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BelleBooks Believes in a New Business Model

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BelleBooks Believes in a New Business Model

by Linda Carlson

When I heard that BelleBooks had been founded in 2000 by a group of Southern romance writers, it was easy to visualize poufy-haired blondes sipping iced tea in a rose garden, passing out editorial, design, accounting, and marketing tasks like cards for a bridge game.

The reality, of course, is far different. True, BelleBooks was created to issue what president Deborah Dixon and editorial director Deb Smith call “feel-good Southern fiction.” But its six founders were authors with more than 200 books to their collective credit from such major fiction publishers as Bantam, Berkley, Avon, Little, Brown, Random House, and Ballantine Books. And they didn’t just think it would be fun to publish books. They had a strategy: combine the talents of writers with important industry strengths in graphic design, public relations, and business operations.

The founders didn’t go into business to publish their own novels; in fact, their existing contracts prevented them from doing that. As Dixon recently explained, the first BelleBooks title was a collection of their short stories, because that was the only kind of fiction their contracts allowed them to publish elsewhere.

One of the initial BelleBooks goals—besides staying in business—was to make use of the founders’ New York contacts, and Dixon and Smith accomplished that immediately, securing a mass market paperback deal for that anthology and a similar deal plus a book club sale for the next two books the company published.

“Of course, we started out with the advantage of name recognition and editorial connections, and today we routinely sell rights for our books to large-print houses and for foreign translations,” Smith reports.

Because BelleBooks and its imprint, Bell Bridge Books, typically publish popular genre fiction rather than literary fiction, there’s a good deal of potential for licensing and rights sales, the Memphis-based publishers note. And Smith adds: “Certainly all small presses can do what we’ve done: Develop contacts in New York and keep them informed about new titles. You never know what might click.”

Sounds like a challenge, doesn’t it? Neither Smith nor Dixon denies that, even with their connections, making some of the sales has been hard work.

“We knocked on the doors of foreign publishers for years—seriously, it did take years to get that first sale,” Smith says. “But we’ve come a long way. We have subagents around the world. We’ve sold books in the United Kingdom, in the Scandinavian countries, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and China. We’ve sold urban fantasy, YA fantasy, and women’s fiction. We’ve sold cozy mystery to the United Kingdom for large print.”

Her advice: “Don’t ignore a market because the odds are small. Knock on doors; get sample copies out there; prepare title information kits; build relationships with scouts for foreign publishers.”

To support marketing efforts, BelleBooks creates full-color, glossy brochures and catalogs to distribute at trade shows and to foreign-rights scouts. And besides traditional public relations, the staff uses Twitter to announce book success stories and other good news. “Over time the efforts pay off,” Smith points out.

Starting Early with E-books

When the company was founded, Dixon was quoted as saying she wanted to use the Internet to sell books. Ten years later, BelleBooks is both selling and delivering books via the Web—in a big way.

“E-books have to be factored into any publishing plan these days,” Dixon says. “This year we realigned our thinking based on the wildly successful Kindle and the performance of our books on that platform, and on other e-book platforms.”

Dixon thinks the prediction e-books will account for 70 percent of books sold within five years is too conservative. As evidence, she and Smith point to their company’s experience last holiday season.

“In fall 2009, reading the news stories about the record numbers of Kindles shipping, seeing how many Christmas-gift roundup stories included it, we signed up to give away five e-books on Amazon.com for two weeks, starting December 26,” Smith remembers. “We wanted to help folks load up their brand-new Kindles. We didn’t expect anything spectacular, but we hoped for a little boost to sales, in keeping with our policy of providing free review copies to drive sales. Boy, were we surprised!”

All five titles vaulted into top spots on the list of most popular Kindle books, and even after the giveaway ended, the books remained popular. Their appearance among bestselling Kindle titles helped sell a significant quantity of at least one book in its print format. Crossroads Café, then a three-year-old backlist title, was fourth on the January 2010 Kindle bestsellers list, and print sales after that have been in the 2,000–3,000 range per year, Smith says. Today that book and another of the giveaway titles, Mossy Creek, have outsold more than 99 percent of all other Kindle titles.

BelleBooks continues to offer e-books free, but “sparingly,” says Dixon. “This type of promotion is about visibility. Our strongest-selling titles are always the best-reviewed books—you’ve got to hit high on the lists.”

Interestingly, Dixon believes it doesn’t make much difference to sales whether a book is on Amazon’s paid or free lists, “as long as the book offered for free is well reviewed and climbs to the top of the Free List before slugging it out on the Paid List.” Major houses are among the publishers of the “tens of thousands” of free books offered on Amazon, she points out, so “your title has to fight through that ‘noise.’”

In September, the Bell Bridge Books title A Little Death in Dixie was among Amazon’s bestselling Kindle titles. During its first three months in that format, it spent 21 days on the Kindle “top 100” list, and the publisher adds: “In two weeks on the Paid List, the book got as high as #2 and hung in the Top 10 for 10 days or so. It’s garnered more than 100 reviews with an average of 4.5 out of five stars.”

Back-and-Forth with the Big Houses

Of course, such visibility sometimes has a downside for a publisher. Author Lisa Turner was the unknown author of a first novel, but her book’s high rank on the Kindle bestselling list got the attention of an agent, who is now representing two of Bell Bridge Books’ star authors.

“You may lose some authors,” says Smith, “but that’s part of the business. Many of our authors write both for Big Six publishers and for BelleBooks/Bell Bridge. And we sell some backlist to other publishers, too: we recently sold a backlist title to Pocket when the author was picked up by that house.”

BelleBooks is also beginning to buy backlist e-book rights from established authors such as New York Times bestseller Jill Barnett; the company will publish a dozen of her titles.

Taming an Industry Monster

Thanks to e-books, print-on-demand, and microruns, what the publishers call “the returns monster” is no longer a dragon breathing flames at the office door. Although BelleBooks continues to print books, large press runs are no longer the norm. “We’ll always have books in our warehouse in addition to using a central printing/shipping source like Lightning Source, but the flexibility we have now eliminates the ‘hard sell’ we had to do when selling-in and managing traditional print runs,” says Smith. And, adds Dixon, returns are far more easily managed.

Despite their concern about returns, Dixon and Smith continue to allow returns of their POD titles. “That’s still the gold standard for getting booksellers to order titles,” Smith explains, but there is no guarantee that BelleBooks and Bell Bridge Books titles will always be returnable.

“Would we love for booksellers to stock shelves with our print editions? Sure, but it’s not worth the cost of returns when our e-books outsell our print books by wide margins. We’ll continue to offer print editions because we’re committed to offering any format the reader wants. But the focus going forward is about maximizing our e-book exposure and sales.”

Connecting with Customers

As of late summer, BelleBooks had about 80 published titles, most via Bell Bridge Books.

“Once we switched to the long-tail sales model in 2008, we went from publishing two to four books a year to publishing at least 20,” says Smith, noting that the house plans to publish at least 30 titles in 2011. “All frontlist is launched in print and e-book simultaneously,” she explains. “We sell e-books through Kindle, BN.com, iBookstore, Sony, Kobo, and Fictionwise. Our books are available from all the major traditional wholesalers and regional wholesalers like Brodart and specialty wholesalers like Follett.”

 “We’ve even produced a few audiobooks,” she adds, “and when I say ‘produced,’ I mean we picked the brain of a recording engineer until we learned to make professional quality audio in a soundproofed closet with a laptop and a microphone. It’s a labor-intensive process and ideally requires better voice acting skills than I have, but our audiobooks have been accepted at Audible.com, where they sell steadily.”

Asked about their greatest errors and challenges, Smith, who handles the company marketing, says she’d love to get back all the money put into promotional campaigns that didn’t pay off.

“Trying to catch readers’ attention is hard even for a major publisher; for a small press it often feels like an impossible uphill climb,” she says, adding that she’s not enthusiastic about two advertising vehicles: magazine ads are “expensive, slow, mostly forgettable,” and online ads are “cheap, fast, but also mostly forgettable.”

She’s also not a fan of trade shows and festivals, which she characterizes as “costly, time-consuming, and generally focused on selling print units.”

Two current favorites: free ARCs (advance reading copies) and review copies, and book bloggers. “We’ve always liked ARCs and review copies, and we continue to pursue this. If we can get readers to try our books, their responses are overwhelmingly positive. Our ARCs have always driven sales,” Smith notes.

Today, no surprise, the company is also translating this promotional tool into digital formats, offering excerpts of all titles at Scribd.com, excerpts of selected titles at Bookdaily.com, and distribution of e-galleys through Net Galley.

Smith is also “very keen on the vast new world of book bloggers. They’re enthusiastic; they welcome small press titles, and they network among themselves and their readership,” she says. They provide “a great way to focus on niche markets.”

She regularly e-mails more than 300 targeted bloggers, offering review copies of forthcoming titles. “Thanks to them we’ve built some impressive review files for our titles—not to mention the word-of-mouth buzz,” she says.

Dixon credits Smith with creativity in promotion. “For our two recent middle-grade books, both with heroines who love their Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, Deb got promotional sampling of the e-books on the Bonne Bell Lounge for tweens and set up a contest through Bonne Bell,” Dixon reports.

Impelled to Become Businesslike

The switch to e-books and POD hasn’t been the only major change BelleBooks handled; an earlier one was precipitated by tragedy.

“When our dear friend and founding partner Virginia Ellis died suddenly in 2006, we had to adjust our emotional and professional dynamic completely and immediately,” Smith recalls. “We’d lost a key member of our very small team. Gin designed covers and ads, edited short stories, and helped write the Mossy Creek series. Her death made us recognize that we’d grown beyond the camaraderie, and it was the beginning of transition to a more traditional structure with central office, full-time staff, and a formal management style.”

Initially the original partners handled editorial, accounting, fulfillment, and mailroom tasks themselves. Ellis’s death, the expansion due to e-books, and the new Bell Bridge imprint led to the daily business being managed by Dixon as president and Smith as editorial director. The company now also has a full-time administrative assistant, a part-time warehouse employee, and another clerical employee, and Dixon and Smith anticipate adding a production manager within the year. In addition, BelleBooks hires freelancers for such positions as first reader, copy editor, promotional researcher, Webmaster, and piracy monitor.

The founders, authors, and staff are paid in four different ways: royalties (for those founders who continue to write for the company), wages (for Smith and Dixon as well as the other employees), director’s fees, and dividends. “Our royalties have nothing to do with compensation for our management services,” Dixon notes, adding that most of the company’s authors have no connection to it other than their contracts for books and thus receive only royalties.

In the BelleBooks Crystal Ball

Ask these two what they see for publishing in the next decade or so, and you’ll hear more futuristic talk than is typical of book lovers.

“Enhanced e-books (multimedia, interactive) are already becoming the next Holy Grail,” Smith asserts. “I see Web-based reader communities creating bestsellers by word of mouth. I see brick-and-mortar bookstores disappearing or evolving into some hybrid that encompasses e-books—maybe a place where readers gather to browse (and download) exclusive promotions?”

Readers will be far more selective about what they will buy in print, she continues, and she believes only selected titles will be produced in print and destined for bookstore shelves.

Dixon predicts publishers will have to strive to educate readers about the costs of publishing. “Is the e-book wildly more profitable? Not really. But it does offer some savings in overhead, less investment in stock, reduced returns, faster cash flow,” she says, while emphasizing that “none of the basic costs of book production change. None of the promotional costs associated with publishing change. Promotion costs actually go up so that we can get books in front of readers who aren’t standing in a bookstore anymore.”

Moreover, e-books create additional costs because of the importance of metadata and data integration and the format conversions specific to various platforms and devices, Dixon adds. But the bottom line, she believes, “is that e-books are poised to be a very good thing for the industry.”

“Technology in both printing methods and e-book devices has made the change in our business model not only possible but inevitable,” Smith concludes. “We’re just hoping to stay ahead of the curve in delivering the right books in the right formats at the right times.”

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle for the Independent each month.



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