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Board Member’s Memo: Meet Your New IBPA Board Chair, Karla Olson

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Get to know incoming IBPA Board Chair Karla Olson

Karla Olson starts her one-year term as chair of the IBPA Board of Directors on July 1, 2020.

Karla Olson, Publisher, Patagonia

What is your current company and role, and how long have you been involved in independent publishing?

I am the publisher of the book program at Patagonia, the clothing company. Patagonia has been publishing books since 2007, and we just published our 50th book. We publish five to eight books per year. Our books are about the sports we support as well as sustainable business or environmental issues. We are well known in the adventure memoir and environmental memoir categories but are starting to publish more books that discuss environmental issues.

I have been working in independent publishing since the mid-’90s. For the first decade of my career, I worked for a book packager in New York. When I left New York, my colleagues told me there was no publishing anywhere else in the country. When I arrived in Arizona (where I lived and worked for 10 years), I discovered just the opposite. There were all kinds of people publishing for all kinds of reasons, and they were being very resourceful about it. I began consulting with independent publishers at that time and have been ever since. I started working with Patagonia in 2012 but still have a few consulting clients. I consider Patagonia an independent publisher because they decided to “go it on their own” instead of working with one of the many major publishers that approached them. It has allowed us to publish books that advance our mission to encourage environmental activism instead of making decisions based solely on the bottom line. It is a privilege and an honor to work with Patagonia and publish books that we feel will make a difference.

What excites you right now about the industry?

What I’ve always loved about publishing is that since no two books are alike, no publishers are directly competitive with each other. This means it can be a very open and sharing community. New publishers can learn from more established publishers, and more established publishers are watching the innovation that new publishers are bringing to the industry.

But what do I love about the industry right now? There are so many different reasons that people choose to publish, so many different goals and measures of success, and so many business models and structures. I love the diversity. (I don’t mean cultural diversity—that’s an area that the whole industry needs to work on.) I love that people still value telling their stories in a book, and that creating and publishing a book is a measure of success in itself. But there are also so many more opportunities for independent publishers right now. Print on demand and direct distribution channels have opened up the possibilities to small publishers. I’m excited to see how Barnes & Noble will reinvent itself, as they have the opportunity to highlight local and independent authors, and I hope they will. I love the community events that many independent bookstores are building, another opportunity to highlight local authors. I don’t want to focus on the current situation (I write this while “sheltering at home”), but I think we are learning to return to simpler, more reliable entertainment, enrichment, and connection, and part of that is found in books. Even if you have to stay at home, you can travel the world or the universe through a good book.

What do you hope to bring to the IBPA board during your term as chair?

There are always two major challenges for independent publishers: distribution and discoverability. Readers need to be able to find your book, and they need to be able to buy your book. I’ve been involved with IBPA and its affiliates (Arizona Book Publishers Association and Publishers and Writers of San Diego) since the mid-’90s. These groups have been gathering and sharing ways to tackle these two issues through all kinds of changes in the industry. I’m looking forward to finding new ways to help our members solve these challenges. I appreciate working with our diverse board, dedicated staff, and our members to always come up with new possible ideas. Maybe they will work, and maybe they won’t, but we always have to keep thinking about new avenues to access and highlight books.

It’s also time to reimagine the potential of the IBPA affiliates. These local extensions of IBPA offer reach, energy, and in-person contact. But are they organized in the best ways to support members on their independent journey? It is a question we have asked often during my involvement with IBPA, but I think now is the time to really evaluate the program and its connection to IBPA.

Which brings up another issue: How do we welcome more new publishers, a wider diversity of publishers, and younger publishers into our community? I love the new ways that people are sharing content (Wattpad, TikTok), and I’d like to see if there are ways we can be the resource for information on book publishing for those communities. There are support communities for new businesses too (such as Ureeka) where members are considering the power of publishing. We need to welcome all of them to join us on this amazing journey.

What’s your favorite book from the past year?

Oh, so many. I’d have to say that Educated by Tara Westover was the most thought provoking. I also enjoyed Becoming by Michelle Obama (and found it comforting—like watching reruns of “The West Wing”). I enjoyed Writers and Lovers by Lily King. But my favorite of the last year was rereading Steinbeck’s East of Eden (which I read right after I graduated from college) and discussing it with my just-graduated son. I love seeing classics through the eyes of another generation.

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