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Observations on Successful Publishing: Controlling Your Own Destiny

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Many veterans of publishing tell us of the monumental changes that have
occurred within our industry over the past few years. As a 35-year
participant in this industry, I suspect I would concur. But as we approach a
new millennium, we can see many, many other changes all around us. Has the
automobile industry changed? Has the entertainment industry changed? Has
sports changed? And what about travel, finance, and especially science and
technology? So why should we be so surprised when things aren’t done the way
they used to be done in publishing? Perhaps it’s because ours has been such a
traditional industry for over a century.

I recall my first ABA over three decades ago at the Shoreham Hotel in
Washington, DC. It was as low key as low key can be. Two hours in the
morning, a merciful two-hour lunch break, then a final two hours in the
afternoon. Truly a “gentleman’s” industry. The only attendees were bona fide
booksellers visiting DC from all parts of America. How does that compare to
today’s frenzied marathons at McCormick Place in Chicago where foreign rights
agents may soon outnumber the scarce blue badges of America’s booksellers?

Much has been written recently, in this publication as well as others, about
the horrendous situation concerning returns. Are returns a change in our
industry? No. Has the policy been abused? Absolutely! Are we going to see
this abuse end in our lifetimes? Maybe, maybe not. Do we have to let it
control our destinies? Hell no! But let’s not dwell solely on returns because
there are many other factors which can influence successful publishing
ventures.

The publishers that I have witnessed become successful during my rather long
tenure in this industry are those who have found ways to control their own
destinies, whether or not those ways followed conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom may work if you’re a conventional publisher. But who are
the conventional publishers? Random House, Simon & Schuster, you? Probably
the first two could be considered conventional publishers, but what about
you? Do you publish hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new titles per year? Do
you have a John Grisham, Stephen King, or Oprah Winfrey in your stable of
authors? Do you have very deep pockets to help you over the cash-flow bumps?
Possibly some of you may have answered “no” to these questions and for those
who say “no” let me pose a question. How could you possibly consider yourself
a conventional publisher by those standards? Therefore why bind yourself to
playing by the same conventional rules? It’s simply ludicrous! So why be
conventional? Why not march to the beat of your own drum and do what works
for you?

What’s the strategy? I think it’s more of a mindset than a strategy. First, I
think today most small-sized to medium-sized publishers need to avoid falling
into the trap of considering themselves or being perceived as a “general
trade publisher.” Publishing a mix of unrelated nonfiction and/or fiction
titles places you in that trap and therefore narrows an already very narrow
and tilted playing field. You are now going head to head with the Random
Houses, Simon & Schusters, et al for sales, display and shelf space,
publicity, budgets, etc. You’re on the book trade’s fast track that says your
book is never going to sell better than during its first few weeks, so why
give it any longer than that before returning it to you? If this isn’t your
idea of controlling your own destiny, read on.

Let’s get back to those publishers who have found success by controlling
their own destinies. What have they done? The most important thing I suspect
that they did was to recognize that less than half of the books purchased by
consumers are purchased through bookstores. Indeed, there is glamour and
pride connected with saying that Barnes & Noble carries your book, your
author had a signing at the local Borders, or the world’s largest wholesaler
(Ingram) carries your books. But what really matters is how many copies have
been purchased and brought home by the consumer.

Now there are many ways that a consumer can purchase your books and the more
options you create the better off you will be and the less vulnerable you
make yourself. You’re now controlling your own destiny! There’s no magic
formula that I am aware of that lists the exact trade channels through which
a publisher must make its books available. But it certainly should be a
no-brainer that a publisher doesn’t want to be dependent on a very, very
fickle book trade (bookstores & book wholesalers) to control its destiny.

Second, a successful publisher today needs to be focused. Focus on your
readers (market), the content of your published works, wide and varied
channels of distribution, marketing and, above all, profitability. I am
saddened when I hear a publisher blast its distributor, wholesalers or
retailers for not selling/ marketing its books. To me, it looks like the
publisher is letting the tail wag the dog, allowing someone else to control
its destiny and then complaining about it.

Third, maximize the value of your titles. Consider your publishing house as
your net worth and each of your titles as individual assets. Is it prudent to
keep all your wealth in a checking account? (Is it prudent to limit the sale
of your books to the book trade?) Wouldn’t you maximize your return by
balancing your funds in limited risk investments? (Wouldn’t you capitalize on
your assets by selling translation rights, clubs, catalog houses, and direct
mail, and reach the consumer via nontraditional markets?)

Finally, successful publishers create options for themselves. They talk to
knowledgeable people, get advice, but don’t have “knee-jerk” reactions to
everything they hear. They qualify the advice from the publishing experts
before heeding their sage wisdom.

Publish for all the right reasons! If there truly is a need for your book(s),
and that doesn’t mean self-gratification, there are many, many ways to be
successful in our industry.

Find out what works best for you. Maintain a very broad base of methods to
get your books into consumers’ hands. Try several methods. Eliminate the
mediocre and maximize what works best. Above all, be selfish and control your
own destiny. Never, never bemoan the publishing industry. Simply understand
it, and then figure out how it works best for you.

Bob Erdmann is a publishing consultant and publisher with over 35 years of
experience. He served two terms as PMA president (1990-1992), and in 1989
developed the PMA Trade Distribution Program. He can be reached at PO Box
270024, San Diego, CA 92198-2024. Phone 619/675-0303, fax 619/675-0088, or
e-mail: rerd@aol.com.

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