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President’s Column:
Designing Your Publishing Program

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Book publishing is different from most other business ventures in two key ways that make it essential for you to be very clear about your specific mission and the product line that reflects it.

First, book publishing depends on the constant creation of new products. If you sold drywall screws you could plan to market essentially the same line of products indefinitely. If you sold mattresses you could do the same, with a bit of improvement here or there over time. But when you publish books, you have to keep locating, selecting, producing, and marketing a different collection of brand-new products each year. That takes a lot of work, and it entails a lot of risk.

Second, book publishers are constantly inundated with a random selection of new business proposals. While your drywall screw business won’t get a rash of proposals to create a new type of container (even though both screws and containers hold something together), and while the mattress company won’t get proposals for bedroom water fountains (even though both water fountains and mattresses might add to the quality of sleep), as a book publisher you will receive proposals of every type and on every subject under the sun that could someday fit into a book. How about doing a book on dog training? Or sports medicine? Or Bering Strait ethnology? Or love poetry? Or sadistic jokes? Yes, you will get them all. The cacophony of author proposals shouting at you for attention can be confusing–and, worse, it can easily put you into a reactive mode that will lead you astray.

The Proactive Approach to Acquisitions

Here’s the conundrum. On one hand, you need a constant flow of new product. On the other hand, you cannot design your profitable product line by randomly choosing a mixture of books that authors send you. That’s a passive approach to book development. For long-term success, you need to define your own vision of your product line and then find ways to get your hands on the specific manuscripts that will fill your need each year. That is the proactive approach.

And, yes, this principle applies to a small one- or two-book publisher as well as to a larger, more established program.

Remember, you are not looking for other people’s completed manuscripts (an author who has finished a book won’t want you messing with it just to fit your needs anyway). You are looking for people who can complete a manuscript after you and they agree on the concept and the approach. The main reason you look through the slush pile of submitted manuscripts is to find people who can write, not to find manuscripts you can publish. If you find a finished manuscript that fits, that is just a lucky bonus.

Here are some thoughts for staying proactive.

  • Write out your concept of your mission. What defines the cluster of books that you want to do? This mission statement should and will limit your choices!
  • Outline the many book ideas that you could develop for your line, paying particular attention to possible series of titles rather than one-shot books. Series titles feed each other; each one-of-a-kind, one-at-a-time title requires more separate efforts.
  • Create a three- to five-year grid of new product slots. Specify enough new titles to support your operation, but keep the list short enough that you can actually get the books out–and stay sane. Yes, you can expect that some holes will not be filled. Just leave them blank for the moment. You can work to fill them along the way.
  • Look for people can do these books for you. List all the ways you might locate people who can write and who know your subject. You may find them at conferences, on campus, in the news business, via periodicals, in your own staff, among friends and colleagues–and, yes, even in your slush pile. Just remember that your goal is not to do their books but to get them to do your books–the ones you need, when you need them.
  • Work with each author to develop and massage the concept behind a book so that the two of you will produce a better product than either of you could have created alone.
  • Then bring all the creativity and sizzle you can to marketing plans for the finished product and publish it.

In publishing, your books are your business. Be proactive. Make sure that every title you select fits your long-range goals for your company. After 10 years of exercising this discipline, you might even have a business you can sell to fund your retirement! That outcome is not just luck; it comes from constant, rigorous focus.

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