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Board Member’s Memo: 5 Lessons I’ve Learned from Growing My Press to More than 200 Titles in 4 Years

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by Brooke Warner, Publisher, She Writes Press —

Brooke Warner

Most independent publishers today get on the path to publishing by bringing their own book into the world. Then, having written and been published, they become an author, but something else too: an expert. There’s a beauty and a burden that comes with this role once you get there; the label of “author” identifies you as someone who’s achieved something meaningful, but it also means people will come to you for advice or help. Most of the publishers I meet today fell into the industry as the result of such a scenario, and the rest is history. And while there’s nothing wrong with starting a business this way, the very fact of “falling in” involves a steep learning curve, especially in such a complicated business where the ground beneath us is not just shifting, but rattling, as the industry continues to grow, change, and reinvent itself.

Like many other publishers, I publish my own work. I was lucky to have a 13-year head start in traditional publishing before I started my own press, but even that didn’t prepare me for what it would be like to be a self-publisher. One motivation for publishing my own book was the desire to be a guinea pig for my new enterprise. I figured if I messed anything up, it would be on my own book and not someone else’s—and mess up I did. In my case, it was the interior design, which looked fine on a PDF file but not in print. The type was too big, the font was awkward, and the leading was too tight. So I learned a hard lesson when I opened my first case of books from the printer: Always order a proof. Four-plus years later, with more than 150 books published and 215 authors signed, I’ve been surfing rather than climbing my learning curve, and as a result of such fast growth, I have the following thoughts to impart to publishers who are on their own growth edge.

1. Write a mission statement and publish books that fit into it.

Book publishing has a long history of being mission-driven, or genre specific. Big houses have historically broken off into smaller imprints so that each would have specific focuses. This helps the world—readers, booksellers, reviewers—understand who you are and what you do, but it also serves as a guiding light for determining what you’ll publish. You don’t have to be hyper-niche. My company, for instance, publishes books by women, which means we’d hypothetically publish half the world’s population, but our mission is to “provide women writers with a professional publishing platform,” and this drives our sensibility and purpose.

2. You’re only one person, so find ways to leverage yourself and your time.

One of the first things new publishers will discover is that you have another, perhaps unexpected, job description: therapist. If you’re a compassionate person and you start taking on a lot of authors, you will have to find ways to protect your time. I started three practices to make myself more available to my authors. First, I host weekly office hours, for one hour a week, where I’m available to authors who want to call in with questions. Second, I host a monthly author call for each list. Lastly, we have a private Facebook group for authors to post questions and share successes. The biggest unforeseen boon of this group is the degree to which authors help each other. Not only do they answer each other’s questions, but they also support one another by reading and reviewing each other’s books, posting publicity leads, and lobbing around thoughts and ideas on the industry and their roles as authors.

3. Don’t ignore red flags.

It will take some time before you truly start to trust your instincts about which authors to take on. In the beginning, it might feel like a new author is a business opportunity no matter what and that you shouldn’t say no. But every single author I’ve worked with who’s turned out to be a major problem exhibited red-flag behaviors in early interactions that I chose to ignore. Regardless of what your trigger is, it’s very freeing to arrive at the place where you decide that you’re not going to take someone on because you’ve identified a rub. You will still encounter problematic author relationships as you grow, but you’re honoring yourself and your instincts when you start to say no based on your gut feelings.

4. Identify your pain points and seek solutions.

Publishers will have different pain points depending on where they are in the evolution of their press, business goals, and expectations. For me, it was the lack of good distribution that threatened to be my undoing. But there have been many other pain points along the way. The good news is that solutions are abundant, and we have one of the most supportive industries I know of. The resources available to us are vast—through organizations, associations, conferences, and networking groups and sites both on and offline. If you have a problem, someone has the solution.

5. Be forever curious and open-minded.

One of the best things about publishing is that newbie publishers have every bit as good a shot of having a breakout bestseller as the Big Five publishers do. Big publishers have certain advantages smaller ones don’t, but what we lack in privilege, we make up in creativity. Independent publishers are the ones paving the roads to publishing’s future. They’re the ones who are breathing new life into this industry, forcing it out of its century-or-more-old comfort zone and bringing it into a new era.

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book (June 2016) and What’s Your Book? She writes for Huffington Post and SheWrites.com, and sits on the board of the Independent Book Publishing Association.

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