a spare bedroom of my house 31 years ago with just one book and see it become a top 15 US publisher and the largest woman-owned publisher in North America,” she says.

She attributes consistent double-digit growth to staying the course, even when the economy tanked in 2008 and most publishers were cutting back. “We decided, as a company, that we weren’t going to let what was going on outside our office affect what we were creating inside,” she says.

Transparency and engagement are at the core of Sourcebooks’ growth strategy. “For the last decade, we have continued to meet on a regular basis and are completely transparent about what is going on with our business—the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Raccah explains. “Everyone in our organization is involved and is empowered to make an impact in how our business is run. The entrepreneurial spirit runs throughout the company, from my office to the shipping room.”

That includes engaging all of Sourcebooks in seeking efficiencies that counter rising costs. “We’ve implemented a relatively open book structure for finances that ensures every person in the company knows they can have impact on the bottom line,” she says. “Simply put, every penny counts, and every individual can make a difference.”

Responsiveness also factors into Sourcebooks’ growth. Starting with a nonfiction emphasis, it’s now a top 15 children’s book publisher and a “strong player” in fiction, including young adult and romance. Most of these changes have been in response to needs presented by readers, authors, or retail partners, Raccah says.

“Our Jabberwocky children’s imprint came out of the success we saw in publishing poetry books for kids,” she explains. “Our Casablanca romance imprint was born out of a retailer request for more Regency romance, and our Put Me in the Story personalized book program began after we saw that people were customizing our books themselves.”

Reliance on data has been another key factor in the company’s growth. “Taste and instinct are great, but I’ll take data over my gut any day of the week,” Raccah says. “We use data in every single department of the company and, yes, that includes—and starts with—editorial.”

Raccah also emphasizes the connection between personal and corporate growth. “It’s meaningful when every person on the team is pushing themselves to recognize that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ and striving to understand something new,” she says. “Mindset can get you to some pretty wild and unexpected places.”


A Positive Approach to Change

Whether change comes from outside or inside the industry, it can feel overwhelming. But along what may seem a long and winding road to success, strategic and proactive planning helps publishers cope.

“Think large-scale strategy, but don’t forget about the smaller tactics that help you get there,” Green says. “Test small and use the knowledge gained to inform the next test. As the saying goes, don’t be afraid to fail, just make sure you’re failing forward.”

Raccah agrees that failure is a great way to learn. And rather than lament getting blindsided, she suggests publishers work on skills that will make them better advocates when confronting change. “I highly recommend doing some reading and taking courses in negotiation, including getting comfortable with difficult conversations and conflict,” she says. “Publishing people and book lovers tend to be friendly folks. And we should be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t aggressively control the bottom line.”

Finally, Raccah reminds fellow publishers to stay focused on the goal of connecting books and readers. “It’s really the best job in the world,” she says, “and the only limitations you’ll face are your own.”


Listen Up!

Tavia Gilbert

Michele Cobb


We asked APA Executive Director Michele Cobb and award-winning audiobook narrator Tavia Gilbert to tell us more about how publishers can get ahead of the curve in the audio segment of publishing. Cobb and Gilbert presented a preconference session on audiobooks at IBPA Publishing University 2019.


What factors should publishers consider when deciding whether to incorporate audiobooks into their business models?

Cobb: Audiobooks have experienced double-digit growth for the past six years. They present increased opportunities for sales as readers go back and forth between different formats, and they open up exposure to listeners who may not be reading books in other formats. Audiobooks also provide fantastic marketing materials like sound clips and videos of a narrator reading a title.

Gilbert: Michele is absolutely right. Not only do readers go back and forth between print and audio in their initial experience with the book, readers who love the book in print often buy the audio version, or vice versa. So adding audio is truly a way to exponentially increase sales. And great narrators encourage readers to try genres in audio they might not read in print. I find that if I love the way a particular narrator interprets material, I’ll listen to their performance of any genre at all, whereas what I choose to read in print is more focused.


How should publishers decide which titles are most suitable for audio production?

Cobb: Starting with your backlist bestsellers and big front-list books is often a good plan. Titles that sell well in other formats are likely to sell well in audio. There are some books that are tougher to convert—for instance, titles that rely heavily on photos or charts and graphs can be a challenge. Publishers often offer PDFs of supplemental materials to get around such issues and to supplement the recording, but each text needs to be evaluated on its own to identify how to achieve a successful audio.


Under what circumstances might publishers consider original audio without a print or e-book tie-in?

Cobb: Audio original works are on the rise, with publishers experimenting in many ways—dramatized full-cast recordings, short stories that are available on audio first, episodic works. Titles that are audio originals can do very well, but they need marketing support from both the publisher and the retailers to ensure they get noticed. Consumer discovery in a digital world is a challenge in any format.

Gilbert: Another interesting way publishers have offered audio is an audio-first plan. The title for which I won Best Female Narrator, Be Frank with Me, was available in audio before it was available in print, which was an exciting and successful first-time experiment for the publisher, HarperAudio.


What costs should publishers budget for audiobooks?

Cobb: The cost of recording an audiobook depends on many factors, including studio and narrator, and there are a range of items to consider, such as whether director is included in the process and how many quality control passes are needed. Work with your vendors to understand the range of options and what will work best for your budget. Audiobooks are generally calculated by per finished hour, with approximately 9,300 words in each hour. So, if your manuscript is 93,000 words, you can estimate that the final run time will be 10 hours, and you can calculate your costs based on that figure and the services you will need to achieve the completed recording. [Note: Due to antitrust regulations, Cobb and Gilbert aren’t at liberty to discuss “averages” or “industry standards” in per-hour fees.]

Gilbert: There can be some savings in hiring a narrator with a home studio. I work often in Manhattan recording studios, but I also record constantly in a studio in my Brooklyn apartment, which saves my clients the fee they would otherwise pay for me to record in someone else’s studio. I’m an extremely efficient narrator, recording about one hour of content in about an hour and a half at home, where I simultaneously self-direct, self-engineer, and perform the book, or an hour and a quarter in someone else’s studio, where an audio engineer runs the session and I am free to concentrate solely on my performance. That means both efficient turnaround times and cost savings for my clients.

You may love the work of a particular narrator, but if he takes four hours to record one hour, you may be over-running your budget by casting him. It’s also important to budget for quality control. Not only is it unpleasant and unprofessional to allow a book to go out to listeners with errors like mispronounced words, noticeably sloppy or stumbling diction, or dropped, added, or wrong words—all normal and customary mistakes, even from the very best narrators—but these errors can create problems with functions like WhisperSync or even the book’s eligibility for important industry awards. Each book should be professionally edited and proofed to ensure that it is word-perfect. The more sets of ears you have, the better the quality. Hiring a separate proofer and editor, and not trying to cut costs by being careless with post-production or expecting that the narrator manage those tasks herself, is the wisest choice.


How likely is a publisher to see a positive return on investment?

Cobb: There is no hard-and-fast rule of thumb for audiobook sales in a digital world. When it came to hardcover and CD ratios, we often heard that it was 10:1 in terms of sales. In a digital world, the ratios are much more difficult to predict. Create a good product with a strong narrator, include the audiobook in your title marketing, and use the extras you create to shout about your title in all formats, and I think you’ll find a good result.


What tactics are most effective for reaching buyers?

Cobb: Retailers and libraries do a great job of keeping their customers and patrons up to date on the latest releases. Be sure you do a great job of keeping retailers and libraries up to date on what is coming and in which formats. Also, build your direct audience on social media and in newsletters to keep the interest in your products high. A video or sound clip about your audiobook title is an excellent way to encourage discovery on social media—use all the tools! And don’t forget, your narrator is an addition to your team mix. Professional narrators often have followings of their own and can help entice buyers to your title. Make sure to cast well and ensure your audiobook is technically strong, and it will all help contribute to the success of your title in all formats.

Gilbert: More and more, savvy publishers are including additional content at the close of their audiobooks, such as the first chapter or a teaser summary of the next in the series or a suggestion for another book by the same author or in the same genre. Obviously, it’s also helpful if you can get an audiobook review, so submit your audio editions for consideration to audiobook bloggers or to publications like Library Journal or AudioFile Magazine.

Also, be creative and generous. For example, Jeaniene Frost and I have done a Twitter chat together to celebrate the launch of a book, and we’ve attended a fan conference together, where we engaged with her passionate fans. I often tweet or Facebook post about projects I especially love or projects that have particular importance socially or politically, and though that’s not necessarily going to move the needle in sales, every little bit helps. I see Jeaniene and some of her closest writer friends cross-promoting their books, so of course that tactic can be applied to audio as well as print.


Any other advice for publishers looking to expand into audio?

Gilbert: It’s imperative that publishers do their research and ensure that they’re getting accurate information before they commit to making an investment. As the industry expands, increasing numbers of people claim expertise. I’ve seen small publishers and independent authors waste time and money in unsuccessful partnerships with producers who don’t necessarily have nefarious intent, but who recognize a financial opportunity in audio, underestimate the degree of skill delivering audio demands, and generally over-promise and under-deliver.

Also, I cannot emphasize enough how important the choice of narrator is. Great narrators bring the work off the page and infuse their performance with emotion and personality, no matter what the genre or the intended listening demographic. No writer spends the time and energy it takes to bring a book into the world without being driven by enthusiasm for the subject, so whether the project is an epic science fiction series, a nonfiction guide to physics, or the writings of an ancient philosopher, the voice actor is a medium for the author’s passion, and each book deserves a skilled, exceptional performance. If you’re going to do it, do it right.


Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are the novel Cold Spell and a biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. She also works as a freelance editor.


For more tips on business growth, check out this IBPA Independent article, “Industry Trends: Obstacles and Opportunities.”

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