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Why Independent Publishing Is Not Such a Bad Business and Who Is Likely to Make a Success of It

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Independent publishing is not such a bad business, because it is still one of the very few businesses where a small startup has a chance. If publishing were like hardware or toys or groceries or computers or insurance, there would be very little point in trying to get into the game. But new publishers keep popping up all over the place.

If book publishing could be dominated by a few very large companies, by now it would have been. There are three main reasons that small publishers keep multiplying. One is that the cost of entry into the business is low (although not as low as many think). The second is that books are, relatively speaking, quite inexpensive to market (although not as inexpensive as many think). The third is that independent publishers, because of their lower overheads, can make a success of a book that would be a disaster for a large house.

There has been a lot of talk in the publishing industry about building a “brand”–a very expensive proposition if you try to do it quickly. But for the most part the consumers of books do not insist on a brand. An interesting, well-produced book from a small house can compete, and over time the imprint of a small specialized house is likely to function as a brand.

Some new independent publishers grow from a title or two into quite large and profitable concerns. What follows is an account of three companies whose development I have been able to observe up close, together with some thoughts about traits they share that may help to explain their success.

Interweave: Cleverly Mixing Media

A publisher of knitting, weaving, and spinning books, Interweave was founded by Linda Ligon (a past president of PMA). She was deeply involved in the textile crafts, and she started a newsletter that became a magazine, which then spawned a number of magazines, to which she added a book-publishing program.

At the start of this chain of events was a person who knew what she was talking about in her area of interest. The magazines put Linda in touch with writers who also knew what they were talking about, and in touch with an audience hungry for high-quality information.

In the ensuing back-and-forth between content and audience, clear guidelines emerged: this audience wanted the content to be handled in a certain way, likewise the illustration and the overall design. When the time came to become a serious publisher of books, the pieces were all in place.

Interweave now has about 150 titles in print and a reputation for quality and salability that guarantees an enthusiastic welcome for each new title in its marketplaces, which include special sales as well as trade-book buyers. The books have a consistent look, so that store buyers and consumers are likely to say, at the very first glance, “Aha, a new Interweave book!”

Amherst Media: Picture This

Craig Alessy, an amateur photographer, noticed about 15 years ago that no simple book existed to help neophytes take competent pictures with the rather sophisticated 35-millimeter cameras that had become very popular. He published such a book, worked hard at getting camera stores to stock it, realized that camera stores lacked a consistent source for books, and so became a specialized book wholesaler to them.

His first 35-millimeter guide was not, it must be said, a thing of beauty; but it sold well because it had little if any competition, and market demand was strong. Five editions later (201,000 copies sold) it is now a handsome book, part of a list of more than 200 titles devoted to the craft of photography.

Although the wholesaling business slowly disappeared along with the small camera stores, Craig was able to develop knowledge about the needs of his audiences, who were sometimes professional photographers (would you have guessed that 15 titles on wedding photography alone were needed to satisfy the demand?) and sometimes amateurs. In every case what they wanted was solid information.

Currently Craig is off and running with books about digital photography that respond to the dearth of knowledge about this new technology. Digital wedding photography? You bet. Although Amherst Media books are now well designed and printed in four colors, there is no mistaking them for mere collections of pretty pictures.

Fox Chapel: Divide and Conquer

While working some years ago as a book rep in Canada, Alan Giagnocavo came to understand the potential of niche publishing. When the scroll saw suddenly became popular, he published a basic how-guide to this intriguing new power tool, which enabled hobbyists who had little experience or aptitude to produce surprisingly complicated objects with almost no risk of cutting their fingers off.

Then Alan began to implement the classic niche-marketing strategy of dividing and subdividing a general topic. Here are a few of the 200 titles that evolved from the first one: Scroll Saw Castles, Christmas Ornaments, Portraits, Portraits from the Wild West, Civil War Portraits, Toys and Vehicles, Mosaics, Police and Rescue Patterns, Military Designs, Wildlife Patterns, Seashore and Nautical Patterns, Wooden Chess Sets You Can Make. After the niche strategy of ever-finer subdivisions of the topic played out, he did books on closely related craft subjects: Whittling, Turning, Carving, Intarsia, Inlay, Extreme Pumpkin Carving.

In the beginning the books were nothing special to look at, but they did not need to be because their audience was unsophisticated and eager for information, no matter how packaged. Now the books are very well designed and printed in four colors.

At this point the reputation and quality of Alan’s list allows him to successfully compete in less niche-y (and therefore much more competitive) areas that offer the possibility of higher unit sales. Among his latest titles are books dealing with craft aspects of interior design and aesthetic issues of interest to craftspeople.

What Do These Publishers Have in Common?

These three publishers succeeded because they mastered the fundamentals of their niches. They know their subjects and their audiences. They keep a close watch on developments in their areas. They produce handsome books that strongly appeal to their audiences.

Contrast their publishing programs with a hypothetical list that includes a little parenting, some travel, a bit of self-help, a few novels, and so on. Could publishers of this sort of mix possibly know their subjects, or their audiences, the way Linda and Craig and Alan know theirs?

Although the three companies I have described all publish craft books, the principles that worked for them can be applied in many other segments of the industry, provided that a segment is defined narrowly enough. Not children’s books, but some very particular kind of children’s book. Not general nonfiction, but nonfiction about a specific subject or interest. Not fiction, but fiction of a certain kind or from a particular place. The idea is to become a big fish in a small pond.

This is a tall order, but it can be done.

It is true that large publishers produce general lists, but they can afford authors with established credentials and loyal audiences. They do not always need to know what they are talking about, or to whom. Independent publishers do.

Moreover, most large publishing companies have to settle for a profit margin on trade books (they make their serious money in other channels) that successful independents would consider pitiful: a bad business.

Curt Matthews is CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, and Independent Publishers Group.

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