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Best Advice: A Roundup of Words of Wisdom

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As you launch your fall titles and begin planning for 2012, several IBPA members offer suggestions that may help you produce better quality books, higher sales, and more impressive profits.

When asked for the best advice they’d ever received, publishers offered lots of tips. Some apply specifically to publishing; some to interactions with customers, staff, and authors; some to business in general . . . and a few to that often elusive professional-personal balance. Overall, the most frequent reminders were to emphasize quality, a niche, and sales.

 “Underpromise and overdeliver” is the advice Monica Barrois of SnapDragonFly Publishing in Spring, TX, recalls from a long-ago first boss, and it’s echoed by Joy Medved, a San Diego business improvement consultant and the author of the forthcoming The Joy of Motorcycling from the press of the same name. Medved points out, “If you don’t have the time or money to do it right, you probably won’t have the time or money to do it over.”

Although this applies to everything we do, Medved cites a special issue in publishing: “Once a book is published, good or bad, it is attached to its author [and publisher] forever.” As she reminds us, a first book can significantly affect the reputation of both author and publisher.

Doing it right the first time may mean micromanagement, says Nancy Ozturk of US Nettleberry/TR Citlembik in Eden, SD. “We publish fewer books now but try to keep our quality high through very micro management of the book preparation and production processes.” She also brings up a point made by many other members: “A narrower focus is better.”

“Sometimes you just have to say ‘No.’ It may hurt to turn away a client, but it is important to remember that you cannot be everything to everybody,” adds Victoria Colotta, president of VMC Art & Design in Allendale, NJ, who remembers this from a small-business consultant’s Webinar. Today, with a new focus on developing graphic design customers in publishing, she says, “By deciding to move in this direction, I have had to move away from clients that I don’t think would fit my new model. I won’t lie . . . it is sometimes painful to say ‘No’ to money.”

Frank Gromling, at Ocean Publishing in Flagler Beach, FL, adds to the emphasis on focus when he quotes his mentor, the Garden City Park, NY–based Square One publisher, Rudy Shur: Focus on what you’re passionate about.

And if you’re passionate about a subject, but no one has submitted an appropriate manuscript to you, initiate a search for an author who can write to your specs. Because the staff at US Nettleberry/TR Citlembik targets specific markets for its books about Turkey, Ozturk notes that it often selects the topic for a new book “rather than waiting for books to be sent to us.”

To Spur Sales

When you’re writing or publishing on a topic that you believe in, it is definitely easier to sell your titles, but that doesn’t mean sales will come easily.

“Sales are everything,” says Thad McIlroy, a consultant at The Future of Publishing in San Francisco, who made that point No. 1 on his list of 14 recommendations. “If you’re going to become preoccupied with just one aspect of your business, make it the sales function.”

Similarly strong advice comes from a London consultant: “Sales and marketing are the lifeblood of a small business. All too often small businesses are formed by those who genuinely excel at what they do or make, but are clueless at letting the world know about it,” says Vaughan Evans at Vaughan Evans & Partners. “I speak from experience,” he adds. “I am atrocious at selling!”

That focus on sales doesn’t mean hard-sell techniques. Ken Lee, who is vice president of Mermaid Films of Penzance, England, and Studio City, CA, recently accompanied 14 of the company’s authors to the annual conference of the University Film and Video Association, an organization of film professors. His advice to the authors: “It’s your job to network with the professors and treat them as your new best friends.” Specifically, he said, “Ask them what they are doing, and more important, what you can do to make their job easier.”

“When you act as a consultant or mentor to your key market rather than as a vendor, you build trust,” Lee said, adding, “When you establish trust, your market continues to rely on you for recommendations for the best books.”

Ron Colvin, who runs Addicus Books in Omaha, repeated two tips he learned at IBPA programs. Don Tuebesing, now retired from Pfeifer-Hamilton, told him, “Always have at least one solid sales channel outside bookstores”; and Dan Poynter of Para Publishing in Goleta, CA, said, “Sell books in nonbook retail outlets related to your topic.”

Another important recommendation regarding sales: Find good wholesalers and distributors, and maintain good relationships with them. Especially if you’re a single-title publisher in a narrow niche, a distributor can make a huge difference. As Karen Cogeni at New Springtime Press in Fairlawn, OH, explains, “Catholic Word knows my niche inside and out.”

Even wholesalers and distributors that are well established should be monitored carefully, though, as publishers have learned through the bankruptcies and closures of such firms and of bookstores. Members concerned that wholesalers might be overordering (and then planning to return large quantities) sometimes fulfill only a portion of a large order, and they consider possible returns when scheduling reprints.

That’s advice that Carolyn Sakowski, president at John F. Blair Publishing in Winston-Salem, NC, says she wishes she’d followed more closely through the years. “When you have a new book that is quickly running through its first printing, don’t be quick to do a reprint,” she advises. “Yes, the author as well as the buyers and your sales reps will be breathing down your neck to reprint, but if you reprint too quickly, you may find yourself looking at that complete second printing sitting in your warehouse a year later after all the returns have come in.”

At Blair, she explains, they try to determine how many copies are in the pipeline—in the wholesalers’ warehouses and on the shelves at the chains. “You also have to try to gauge what is ‘false demand’—that is, bookstore buyers cascading through various wholesalers when the book is out of stock. These buyers see spikes in demand and raise their orders. They want to keep shelves stocked, and they don’t care about what doesn’t sell because they can return unsold books for credit.”

Unfortunately, Sakowski wryly points out, “the publisher can’t return the books to the printer for credit.”

That careful analysis of books that have not yet sold through is vital, several publishers say, prior to reprinting or revising a title. Other factors to consider include the potential size of the market, whether it’s close to saturation, and the costs and benefits of offset vs. digital printing.

Integrity and Other Imperatives

As Joy Medved reminds us, asking the right questions is important whether you’re writing or publishing, something she learned when doing statistical survey research as an undergraduate. She points to advice she got from a professor—“Consider all needed variables and anticipate the consequences of needing to leave certain variables out”—and adds: “Interestingly, I have found this advice applicable to everything I have done both personally and professionally.”

Thad McIlroy cites the importance of having updated data on your business, recommending that you learn to read—and understand—income statements (sometimes called profit-and-loss statements) and balance sheets, although he cautions against an obsession with data. A vital reminder (especially this year, when many publishers were profitable on paper because of sales to Borders they had booked, but will not be paid for): “Cash flow is more important than profit.”

Speaking of cash, pay bills when due is among the words of advice from seasoned publishers. As Penny Weigand in Jamul, CA, recalls, “My husband gave me the best advice regarding how to run Bellissima Publishing. As an experienced management leader, he told me to be honest, pay all the incoming invoices on time, and always act in a forthright manner.”

McIlroy agrees on the importance of integrity: “I can’t decide what’s right for anyone other than myself. But be aware that there’s no such thing as ‘a fair amount of integrity’—either you can be swayed by cash (or prestige, or power) or you can’t. If you opt for integrity, then you have the responsibility (and the privilege) to work with people who have made the same choice.”

Always offer personal service is advice Deirdre Randall, CEO of Peter Randall Publisher in Portsmouth, NH, got from her father, the now-retired founder of the business, who also taught her “the importance of a relationship with the author in developing a book project. We are a subsidy publishing house, so authors bear the cost of publishing in working with us,” Randall explains. “We use written contracts, but we always have felt that the best agreement is based upon trust and a handshake. If an author isn’t happy, then we haven’t done our job. Establishing trust with the author early on makes all the steps move more easily and always results in a stronger book at the end of the day.”

Adds C&T publisher Amy Marson in Concord, CA, “My first boss in publishing told me, ‘You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.’ I always took this to mean that no matter who you are interacting with—boss, peer, subordinate, customer, vendor—you will get much farther by being genuinely nice. Whether you get the sale, or more responsibility, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that everyone wants to be with someone who is nice, not mean.”

Sue Schmitt of Wild Indigo Publishing in Topanga, CA, said almost the same thing. “Right out of college I worked for an upscale health club. I had a manager who was barely out of college himself. When disgruntled members would storm into his office ranting and raving, within a couple of minutes they would leave his office, happy and shaking hands, thanking him, despite not getting the solution that they were demanding.

“The more they ranted, the more furiously he would nod in agreement, and express that he understood, and make lots of ‘Yes’ noises. Then, quietly, after a few minutes, he would mildly state, ‘And this is why I can’t do that, but I understand what you are saying.’

“When we talked about it, he explained that more than anything, people want to be heard and understood.”

Down with Drains!

Another important observation comes from Kristin Zhivago, who runs the Jamestown, RI, consulting firm Zhivago Management Partners, Inc. “My husband, who had managed a factory with 70 people, years ago told me: ‘What you see is what you get.’”

As she manages employees and vendors, she keeps that concept in mind. Whatever someone is doing is what they will be doing unless they decide to make a change. “If the person is energetic, contributory, and always improving, that’s what you get. If the person is surly, competitive, and lazy, that is also what you get.” Her experience has value for hiring and for evaluating authors in terms of their ability to produce a saleable manuscript and their willingness to help promote a book:

“When I conduct recruiting phone interviews for my clients,” Zhivago says, “the first thing I ask myself when I hang up the phone is, ‘Am I uplifted, or drained?’ If I am uplifted, this candidate has the potential to contribute to the organization. If I am drained, everyone who works with that person, and whoever manages that person, will also be drained.”

If you’re struggling with someone who is a drain on your energy, Thad McIlroy suggests a remedy used by one of his former bosses with a staff of 300: Permit a complaint only when it is accompanied by a sincere and realistic proposal for a fix.

Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is almost always giving advice (often unsolicited) to authors and publishers.

For Better Balance

One challenge for small business owners, including small publishers, is personal-professional balance. As one old joke goes, “Of course I get to pick my own hours. I get to decide which 12 out of 24 I want to work.”

Kathleen Shaputis, who handled customer service for Gorham Printing in Centralia, WA, shares another old maxim that works for her: “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re dead.”

“If I approach my work, my traveling schedules, and my presentation events with this attitude, I find myself more relaxed, organized, and productive,” she reports. “I like being early; it’s part of who I am. The advice goes beyond being a few minutes early: it’s a positive attitude that propels me into my day.”

The importance of prioritizing in maintaining balance was mentioned by both Dorothy Lethbridge (publisher at Tatanka Productions in Rolling Hills, Alberta), who stressed the need to be creative and efficient with time as well as money, and by Jim Misko (of Anchorage’s Northwest Ventures), who paraphrased Ivy Lee, a management consultant to such firms as Bethlehem Steel in the early 1900s: “Prioritize your tasks and start work on the most important thing first. Don’t go to No. 2 until you have finished No. 1. You won’t get everything done this way, but you will have worked on the most important task first, and you wouldn’t get it all done any other way.”



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