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IBPA Roundtable: Pandemic Pivoting

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Compiled by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —

IBPA members delve into what they’ve done differently since the COVID-19 outbreak began.

In what ways were you forced to pivot or adjust your business/publishing due to COVID-19? What did you learn from this?

Ian Lamont (IL): I realized that my overreliance on Amazon couldn’t continue. The company understandably had to prioritize emergency supplies, leaving many publishers and sellers unable to deliver goods to customers who wanted them. I ramped up self-fulfillment through my own websites and realized that it is time to prioritize my website. I neglected it for years because Amazon was so easy (until it wasn’t). This required investments of money and time, but I think, in the long run, it will pay big dividends. The pandemic also revealed problems for other companies in the supply chain, like Ingram and Baker & Taylor and distributors. Again, being overly dependent on other parties for sales really leaves you exposed.

Richard Stiennon (RS): My book business relies on bulk purchases for conferences and events. All of that evaporated in the first week of March. For the first time, I had pre-printed books and stored them in a fulfillment warehouse. I had to figure out how to move books. We came up with an offering for companies that want to reach their prospects. They provide us with a list of names and addresses, and we ship books individually. Direct mail has fallen out of favor in recent years. This is a way for a sales team to reach their prospects at home with a valuable gift that is not just the usual bottle of wine or chocolate. When I present at virtual events, I include this service as an additional offering.

Nicholas Chapman (NC): We had to operate as an entirely virtual organization with a home-based staff. This was not too difficult, as we had outsourced all of our warehousing and fulfillment by last fall and switched to an online phone system calling our cellphones in January. The biggest impact has been the cancellation of external conferences and events that have always been a big part of our sales and marketing mix. As a result of this loss, we have stepped up our email marketing and direct sales. We are releasing our first book trailer today.

Linda Stewart Henley (LH): As a first-time author, I expected to have a more traditional in-person launch at my local bookstore and library as well as in New Orleans, which is the setting for my book that will be published in August. I followed the comments made by authors whose books were published this spring and quickly learned that I might have to limit any events to online interviews or postings when my book comes out in the fall.

Emily Victorson (EV): We were able to rush less on the publication dates of our upcoming titles, as the Chicago Printers Row Lit Fest was postponed until September. This is usually a big sales event for us, and we’d been pushing to get books done in time to have them available for sale at the Fest. [As of publish date, the Chicago Printers Row Lit Fest has been canceled.]

Lawrence Knorr (LK): Anticipating the shutdowns, we pivoted to emphasizing our e-book releases. Previously, these lagged the print releases. We began releasing the e-book format first or in tandem with print. Initially, our sales plummeted 70% because of store closures and the suspension of author events. It was the subsequent surge in e-book sales that got us through the worst. We have decided to make this an ongoing practice.

Leslie Turner (LT): All our projects were put on hold and all future book orders canceled. We immediately turned back to in-house projects waiting their turn and continue to make great progress. Thankfully, our business is almost completely debt-free, but we did sell off some equipment to close the gap, and today we’re farther ahead than this time last year—almost impossible to believe. On the music side of the house, we became an online learning portal in a week’s time and started churning out videos and learning new technologies. We adjusted our website to accommodate and beefed up our YouTube channel. All of this required some investment in equipment, subscriptions, and software, and a painfully steep learning curve. Our clients are extremely loyal, which reinforced in us the value of putting the client first in all interactions and decisions. The first two weeks of shutdown reminded us how much we needed a break, and the creativity unleashed during that time taught us we need to build creative retreats into every year. We also learned how important it is to be willing to let go of things that are holding you back. Most importantly, we were reminded how fragile business can be without a solid foundation. Were it not for low debt and low overhead, we wouldn’t have survived. We have agility and learning built in to our DNA, so mentally we were ready to make changes when the world stopped. And, we built this business as an outpouring of our faith, so we had that to keep our perspective.

Dr. Kurt Brackob (KB): These certainly are trying times for everyone in the publishing industry. At Histria Books, we have taken a number of measures to adapt our business to the new realities. Initially, we saw a severe impact on our sales. To address this, we have worked closely with our distributor, Casemate, to make adjustments to release dates for titles originally scheduled for release from May-July. We also worked to bring out electronic editions of several backlist titles that had not previously been released in electronic format. This has also helped to generate new revenues. We are also working to bring several older, out-of-print titles back into print as they require a minimal cash outlay and can also help to generate additional revenue. In addition to this, we have focused our efforts on social media to drive traffic to our website. As a result, we have seen a significant increase in our direct-to-consumer sales during the past two months. This is especially welcome as our profit margin on books sold on our own website is significantly higher than those sold through normal distribution channels. Overall, our focus is on preparing titles for 2021-2022 so that when things start to turn around, we will be well-positioned to grow our business.

Sandra Poirier Smith (SS): Pivoting! We listened to the challenges of each author and publisher client and adjusted the focus of our work (book publicity) based on how their expertise or book’s topic fit into the new and unprecedented news cycle. We learned more about virtual opportunities, including virtual speaking events, book signings, live social media events, and webinars to replace in-person opportunities. We learned how to support authors with technology options, saw even greater value in virtual book events as we were able to invite a wider geographic array of an author’s or genre’s fans. Internally, while we are fortunate as book publicists to be able to effectively work remotely, it was still an adjustment to switch from in-person and casual conversations to holding more formally scheduled video calls. Our team’s interaction is key as we need to brainstorm ideas, share media contacts and trends, and discuss what media angles are working or not working each week.

Did you create any new partnerships or have a success story to share from the past few months?

IL: One weekend in late April, I sat down with YouTube and “figured out” Facebook advertising. This was a key learning experience, and something I will be using a lot in the years to come.

LH: One of my best memories during this time was when I delivered ARC copies of my book to local people who had asked for them. I drove around, dropped the book on people’s front porch, rang the doorbell, and returned to my car. Since everyone was home, by the time I reached my car, the recipients were calling out to me to say thanks. We usually had a friendly chat, with me standing 6 feet away and my friends standing on their porches. It was one of the high points of the publishing process so far.

LK: We had two campaigns during the worst of the pandemic that really lifted our authors’ spirits. The first was a series of e-book giveaways to introduce them to readers. We posted the results daily, and it read like a horse race. The authors were excited about it, even though they knew they weren’t making any money. It just felt like the right thing to do when so many readers were losing jobs and worried about their health and their loved ones. The second campaign was pulling together a compilation entitled After the Pandemic: Visions of Life Post Covid-19 (ISBN: 9781620067000). Over 25 of our authors, including MDs, PhDs, economists, teachers, etc., contributed their expertise to provide predictions of how life is likely to change after the pandemic. We pulled this together in less than six weeks, from the call for submissions to the first sale. The book soared to #1 on Amazon in its category. It has since been licensed to two Asian publishers for foreign language translation. We have agreed any profits will be donated to organizations helping the homeless or supporting first responders.

LT: We have actively been seeking new partners and expect we will be a totally different entity by this time next year, with considerably more presence and capability. This includes collaborators, vendors, other publishers, even some clients who are playing a role in expanding our territory for us. As new projects and opportunities start to emerge, I am hopeful but realistic. Finding great chemistry is the challenge. Merger, acquisition, new marketing approaches, everything is on the table, and knowing your own worth is critical in this process. Risk like this is both exciting and terrifying, but without measured risk and the willingness to let go of the baby business you birthed and raised, there is no growth.

KB: This situation has led us to create new partnerships with different publisher associations to learn and benefit from each other’s experiences. We have also created new partnerships with organizations such as Bookshop and Above the Tree Line to help to grow our business. Although we have only started these in recent months, we are already seeing benefits. One other important aspect has been strengthening our existing partnership with our distributor to work together more closely for our mutual success.

Of the changes you made during the pandemic, have any of them made you think about your process moving forward? What does the “new normal” look like for you even after the outbreak is contained?

NC: Much more home-based working and the possibility of taking on new employees who do not live in our area.

EV: We were pleased that the various review journals (PW, Kirkus, Foreword Reviews, etc.) all moved to accepting or allowing PDF ARCs. This meant that we did not have to print ARCs this time around and didn’t have to deal with shipping them, which allowed us to stay out of the post office. We’re hoping that this practice will continue post-COVID-19, as it saves us quite a bit of money and time. We were disappointed to see that many bookstores still expect to receive print ARCs and hope that they will adjust this going forward.

LK: It is quite possible a segment of readers were introduced or reintroduced to e-books and may stick with this format. We have also begun an internal audiobook initiative and believe this will reap rewards going forward. On the print side of the house, we are very concerned about the financial viability of many of the independent bookstores going forward. We are likely to tighten our returns and credit policies until there is a return to stability. We are also revamping our website to be more focused on direct selling. In the meantime, we will likely hear very soon that Amazon grabbed an even larger share of the book market during this period. They are unlikely to give this up as consumers switched their buying habits.

LT: We fine-tuned the art of long-distance collaboration and are working now to keep the momentum on our in-house projects. We have a lot of customers flow through weekly (again), and had to reinvent our flow and space to make that happen, as well as expanding our online payment options. Most of these changes will stay after we have widespread vaccination. We decided we would be more successful in the long run with a less strenuous work schedule that allows us to build in time for those in-house projects, and now have a new online channel that will continue to grow residual benefits with little additional effort. In other words, more fun plus more doing what we love the most plus more rest equals a happier, more successful life and business. For us, this means learning to say “no” a little more often.

KB: We are placing greater emphasis on direct-to-consumer sales than we have in the past, and we will continue to do this as our company grows. We are also placing a heavier focus on e-books than we have in the past.

Experts! Share your insights in an upcoming Roundtable! Are you interested in being featured as a thought leader in an upcoming roundtable for IBPA Independent? We’re looking for your thoughts on a variety of topics, including design and packaging, marketing and PR, and more. Contact IBPA Independent managing editor Alexa Schlosser at alexa@ibpa-online.org.

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