Last year, more than 175,000 books were published, many of them by small publishers. Perhaps the greatest challenge for the small publisher is standing out from the crowd and gaining the attention of mainstream buyers. One good strategy involves developing co-branding alliances that boost visibility and credibility.
When you partner with a better-known entity, sometimes the partner contributes intellectual property. Occasionally, partners provide financial subsidies for printing and marketing expenses. But in most cases what you should seek is a well-known name that will strengthen your reputation and help catch the eye of prospective buyers.
To illustrate co-branding strategy in practice, I’ve recorded a bit of the experience we’ve had with two of our own partnerships.
Our press, the Chivalry Bookshelf, focuses on the niche market narrowly defined as reenactors, fencers, martial artists, and other passionate enthusiasts interested in knighthood, chivalry, swordsmanship, and the medieval tournament. We have earned a reputation for quality within the community and have quickly become the dominant publisher in this small but rapidly growing market segment.
In 1999, we decided we would like to partner with the Swedish National Academy of Sciences. We chose a 1929 book, Armour from the Battle of Wisby, a highly sought-after but extremely hard-to-find behemoth. Once I had acquired two copies, we sought and received permission from the author’s estate to reprint the work with a new introduction, releasing it under the Chivalry Bookshelf brand. In exchange, the Academy would receive 100 copies for its own use, presumably for sale.
Ammunition for Additional Deals
The release of the book sparked a pleasant wave of interest throughout the arms-and-armor and reenactment communities and generated solid sales; we sold our whole print run of 1,500 copies at $99.95 each in less than a year. Our name was established. And the release of this important book became an arrow in our quiver as we sought to expand into fully co-branded offerings. Such arrangements proved surprisingly appealing to the museums we contacted.
In 2002 we approached the British RoyalArmouries (RA) at Leeds, the preeminent military museum, which possessed RA MS I.33, the world’s oldest manuscript dealing with swordsmanship. From our contacts in the historical swordsmanship community, we had learned that Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng was working on a translation and interpretation of the work. But when we contacted RA, we discovered that it intended to do an edition of its own, without a translation. A bit of negotiating and wrangling ensued until, in the end, we convinced RA that there was no sense in producing two editions, that the quality of the illustrations strongly suggested a color reproduction, and that it would be beneficial to RA to have us involved, especially since it did not have the budget to do a color printing (some 78 leaves in color). This is common with public institutions, especially museums.
We presented a pair of proposals, one giving RA a royalty in exchange for the use of all the plates, and one entailing a co-branded arrangement where we split the net sales (after royalties to the translator). RA went for the latter, and even agreed to provide substantial financial support. We released Medieval Art of Swordsmanship after few pains and to strong acclaim. It has sold many copies directly through both of us, and it is picking up steam in the distribution channels, although it is a relatively expensive hardcover and not really oriented to the trade.
Together, we and the Royal Armouries were able to present the best possible work to the marketplace; the RA got a new income stream, and we got a powerful boost to our credibility as a press, as well as revenue. The partnership helped us consolidate our position within our niche and encourage more authors to publish with us.
The Art of the Co-branding Deal
In any niche, you can usually find established entities renowned for their expertise, their knowledge and objectivity, or just their names. To target your potential partners, look for the well-known companies that answer needs in your niche and be sure you understand how co-branding with them will generate benefit for both partners and for the potential readership. For example, if you are working in the field of popular psychology–a crowded field–and you have a book idea that you feel is solid, you might target talk radio hosts or psychological institutes, get them to discuss your idea, and see whether they will endorse the book by including their name in the branding.
Of course, this approach presupposes that your idea is a strong one and that the content is compelling. In some cases, some of the content–such as case studies, histories, artwork, interviews–can be owned by the target partner and can augment content you provide. In others, the target partner might be the source for all content in the book. Be flexible yet firm and clear in your vision. Articulate that vision clearly to the partner and sell the idea.
Then be sure your agreement is clearly laid out. You want to preserve the win/win nature of the relationship and guard against various threats to your investment–the partner going out of business, disappearing, changing their mind, taking your idea and running to another publisher, doing it themselves without you, and so on. Benefits that you share with your partner can range all the way from free copies through a royalty to a share of net profits. Whatever the specific terms, be fair in your legal documents and make the agreement beneficial to both sides.
Co-branding can be an effective tool for publishers with strong content and knowledge of their niche.
Brian R. Price is a longtime operations and marketing professional who established Chivalry Bookshelf in 1996. Serving now as publisher for the press, he is a frequent speaker and consultant for other small presses and their marketing and packaging strategies. You can contact him at Chivalry Bookshelf, 510/471-2944, or email@example.com.