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The 18 Habits of Successful Independent Publishers Press

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This will be my last “President’s Message”-I have reached the end of my term, and I hope I have been of service to you-so I am going to attempt some generalizations about the way successful independent presses tend to conduct their business.
Over the years I have worked with something like 300 different publishing companies, ranging in size from the very small to the quite large. There are, I think, some attitudes, strategies, or mindsets typical of the individuals who have been able to build strong publishing programs. I have made many of these points in previous letters, but as Mr. Kripps, the sadist who taught me fractions, always used to say, “Repetition is the soul of pedagogy.”

Business Strategy

1. Successful publishers spend very little time thinking about how the industry should function or talking to people who do. Instead, they thoroughly learn the business and how to prosper within it.
2. They focus on a niche, but they are always looking for a new one, or a related one, because they know that the half-life of an average niche is about 2.5 years.
3. They attempt to sell their books into many markets rather than relying on only one, be it trade, or library, or gift, or special sales.
4. They develop a business plan, a set of goals, even a mission statement, but they quickly alter any of these (perhaps not the mission statement) when circumstances alter.
5. They keep their fixed overhead as small 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.
6. They use consultants only when they need solutions to very clearly identified business problems (they know mother is cheaper for sympathetic hand-holding).
7. They never tell anyone their author will be on Oprah, or that their book is going to be a major motion picture, until the show is in the can or the filming has commenced.
8. 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 had in any other way.

The Books

9. Successful publishers publish books that are rich in content because they know that these are the only books that really can perform as backlist, and because a strong backlist is the sine qua non of successful independent publishing.
10. They have some sort of special access to the information needed to make their books content-rich: years of personal involvement in a subject area, a close relation to a special-interest magazine, or a means of identifying individuals especially qualified to write books for a particular niche.
11. They work with their authors to deliver manuscripts shaped for very particular audiences, and they do not hesitate to insist on getting what they need.
12. They always have their covers designed by professional book cover designers, even if they have a niece who went to art school.
13. They try out book ideas and cover roughs on friends and family, but they never pay the slightest attention to their opinions unless they are negative.
14. Their books are very cleanly designed, copyedited, typeset, and printed, but they never ask their customers to pay extra for quality that is not wanted: for instance, 80 lb. paper or a sewn binding in a book that will only be read once or just a few times.
15. They put an enormous amount of time into imagining the ideal realization of each book at every stage of its development, so the finished product-content, title, subtitle, cover design, interior, paper weight and color, back cover copy, and flap copy, to name just some of the variables-is harmonious and (this is the really hard part) somehow exactly right for the book’s subject and intended audience.

Ethical Considerations

16. Successful publishers treat their employees with unusual care and consideration, knowing that a productive employee at an independent press can earn a higher salary working in a different industry, almost any other industry.
17. They remember that the publishing community is small and that their reputation will soon begin to precede them.
18. They understand the power of the printed word; and 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.

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