by Terry Nathan
Two Views of Where We’re Going and How to Get There
At Publishing University this year, we had the good fortune to hear about “The Future of Publishing” from two successful independent publishers, Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks and Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers. For those of you who couldn’t be there and those who would like a handy recap, here’s an introduction to these wonderful people and my take on what they said.
In 1976 Rudy and a few partners started Avery Publishing. Twenty-three years later, Avery had become one of the largest alternative health publishers in the United States, and Rudy sold it to one of the big New York publishers. Two years after that, he started Square One Publishers with seven employees, and during the past five years he has been ranked among the fastest-growing small publishers by Publishers Weekly.
His philosophy is simple: “Produce good, solid niche books using authors who know what they are talking about, and then market the hell out of them.”
In 1987 Dominique started her company from her bedroom in Naperville, IL, funded by $17,000 from her 401(K) plan. Twenty-two years later, Sourcebooks is a leading independent book publisher, with more than 1,000 authors and more than 75 employees. It publishes 300 books a year and has had 20 national bestsellers.
Dominique is in this business because she believes “books change lives, and everything else is irrelevant.” She suggests that we are all in this business “for that same reason. Somewhere, at some point, a book touched us. It is the thing that brings us together. It is the warm heart that is in the middle of the book business. It is why books, book publishers, and booksellers matter.”
“And we matter,” she points out. “It is not the technologies that matter, it is us.”
Talking about the digital age, Rudy Shur made an important distinction. “Everywhere we look, we see breakthroughs in printing technology, distribution, marketing, and sales,” he said. “The age of electronic everything is upon us. I have no problem at all using any of this.
“But we miss our signals when we think this is the future. What we are looking at are tools—tools that publishers can use for their companies.”
Noting that it is not unprecedented for our industry to be faced with apparently insurmountable challenges, he cited the lack of copyright laws in the early 1900s and the system of returns established during the Depression to help the bookstores. “It worked then, but we never figured out the Depression was over, and we now are saddled with that problem,” Rudy pointed out, adding that technological advancements are also not new. As some of us remember, “During the ’90s, CD-ROMs were all the rage. A ton of money was spent to open new divisions, and what happened? The Internet wiped them out. Simply a waste of money.”
“Just because you create a download and create a file does not mean you will sell a million books,” Rudy reminded us. “The digital revolution will free us of lots and lots of costs. It will, in fact, do amazing things, but only if you use these tools properly.”
He closed by saying: “The future of publishing is me and it’s you. It is all the independents who care what they are doing but never lose sight of what their job is and what they can bring to the public table.
“And yes, we can use the tools, but they will only help us deliver what we have to offer.
“As long as we do not confuse the tools with the spirit of publishing— that part of publishing that independent publishers represent, the innovations, the people who take chances—as long as we as the independents are able to understand what these are and what our roles are, I think our future will be just fine.”
For Dominique Raccah, looking at the future of publishing involves looking at numbers, and the numbers she focused on reflect the importance of independent publishers, which, she reported, now make up close to 46 percent of the book industry. Perhaps even more encouraging, books from independent publishers are growing at a rate “almost threefold to that of the conglomerates,” she said.
“You are part of a huge community,” Dominique told us. “You are part of a world-changing community. It is incredibly important to the culture of America. In many ways, indie book publishing has been far more successful than indie films or indie music.”
Citing a staggering statistic—more than 550,000 books were published last year—she reminded us that it is a lot harder to be heard in all that noise, and she suggested that being a category leader is key. The category must be very specific, she said, not something general like Parenting or Arts and Crafts. With the emergence of the Internet and online retailers, Dominique noted, “it is a problem of creating must-have titles. Most believe distribution is the major problem. I do not believe that.”
Dominique also talked about the concept of unbundling the publishing process, calling our attention to an observation by Sam Bowers, president and founder of the Service Sales Institute: “We have moved from a world where things are sold to a world where things are bought.” We need to deliver content however our customers want it, and the opportunities in front of us are endless, she declared.
Here are three other pointers Dominique offered:
“Don’t tell me there has never been a book published like yours, because that is just not true. No matter what you believe about your book, don’t believe that.”
“All facts are friendly.” Once she was told that her book cover was terrible. Rather than give in to the urge to fight for her cover, she said, “OK, got it. I have to do something about this cover.”
“The question you need to answer is, ‘What’s the Why?’ Why should somebody buy your book? Here is the reason someone has to buy this book rather than the other 550,000 books that were published last year. You can’t just say it is a really good book. There has to be a reason why. It has to be a reason that really, profoundly, authentically excites you. And when you communicate that, it changes something for the other person.”
Dominique closed by saying: “We are creating a deeper relationship with all types of customers. We are really in the partnership business now. It is not business as usual—it is a work in progress.”
Dominique and Rudy differ on when our industry will be dominated by e-books rather than “p-books.” Dominique thinks it will happen “very fast. We are at the tipping point. The device that is going to tip it is not the Kindle. It’s the Apple i-Pad (or whatever they are going to call it).” Rudy had this bit of parting advice: “Smart publishers learn from their mistakes. Wise publishers learn from other people’s mistakes.”