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New and Better: Independent Publishers Adapt to COVID-19 with Resourcefulness and Ingenuity

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by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —

Deb Vanasse

As independent publishers adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic with resourcefulness and ingenuity, some say their innovations will improve their businesses long after the crisis has waned.

We can’t wait for things to get back to normal. Or can we?

Everyone wants an end to the sickness and heartbreak, to the unemployment and evictions, to the disruptions of how we go about our daily lives. But as independent publishers adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic with resourcefulness and ingenuity, some say their innovations will improve their businesses long after the crisis has waned.

Functionality and Fun

Melisa Graham

Melisa Graham, communications director at SPARK Publications, credits the company’s positive response to its “insightful leader,” Fabi Preslar, who foresaw the shutdown weeks before the state’s stay-at-home order. “Our paychecks and jobs have been protected so far, and we’re well aware of how blessed we are,” Graham says.

Before the pandemic hit, Graham says SPARK’s book division was “very local and face-to-face.” The company had invested in a project management system without taking advantage of all its features. But when staff began working remotely and could no longer share updates and questions within a physical workspace, they tapped into all that the software had to offer.

“We’ve made it easy and simple for the whole staff by having just two people responsible for entering the tasks and schedules for each job,” Graham says. “The others just have to make two to three clicks to access them.”

SPARK used another online platform, Fujoli Playlabs, to offer staff virtual experiences that build team creativity, productivity, and connectedness. “We got together on Zoom on a Friday afternoon to be silly and creative instead of just the regular business or project meeting,” Graham says.

Planning Pay-Off

Dan Janik

While no one planned on dealing with COVID-19 this year, Savant Books publisher Daniel Janik says a commitment to planning helped his company innovate in response to the pandemic. Typically, he says, Savant plans major changes five years in advance, with implementation and adjustments made annually. Planning is also a touchstone of weekly conference calls among staff.

Aspects of this attention to planning positioned Savant well from the onset of the crisis. “We purposefully do not maintain a brick-and-mortar office,” Janik says. “All our staff work from home. We avoid ongoing business fees, preferring a fee-based-on-sales approach.” In addition, Savant prints only in the USA using print-on-demand (POD) technology, and the company focuses on direct sales.

But the pandemic also prompted some adjustments. Forced to close its local, face-to-face bookstore, Savant expanded its online presence to four regional, web-based bookshops. In addition, the company is adding CD and DVD publishing and contracting with a multimedia group to produce animated and cinematic versions of their titles. Janik notes that they are also expanding social media outreach with a “fun, interactive, no-fee, open-to-everyone Preferred Reader’s Club.”

In response to printing and fulfillment issues, especially with Amazon, Janik says his company is looking into more localized POD production for handling orders in-house. “We’re projecting that Amazon will, by design or simply size, no longer be able to provide the kind of sales service we have enjoyed pre-COVID-19,” he says.

All Together Now

Jason Stokes

By its very name, Gestalt Media was well positioned to deal with the challenges of COVID-19. “The word Gestalt itself means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says owner Jason Stokes. “That’s something we take to heart here. We are all one, and we can only truly succeed if all of us are partaking of the same benefits.”

In response to the pandemic, Stokes pulled back on selling print titles and focused on building his e-book and podcasting sections. Unable to “go out and meet our fans like we love to do,” he and his staff instituted a weekly online cocktail hour. Livestreamed on YouTube and social media, these video calls connect authors and fans. “We’ve set a schedule, and our fans know when we’ll be broadcasting,” he says. “They look forward to it and even evangelize for us.”

Stokes says the company is well-served by the positivity that is baked into its culture. “We’ve always been a super positive company focused on family and inclusion,” he says. “We truly rely on each other at all phases as a support group in this thing we call publishing.”

In keeping with this positivity, Stokes lauds the change in perspective resulting from the crisis. “This pandemic has shown us that the people who may have been harder to see, the fans, are a much bigger part of what we do here than we ever knew before,” he says. “Taking the time to open ourselves to our readers and to acknowledge that we are all in this together has made all the difference in how we approach business going forward.”

Digital Innovations

In business since 1971, Resume Place President Kathryn Troutman has weathered multiple crises, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 economic downturn. She knew the company would survive COVID-19, too, as long as she could figure out how to adapt.

The company’s niche is providing books for federal resume classes that her trainers teach on military bases. When the pandemic hit, those classes went virtual overnight. As the demand shifted from print to e-books, she needed a way for government agencies to purchase e-books in bulk for delivery to individual students.

Researching e-book delivery platforms such as Kindle, Untethered, and Redshelf, she discovered none provided the function she needed. So, Troutman tasked her web designer with creating an e-book bulk coupon solution. “I literally had nightmares about e-book coupons,” she says.

After much testing and refinement of the system, Resume Place now has a new business line: a Federal Career Bulk eBook System. Using the WooCommerce plug-in developed in-house, federal agencies can purchase one coupon that allows for up to 150 e-book downloads. With the same $8 per copy bulk price as the company’s print books, Resume Place’s e-books are selling at a steady clip—and without the shipping costs.

In fact, Troutman says, her company’s overall sales increased during the pandemic. Pairing e-books with virtual training, some of which was already in place before the pandemic hit, she has landed on a business model that she says will outlast the crisis. Going forward, she estimates that the company’s book sales will split 50/50 between print and e-books.

Jane Ubell-Meyer

A shift to electronic delivery also helped Jane Ubell-Meyer grow her startup, Bedside Reading, despite the COVID-19 crisis. “Our primary program helps promote an author’s book by placing physical books by the bedside in luxury hotels nationwide,” she says. But in mid-March, she says, “all of our hotels simply shut down.”

Instead of giving up, Ubell-Meyer and her hotel partners got creative. “It’s the creative thinkers who can think beyond the almighty dollar and can dig deep, stay authentic, and deliver a welcomed service,” she says.

As hotels began to reopen with new protocols, one hotelier asked Bedside Reading to create a virtual book club for guests. “This was hugely successful,” Ubell-Meyer says. “We had eight authors over the summer talk to [the hotel’s] database via Zoom. Books were promoted and sold, and a new division was born.”

After beta testing over the summer, another new division, “On the Download,” launched this fall, offering hotel guests e-books, audiobooks, and podcasts 24/7. In addition, Bedside Reading is creating book packages for conference and meeting planners while providing opportunities for its authors to speak at events.

“The silver lining of COVID-19 is that we are now offering our programs to Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa,” Ubell-Meyer says. “I have taken on a new partner, hired new people, and we are expanding to specialize in creating more amenities for the hospitality world.”

Sparking Change

Drawing on teamwork, creativity, and resourcefulness, independent publishers have responded to the crisis with resilience. “Every setback prepares you for the next setback,” says Graham, quoting her company’s founder. “You get stronger and stronger each time you make it through.”

In fact, Janik says, the pandemic has given publishers a “shot across the bow” to address infrastructures that no longer serve. Like major shifts in government and business practices, he describes COVID-19 as “a spark that lights the fires of change.”

With the fires of change comes new and better practices. And while everyone will be glad to see the pandemic go, the best of the innovations it engendered will endure.

Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are the novel Cold Spell and a biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. She also works as a freelance editor.

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