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Distribution Is About Finding Your Tribe

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by Shannon Okey, Founder, Cooperative Press —

Shannon Okey

In this article, the founder of Cooperative Press shows you how to get your book in front of the right people.

Distribution has probably been the most frequently mentioned problem raised by members during my last four years on the IBPA Board of Directors. Finding the right distributor or distribution channels is often half the battle. But have you overlooked other ways to get your book or books into the right hands? As a hyperspecialized publisher that does knitting and craft business-related books, I’m especially sensitive to the fact that our books are not necessarily designed to be blockbusters. And when I first started writing books for other publishers nearly 15 years ago, large publishers were almost throwing money at anyone with knitting content in the hopes of duplicating the success of Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ‘n Bitch series (the first book alone sold more than a quarter million copies). It’s safe to say that, even combined, the dozen books I did for those publishers didn’t reach those kinds of numbers. So what do you do when you have a quality product but a smaller potential audience? You need to find your tribe and where they “live” when it comes to purchasing books and engaging with related content.

Consider this:

A distributor may be placing your books into all the usual sales channels: bookstores, Amazon, even some specialty shops and gift stores. You know your content and your audience far better than they do, and it’s worth taking the time to research and implement a plan to get your book in front of the right people so they not only seek out your book in all the usual places, but also directly from you!

My company has a dilemma when it comes to e-books: Knitting charts and general pattern layout are extremely difficult to do well in an e-book proper. We solve this by selling PDFs on what I like to call “Knitter Facebook” (Ravelry.com, home to several million knitters around the world) and on our own website and Facebook page. In addition to using Ravelry’s own sales features, choosing the right sales software was, for us, a critical part of getting our books into potential readers’ libraries. We use Shopify to power our website, and its added functionality allows us to create a store on our Facebook page, to tag products in our Instagram feed, and to sell live at events using their point-of-sale software, all without adding another layer of complexity. There is an automated download function that makes selling PDFs a snap. The sales go directly into our web store, no matter what website the shopper originates from when making the purchase. And, naturally, the easier it is to find and buy your book(s), the more copies you can potentially sell. If your audience is digital native or at least digital-friendly, consider selling PDFs as direct downloads from your own site.

An additional bonus of using a system like this to get your books out is shareability. If you have cultivated an online community, whether on social media or thanks to your mailing list (mailing lists, too, can include one-click shopping with Shopify and many other carts; Mailchimp is particularly good at tying into external systems), you’ve made it easy for them to share information about your products with like-minded individuals, so encourage them to do so. Write a post about the content your book provides and specifically ask them to share it, or host a contest for a free copy. The extra eyeballs you get on your product are worth far more than a few prizes.

Speaking of getting your book in front of more people as quickly as possible: I’m a certified agile project management specialist. While this project management philosophy is usually applied to software development, it also scales well for books. In plain English, I know a lot about getting minimum viable product onto the market quickly in order to continue funding development of the rest. In software, that might be a working app that doesn’t quite have all its bells and whistles yet but is functional. For a book, it can take many different forms. A sales tip from the knitting world that fits right into this methodology: Knit designers announce pre-sales of an entire pattern collection or book before all the patterns are completely ready. Purchasers buy the book up front and then, as each pattern is tested, photographed, and finalized, it is released to those who have pre-ordered until the entire book is out (at which point generally a print copy will also ship). Could you break up one of your next books in a similar way? Offer the first chapter for free to those who sign up for your mailing list to drive interest, then release the book digitally in sections until the final copies are ready to go. This also has the added benefit of giving you something to talk about on social media while the book is in progress, and to get positive reviews/feedback from your readers.

This isn’t restricted to just print, by the way. We are currently planning to use Kickstarter for a large specialty fiber art book project, and part of the plan (you absolutely need a marketing plan when you are crowdfunding anything!) is to provide bonus podcast interview content and short videos from the artists featured in the book to encourage people to sign on as supporters. Without much more effort, we’re making the book visible to a much larger audience before the print edition ever hits shelves. Could you do something similar? Sometimes it’s just a question of sitting down and looking at the material in your book and what kinds of audiovisual or online bonus content it lends itself to creating.

If you analyze your book(s) and your audience, no doubt you’ll be able to find a lot of different ways to present your content to them that increases your number of possible distribution points (and chances to get paid!) as well as generating additional publicity. It’s a winning strategy for specialized publishers and it can be for you, too.

Shannon Okey is the author of more than a dozen books and the founder of Cooperative Press. Her most recent innovations include working on a new library licensing program for small publishers and developing ways to implement software development techniques for the publishing world to streamline processes.

To learn more about distribution, check out this IBPA Independent article, “Board Member’s Memo: A Few Things to Consider about Book Distribution.”

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