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Indie Publishers Confidential

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by Lynn Rosen, IBPA Independent contributing editor

Lynn Rosen

Below, IBPA taps a diverse array of indie publishing professionals from across the country for a candid discussion on how the industry has evolved, where it’s headed, their biggest pain points, and why —through it all— they can’t imagine doing anything else.

How do you define indie publishing?

Georgia McBride: Indie publishing is a mindset, an attitude, a culture, and way of doing business that allows one to not only think outside the box but to do away with the box all together.

Richard T. Williams: Technically, and perhaps historically, indie publishing is a catch-all for any kind of publishing that is taking place outside of the construct of the big New York publishing houses that have dominated the industry for so long. But more importantly, I think the term has become the name of a movement in which authors are empowering themselves to utilize technology and services that have become more affordable to them in the last few years so that the creative and financial aspects of publishing remain in their control.

Mark Wesley: Your passion, your vision, your books, and your business.

Tanya Hall: An indie publisher is a publishing business operating outside of the “Big Five” traditional houses.

W. Paul Coates: Independent publishing is a privately held publishing company. It is financed by the owners/partners and may publish one or multiple authors.

Elizabeth Turnbull: Indie publishing is a wide and vast field, with a range of everything from one-woman presses to small publishing houses putting out dozens of titles a year. I think this is where we find out strength as an industry––in our diversity. Still, I think it’s helpful to find a definition that covers most of us and helps distinguish indie presses from self-publishers. So I’d define indie publishers as “any independently owned press with titles from more than one author.”

Caleb Mason: I define indie publishing as small, privately held publishers who are not part of publicly traded media conglomerates so have more freedom to publish high-quality titles that might not meet the large scales of distribution and sales needed by the Big Five. Indie publishers can provide authors with more time and attention than they can possibly receive in a conglomerate pumping out thousands of titles per year.

Ebonye Gussine Wilkins: Indie publishing is an opportunity for multiple voices to be heard without the weigh-in of monolithic standards which typically exclude diverse perspectives. In a sense, an indie publisher is someone who stands up and says “my voice matters too.” It’s a powerful assertion of strength.

Rudy Shur: For me, an indie publisher is a privately owned publishing house that provides all the services of a publisher—editorial, book production, marketing, and publicity—at its own expense. It has the capacity to publish professionally produced books, either as physical books or e-books, or both. Its editorial direction is set by or with the input of its owner(s).

In the time that you’ve been involved in indie publishing, what do you see as the greatest change?

McBride: For me, the biggest change has been access granted to indies and more acceptance from trade, wholesalers, reviewers, etc. Of course, we have a long way to go. We often lack the funds to buy advertising or to buy into key events and opportunities. That said, one is more likely to find indie books like ours on shelves at Barnes & Noble and getting reviewed by School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Booklist Online than we have in the past. It’s certainly not indie magic—but a load of hard work.

Williams: There’s been a visible shift of power within the marketplace, which is now more accommodating to indie publishing as a movement. Indie publishers are far more able to build readership/audiences for their authors in today’s climate than they used to be, especially online, where big bucks marketing muscle isn’t as imperative. The traditional publishing industry also appears to be far less likely to gamble on authors, instead waiting to see what kind of successes authors or indie publishes can build on their own. In that sense, indie publishing is much more a stepping stone to the big leagues for authors than it used to be.

Wesley: The means of distribution, volume, technology, and our customers. Sadly, one thing that has not changed is our thinking. We still want to be in the major bookstores, the major retail outlets…but does this still make sense?

Hall: I’ve been in publishing since 2004, and the greatest change has been the shift from brick-and-mortar bookstores to online retailing. We’re much savvier about digital publishing and marketing these days, and we thankfully have a very diverse customer base (especially our airport sales), which has helped our book sales numbers to stay healthy despite that shift.

Coates: Today’s easy-to-use website technology allows independent publishers to be more personal and better connect with their readers—building loyalty and relationships. We can quickly post anything we want, at any time, because the website platform we use doesn’t require html programming, is user-friendly, and flexible. We can also quickly link it to our other social media platforms (including email) and reach all of our audience members pretty easily. It also has allowed us to receive much more profit per title by selling direct versus relying on others to sell our books. Of course, we also are including e-books as a standard format for all of our new titles.

Turnbull: The industry is constantly changing and evolving in everything from how we print (or don’t print) books to how we work with the authors. But I’d say the single greatest change has come with the rise of e-books—especially with how they’ve leveled the playing field for small presses. I’m consistently impressed with and grateful for the opportunities e-retailers give to indie publishers.

Mason: Right now, there is a dangerous plateauing of e-book sales underway, which can have the effect of lulling publishers into the misguided notion that “the new is just a passing fad.” Many said this about the Internet and I saw it in the photo industry, when the digital revolution first took off, then plateaued and the old guard slowed down their innovation push, then nontraditional players surprised the industry pushing the Kodaks and Polaroids into Chapter 11. I also fear that publishers’ profits will be hurt by the recent price rises in e-books, which run the risk of pushing a certain number of readers off in search of self-published “good enough” titles. The price elasticity between paper and digital books will continue to be a huge challenge.

Wilkins: The access to information on how to publish professionally and successfully has surged. The indie publishing world has such a strong collaborative spirit that people are empowering themselves. They are no longer asking for permission from big companies to do the very things they want to do: publish interesting books about things they care about. There is a real community out there, where people want to help each other succeed. The greatest change is that more and more, people are realizing that they are not shut out of the industry; most of the tools for success are readily available.

Mullin: Distribution has expanded, but that growth has plateaued in traditional channels. Major online retailers have helped indie publishers get “shelved” through e-book and POD [print-on-demand] listings, but they don’t reach physical stores or even get people reading without marketing support. There is still a lot to be done to help excellent indie published works rise above simple site listings.

How are indie publishers currently innovating? How are you innovating?

McBride: We are trying new things and exploring areas where traditionally small or indie presses haven’t focused on, such as subsidiary rights, multitiered distribution and/or publication in foreign countries, and exploitation of film and TV rights. We’ve also branched into book and series packaging.

Williams: Indie publishers are not playing by the rules that have existed for decades, instead creating new rules to reach new audiences. And I think it’s working. As a distributor, Small Press United has had to recognize that there are new rules in play and that we are no longer simply trying to “disguise” indie publishing as traditional publishing. Because then we would be simply trying to sell new publishers into an old model—one that historically does not accommodate them—instead of finding the new models where the indie publishers are truly flourishing, such as through overnight word of mouth, digital content distribution, and print-on-demand availability. Indie publishers don’t need to sit on 2,000 copies of a book waiting for something to happen anymore, but they still need a sales company to help make the product available in both digital and print and to conduct the business with the vendors so that they can keep their focus on developing and promoting their product.

Wesley: Publishers are starting to use crowdfunded models and social media to give their target audience a voice. Some publishers are giving away some of their best work for free so that they can build a following. As for me+mi, we will continue to be where our customers are. We walk in their shoes and continue to listen to their wants, needs, and unspoken desires.

Hall: Indie publishers are great at innovating by supporting debut authors and experimental formats. Greenleaf Book Group has always been innovative by virtue of our unique business model (built on a history as a distributor, with our published authors investing in production costs in exchange for ownership of rights); and in the past several years, we’ve innovated further by adding a department to our company dedicated to helping authors define and develop their brand and platform. That perspective has definitely boosted the ancillary product development we do for our authors—things like workbooks, short videos, website development, and writing keynote presentations.

Coates: Amazon and digital printing have been the greatest changes to impact independent publishing. Amazon took down the barriers of any publisher/writer getting into a major bookselling retail space and having their books exposed to readers nationwide, making the playing field more level for all publishers. Amazon also does not require large inventory quantities, making it cost effective for small and independent publishers to supply customer needs. Digital printing enabled independent and small publishers to cost-effectively produce books without over-investing in upfront printing or storage.

Turnbull: One of the biggest innovations from indie publishers has to do with how we’re now setting the tone for a more efficient and eco-friendly operation. This is especially clear with the increasing popularity of print-on-demand (POD) and small-run titles. Indie publishers are eliminating the stigma surrounding POD and sending a loud message that POD doesn’t mean we don’t believe in our titles; it means maximizing our resources and minimizing waste. POD isn’t something to grow out of—it’s something we should all grow into.

At Light Messages, we’re tapping into the spirit of industry leadership in other ways, too. We see our role not just as publishers but also as advocates. We want to foster collaboration and connection with small presses, authors, bookstores, bloggers, and readers. So earlier this year we took to the street and created Durham’s first Read Local Book Festival—a three-day event that through the help of dozens of volunteers brought together more than 100 authors, several small presses, and nearly 1,000 book lovers from around the area. The result was a vibrant “literary ecosystem” and an ongoing dialogue about how best to foster and protect that ecosystem.

Mason: I am unaware of any other publisher doing what Publerati is doing. We originate only literary or midlist fiction (works being left behind by the current large-scale business models) as e-books in all formats for $4.95, then release about half of them as trade paperbacks through the Espresso POD Network for $16.95. The guiding principle for us is to only release titles that have access to the “Internet of Everything,” that are inside the digital network. We pay our authors 80 percent of e-book royalties and 50 percent of the POD paperback. To do this, we maintain very low overheads, using the monies we have for social media marketing and promoting the unique goodwill aspect of our brand, where we donate to Worldreader from every sale made.

Wilkins: My fellow indie publishers are innovating by fixing problems themselves. New technology makes a lot more of indie publishing accessible, but it also creates unique problems for writers, publishers, and editors alike. The beauty of it, is that between the access of the information and the helpful, enthusiastic spirit of indie publishers, no one is waiting for someone else to fix an issue that may arise. They either fix something themselves, or rely on the expertise of their connections to solve problems now, rather than later. I’m taking notes, because indie publishers continue to amaze me every day with what they’ve accomplished despite quirky barriers.

Shur: Beyond just promoting your books, it is important to get your books seen in as many places as possible. When I started out as a publisher, there were dozens of ways to distribute your book to different marketplaces throughout the United States. There were local, regional, national, and specialty distributors, that if they liked your titles, would work hard to have them placed. Over the years, the system of distribution has been reduced to a handful of wholesalers and distributors who seem to be nearly overwhelmed with the growing number of titles coming available daily. Today, it has become a much greater challenge to get your books in front of the public.

What are the greatest successes and areas of future growth for indie publishers?

McBride: I think indie publishers need to think beyond consumer sales of books. There is great opportunity in merchandising, joint partnerships with other publishers, innovating at the print and warehouse level, and more. We need to be thinking of cost savings as well as revenue-building opportunities.

Williams: Often an indie publisher is more connected to its audience from the get-go, and as the power of indie publishing grows, those audiences are given more of a voice. Consumers like the ability to be able to connect to authors and actually have some impact on the industry, meaning that publicity, marketing, and product availability all have had to grow and change to meet their needs. Again, indie publishing is a movement, and its impact on the general reading audience means that success and growth beget more success and growth because consumers feel not like they are simply catching onto something, but also that they are participating in it.

Wesley: The greatest success in indie publishing is Sourcebooks. They have always been on the edge and fully awake. Mark Dawson’s success with his John Milton book series. Morgan James Publishing has done a great job with entrepreneurial authors. I believe the area of growth for indie publishers will be in our ability to step into the void that the big publishers have left. We are in a unique position to connect with our customers, to understand our customers, and to deliver what our customers want. A new model is being developed every day and we must take the time to listen.

Hall: Indie publishers are really good at finding and owning niches. They become the curators of that niche, and the opportunity for them to build a community around it is huge. That niche could be anything from woodworking to paleo cooking to coloring books—but learning how to build and then serve that community on an ongoing basis is where a lot of growth happens.

Coates: The greatest success of indie publishers is staying in business! I think that independent publishers need to stay attuned to readers’ needs and wants and be able to respond to those needs.

Turnbull: Indie publishers have an incredible appetite for a vast range of genres and authors. When the Big Five and conventional publishing outlets are consistently lambasted for an overly white, male roster, indie publishers are bringing the fringe to the center. We’re eager to provide platforms to women and people of all colors, religions, sexual orientations, and beliefs. In the industry we call these “niche publications,” but let’s be honest—we’re breaking our backs to take them out of the niche and make them mainstream. And that’s our area of growth. More women authors, more authors of color, more texts—fiction and nonfiction—depicting the world we live in, the world that is actually the norm, the world we’re just now catching up to in the industry.

Mason: I think if smaller-scale indie publishers can offer authors better royalties than the Big Five, they can build up successful lists scaled to a more dispersed distribution model. Instead of Amazon and Barnes & Noble amounting to 70 percent of sales, they can build direct-to-consumer lists of like-minded customers eager for books that are challenging and “unlike everything else being published,” the exact opposite of what most agents and publishers ask for today. They can curate better content from the self-publishing ranks, provide first-class editing services, and redefine success in lower volumes than the current huge advance, huge big-box retail distribution model requires. This large-scale model is also very much at risk as we wait and see what unfolds for Barnes & Noble over the next decade.

Wilkins: The greatest area of growth for future indie publishers is reaching people who were previously left out of the industry. Yes, increased access to literary material and technology has made a lot of difference in the lives of people all over the world. But, the opportunity here, is to present and publish information, stories, and knowledge that is reflective of the voices that have been traditionally left out of publishing. Indie publishers are specially situated to be incredibly responsive to the needs of these people and their voices, and the best thing that any indie publisher can do is embrace that, and elevate it so that a wider audience can benefit from it. Truthfully, we all benefit, from being allowed to fully participate in, and benefit from, the fruits of independent publishing.

Shur: The fascinating thing about indie publishers is that they can chart their own courses and use the latest methods of being seen. Clever people do clever things, and as an indie publisher, it pays to see what’s happening out there, and never stop learning from others.

Mullin: Building readership through online communities has been a hallmark of many of the greatest crossover hits in indie publishing’s recent history. One thing that’s great about book communities is that they’re self-selecting—it makes it easier to put the right book in the right hands. What’s often missing is timing. Daily deals newsletters capture some immediacy, but there’s no community building. Indie publishers need to leverage both.

What are the greatest struggles and challenges for indie publishers?

McBride: I believe getting a seat at the table and getting noticed at the trade level remains a key struggle. The biggest challenge remains in corporate, book, and author branding. Most indies and small presses have only the bandwidth to focus on one.

Williams: The downside of the indie publishing revolution is that the playing field is more level, and the sheer number of titles continues to boom exponentially. This makes it harder for any author or publisher to break out on a massive level, but it means that more publishers are finding moderate success in an industry where they used to have much less of a chance. There has been a mild unspoken contempt for indie publishing historically that is lessening greatly day by day as the power continues to shift.

Wesley: How do you get the attention of your target market and the continued thinking that the “old” way is still the way to go? The “old” way is dead. The challenge of indie publishers is, can they let the “old” way go and take their unique advantage and build a new model? This is not a one-time fix or a new exciting technology. It must be a strategic plan that we as indie publishers come together and formulate. IBPA is a good place to start the revolution.

Hall: Discoverability—vying to have titles seen and supported by retailers, media, and readers. It’s a challenge for any publisher, really, but it’s magnified for indie publishers since many lack access to strong distribution and marketing dollars. Without volume, it’s hard for small indie publishers to make a profit on the thin margins we work with in publishing.

Coates: I think the greatest struggle for a new publishing company is growing a list of titles and receiving a flow of income that covers expenses. We have been in business for close to 40 years and have roughly 125 titles—that took time and staying power. I also think that the publishing cost/profit equation continues to be a challenge for all publishers; retail discounts, shipping and printing expenses are a hard hit to the bottom line, making profitability and paying staff decent salaries an ongoing battle.

Turnbull: Our greatest struggles and challenges come from ourselves—it’s a steep learning curve—and from an industry that’s entrenched in an old-world way of doing business. Specifically, I believe the greatest challenge for indie publishers lies in distribution and sales. The current system is based on an outdated, but deeply rooted, model that uses central warehousing and shipping back and forth of inventory, resulting in an unnecessary waste of money, paper, fuel, and other resources. As we continue to invent new ways to print books, we absolutely must find a better distribution and sales model, a model that utilizes the strengths of POD and a streamlined, efficient method for getting books in the hands of readers. And if the indie publishers I know are any sign of what’s to come, it’s only a matter of time before we overcome this challenge, too.

Mason: Distribution is the greatest challenge given the lower sales likely to be achieved by less popular but artistically ambitious titles. However, innovation has and will continue to create new and better distribution pathways for indie publishers going forward.

Wilkins: I believe most people would say that it is marketing, but I believe that it goes a little deeper than that. There are two components that feed into each other. Access to capital is a big one: How do you efficiently bring yourself in front of your target audience without capital? The other big struggle is authority. We’ve been accustomed to a systemic structure that unapologetically dictates what should and should be published based on, you guessed it, how marketable it is. How it will appeal to a particular audience? Audiences respond to what they’ve been given, which is directly a function of capital and authority from the bigger companies.

Indie publishers were born out a need to publish other material that wasn’t yet present (material that audiences wanted but didn’t have access to), and the desire to do it despite the lack of access to large sums of money. Indie publishing was born out of the great need to feed different kinds of reading and writing needs.

Shur: There are many. 1. Understanding the nature of the businesses’ economics which, if not controlled, can quickly lead to financial failure. 2. Having to wait between 90 to 120 days to get paid, creating a problematic cash flow. 3. Having to live with a one-year returns policy on trade sales. 4. Getting visibility for your titles. It isn’t easy to compete against giant corporations that, in a number situations, owns its own media.

Mullin: Pretty clearly the greatest challenge is discovery. The major retailers (and social networks) are good at surfacing things that are already performing well, as measured by likes, comments, shares, or sales. They’re not as good at surfacing titles that don’t exceed their preferred performance metrics. There’s opportunity for anyone that can put the right book in the right hands at the right time, but any strategy for success needs to include all three.

Lynn Rosen is a book publishing industry professional with many years of experience as an editor and literary agent. She is co-owner of the indie Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. She was previously editorial director of Book Business magazine and director of Graduate Publishing Programs at Rosemont College. She is the author of ELEMENTS OF THE TABLE: A SIMPLE GUIDE FOR HOSTS AND GUESTS.

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