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Better Together

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by Deb Vanasse, Founder, Running Fox Books

Deb Vanasse

Deb Vanasse

Innovation rarely happens in isolation. Publishers who aim to discover new and better ways of doing business find success when they join forces to forge new realities from shared visions.

By tapping their inherent creativity and inclination to cooperate, these publishers defy the ordinary—and, in the digital age, they’re finding it easier than ever to facilitate their innovative collaborations.

One Plus One = Success

In meeting the day-to-day challenges of the book business, publishers engage in multiple partnerships—with authors, with distributors, and with booksellers. But beyond these everyday interactions are collaborative opportunities with expansive potential.

Agate Publishing’s Doug Seibold pitched the idea of an expanded partnership with The Chicago Tribune based on the success of a single title, Good Eating’s Best of the Best: Great Recipes of the Past Decade from the Chicago Tribune Test Kitchen, edited by Carol Mighton Haddix. The idea was to experiment with e-books of various lengths, formats, and topics.

“This partnership allowed Agate to experiment rapidly and cost-effectively in what, at the time, was the most dynamic market to evolve in trade publishing in decades,” Seibold says. “We’re now not only doing the occasional e-book (with more than 60 titles available), but also four new print titles per year.”

For mutually beneficial purposes, publishers also partner with nonprofit organizations. After an acquaintance spoke with Grayson Books publisher Ginny Connors about her work as a writing mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), Connors discovered an affinity for the project’s mission.

Discussions with an AWWP director led to the anthology Washing the Dust from Our Hearts, a bilingual (English and Dari) collection of poetry and prose, written by Afghan women. AWWP personnel procured translators and communicated with the writers, whose identities are shielded for their protection. From her office in West Hartford, Connecticut, Grayson published the book, showcasing it in venues including Poets House in New York City, The Massachusetts Poetry Festival, and the Riverwood Poetry Reading series.

“There have been several media reviews and reports on the book, and it is selling nicely,” Connors reports. “The writers involved are thrilled. It is important that the voices of Afghan women be heard, as it is difficult in that society for women to speak out.”

At Baxter’s Corner, self-proclaimed “Chief Pencil” Linda Villwock Baker took the company’s involvement to another level by offering writing instruction at a weeklong summer camp to the clients of The Cabbage Patch Settlement House, a nonprofit in Louisville, Kentucky, that serves at-risk youth. The result is a youth-authored series published by Baxter’s Corner, with proceeds from sales of the books going to fund youth services at The Cabbage Patch. Going Bananas in Space, the first book in the series, was published in late 2015, with the second book slated for release this fall.

“We have had media coverage of both the camp and our first book, and the book is selling at a local bookstore and online,” Baker says. “The book is also translated into Spanish for the growing Latino community in Louisville and nationwide.”

The collaboration is natural for Baxter’s Corner, which donates time and services to lead the writing camps and to edit, illustrate, and design the books for print. Co-founder Mary Ellen Stottmann has been a patron of The Cabbage Patch for years, and her late sister, Polly, also an artist, developed art projects for the youth served there.

“The missions of our organizations closely align,” Baker explains. “At Baxter’s Corner, we are dedicated to promoting social literacy through stories and programs that serve as a foundation to help teach life’s lessons and build character around social skills and fundamental values. Working with at-risk youth is one way we can foster social literacy.”

Title Togetherness

Because it takes a team to make a book, every publication is a collaboration of sorts. Among the most innovative book collaborations are those that involve partners who discover one another in unique ways.

In what North Carolina-based BLF Press publisher S. Andrea Allen deems a “serendipitous” turn of events, Lauren Cherelle of Resolute Publishing responded to a call from Allen’s blog, Sista Outsider, for listeners of a podcast on Black lesbian literature. Cherelle offered not just to listen, but to cohost the project.

That offer led to the collaborative “Lez Talk Books Radio,” as well as Lez Talk, an anthology of Black lesbian short fiction. “We’re now starting to work on our second anthology, which I think is a marker of a successful collaboration,” Allen says. The partnership is also expanding into a not-for-profit writing collective that will offer writing workshops and retreats geared toward black lesbian writers.

At AlyBlue Media, based in Ferndale, Washington, President Lynda Cheldelin Fell collaborates on a broad scale with 300 contributors from around the world who share their stories for AlyBlue’s Grief Diaries anthology series. “The idea for collecting the stories came to me after I produced the National Grief & Hope Convention 2015 in Indianapolis,” Fell says. “I was really touched by the stories that were readily swapped among strangers and moved by the instant friendships that were born when people realized they shared the same journey.”

Each book is a guided project: Fell sends contributors three questions per week for six weeks then arranges the responses, submitted via WuFoo forms, into chapters based on the questions. The project has rapidly expanded. After 10 months, AlyBlue already has 30 Grief Diaries titles in the works.

Bumps in the Shared Road

Ideally, partners succeed together where they might have faltered alone. Without The Cabbage Patch underwriting the costs of the facility, administration, and staff, as well as a providing ready audience of participants, Baker says it would have been “a significant challenge” for Baxter’s Corner to establish a Young Authors Camp. “We had no overhead or marketing costs for the camp, and any liability issues that might arise from working with kids were covered by the Patch,” Baker notes.

But despite the strengths each partner brings to a collaboration, pitfalls inevitably arise. In the Agate-Chicago Tribune collaboration, the newspaper had to deal with staff changes and archival limitations. In turn, Agate wrestled with cost constraints as well as the need to devise an efficient process for bringing the books to market.

In the AWWP-Grayson effort, Connors notes the challenges posed by collaborating across borders: “I had no access to the writers, which made editing difficult,” she says. “It was also very difficult to find a program that would do the typesetting for the Dari portion of the book, and for Grayson Books to check it for accuracy, as no one on our very small staff is familiar with the language.”

Platforms for Collaboration

To address the logistical challenges of collaboration, innovative tech ventures have come to the aid of publishers. Based in the UK, business startup Reedsy offers a curated marketplace for the outsourced services of editors, designers, and publicists. According to Ricardo Fayet, the venture took shape after he and Reedsy cofounder Emmanuel Nataf began tracking the digital evolution of the publishing industry.

A key feature of Reedsy is the vetting of professionals for outsourced aspects of publishing. “Our curation team looks at dozens of profiles submitted by publishing professionals every day—over 12,000 applications have been received since launching in November 2014,” Fayet says. “Based on the information listed on their profiles, and, most importantly, their work experience and portfolio, we decide whether or not to activate them on the marketplace. Of course, we run an online background check to make sure the information they include in their profile is accurate.”

Reedsy is developing specific project management tools that allow publishers to streamline the workflow of their in-house resources, as well as any freelance help they hire through the site. Free of charge, publishers can start a project on Reedsy, keep all related files in one place, set up individual tasks and deadlines, and create their production schedules. Fees are collected via a 10 percent markup on freelance services if used.

“I think everyone in publishing knows the sheer amount of work that goes into a book and the number of people involved in the production process,” Fayet says. “If you don’t organize your workflow and encourage everyone to work collaboratively, you can lose huge amounts of precious time. Our vision at Reedsy is to provide both the talent and the technology for a publisher to completely streamline their production workflow. This, ultimately, means publishing more books of a higher standard every year.”

Another UK-based platform, Futureproofs, is geared specifically toward editorial collaborations. According to founder John Pettigrew, the idea for the project was sparked at a dinner discussion at the 2013 Tools of Change conference. “I’d been talking with some friends about innovation in general and the fact that a good solution requires someone who actually understands the problems that people are having,” he says. “I started thinking about jobs my team spent much of their time doing and why taking that work on-screen often made things worse.”

Foundational to Futureproofs is a collaborative markup system that combines gesture recognition with proofing tools that integrate a team’s markup into a single authoritative master proof. “Our collaboration tools mean that as soon as a query is raised about a proof, it is immediately sent to specific team members,” Pettigrew explains. “They can respond, discuss, and reach a conclusion, which is then permanently recorded and easily accessible. This automatic audit trail can really help when you need to work out why a particular change was made.”

The platform also includes a data and project management component that provides real-time status data to project managers. The education division at Cambridge University Press is one team that uses Futureproofs to deliver enhanced digital markup, improve project management, and enable more effective teamwork.

The Places You’ll Go

Beyond online platforms, physical spaces can provide the impetus for innovative collaborations, as Bruce Shaw and Adam Salomone discovered when they decided to leverage decades of cookbook publications at Harvard Common Press (HCP) into various food-related ventures. The most recent occurred in 2013, when HCP converted its Boston offices into The Food Loft, a coworking space dedicated to food startups.

In 2009, Shaw and Salomone began to consider the future of recipe content. “We wanted to take our accumulated knowledge about culinary and consumer trends around food, as well as our substantial database of content, and find ways to use both to partner with food tech startups,” Shaw says. Beginning with Yummly, an intelligent recipe search engine that learns the taste preferences of users, the pair began to establish themselves as “investors who understood the food landscape.”

Recognizing that Boston food and food tech entrepreneurs lacked a central community hub, Shaw and Salomone envisioned The Food Loft as a space to meet, network, and collaborate. “Working online in a collaborative digital environment can be very beneficial when you know what you’re looking for or what resource you need,” Salomone says. “As a startup, you may just want mentorship or an opportunity to grow your network. We believe that in bringing together a group of dedicated, smart, and talented entrepreneurs, giving them space to meet and network, providing programming and events, as well as access to resources and mentorship when they need it, there’s a level of serendipity that takes hold that cannot be replicated online.”

Collaborations fostered at The Food Loft also enhanced the publishing end of HCP. A flagship tenant was a company called Nosh On It that worked with a network of food bloggers to share content via a daily newsletter. “Part of the reason we wanted them in the Loft is because we were working very closely with food bloggers at HCP and saw ways to collaborate,” Shaw explains. “Over the course of several seasons, Nosh On It worked closely with us as a marketing partner to promote specific titles to their blogger network.”

Ultimately, the success of The Food Loft and other innovative ventures led Shaw and Salomone to divest of their publishing interests. In February 2016, Harvard Common Press was sold to Quarto Press, but the pair credits their decades spent in publishing to their ability to innovate. “Our experience with Harvard Common Press gave us a unique perspective on the world of food,” Salomone says. “We brought a depth of understanding about food content development, consumer trends, and a network that touched on food writers, press, and media—it’s what attracted entrepreneurs to our venture. In part, because they could tell that we understood food in a way that many investors do not.”

“Being in the [publishing] business for 35 years, we were always in that startup/small company environment,” Shaw adds. “We had to be resourceful and strategic. We implicitly understood the challenges facing startups and small companies because we had lived through them at one point or another. It gave us a practical understanding of how to mentor these entrepreneurs and help them avoid potential pitfalls.”

Successful Pairings

By partnering with like-minded visionaries, publishers innovate in ways that expand their reach and enhance their bottom lines. For those interested in exploring collaborative ventures, Shaw advises an assessment of core strengths and areas of expertise.

“If you publish in 10 verticals, focus on one or two where you want to collaborate with strategic partners,” he suggests. “It also helps to pattern-match this against areas where there is innovative startup activity. For instance, if you publish in both gardening and craft verticals, you might want to focus on the latter for this kind of work because there are a ton of innovative crafting startups out there.”

It’s good to begin with an end in mind, Salomone adds—as long as you’re willing to revise as you go. “Make small bets, but make enough of them—whether by investing money, time, or resources—to see some gain,” he says. “Be comfortable with the idea that your work may not always accrue directly to the bottom line for the publishing business. It may take years before the financial gain becomes clear.”

Based on his collaboration with the Chicago Tribune, Seibold notes the importance of aligning aims and motivations with your partner. In the case of the anthology collaboration between BLF Press and Resolute Publishing, the collaboration has also yielded insights into the strengths of each participant—Allen has discovered that she is the visionary, whereas her partner at Resolute prefers working behind the scenes.

In addition to the usual markers of success—sales, enhanced market reach, list expansion—publishers laud the intangible benefits of innovative collaborations. “A benefit of innovation includes the ability to watch the magic unfold as you go,” says Fell, whose Grief Diaries series is expanding into other sensitive topics proposed by writers who want to share their journeys.

Collaboration also expands a publisher’s vision, notes Connors, citing the satisfaction of learning new cultural perspectives as she helps Afghan women find an audience for their writing and their concerns.

Shared visions, creative strategies, optimized use of available resources—independent publishers who tap these assets are poised to innovate in fresh, exciting ways. And as many will find, it’s even better together.

Deb Vanasse, who cofounded 49 Writers and created author co-op Running Fox Books, is the author of 17 books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, as well as Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold.

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