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Partnership Publishing: A New Model for Independents

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Last fall we managed to do the impossible (for a small independent publisher, that is): publish a book that became an almost instant national bestseller and has sold over 175,000 copies in six months’ time. The book is Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–The Essential Guide for Progressives, by George Lakoff, University of California professor of cognitive science and linguistics, founding senior fellow of the Rockridge Institute, author of Moral Politics and other books, and, according to Howard Dean, “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement.”

I say we did the impossible for many reasons, not just because we’re a small, independent book publisher rather than a corporate conglomerate media company. The others? We published and launched the book in a mere five weeks, from draft manuscript to finished book. We did it with no advertising budget and no outside promotional firm. And two weeks before the publication date, we had no advance sales (neither commission sales reps nor key account buyers had even heard about the book).

The opportunity to publish Don’t Think of an Elephant! and get it out before the election came at the last minute, in mid-July. I had never heard of George Lakoff, but our roving editor-at-large, Jennifer Nix, through her work with Don Hazen, the executive editor at AlterNet, put me in touch with him, and he sent us a proposal. You might say the rest is history, because not only did we get the book out in record time, but within two months we got it on bestseller lists in The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and on nearly every regional independent bookseller list.

What Made Booksellers Buy

We did it by partnering with key progressive organizations, including AlterNet, MoveOn, the Sierra Club, Democracy for America, the Apollo Alliance, the Institute for America’s Future, Green Festival, Hightower and Associates, Anita Roddick.com, and many others. All of them helped launch the book on the Internet. They sent out email blasts, posted information on their Web sites, and offered free downloads of the first chapter, which we had given them.

Then, once the word started to spread, especially via the blogosphere and other word-of-mouth venues, both key independent booksellers across the country and the national chains got behind it and made it the bestseller it is. In short, the strategy worked for everyone and got a critically important book out there at the right time and into the hands of people who put the ideas to work.

In the end, it’s about creating social change, and the reason it worked so well was that we all worked together; together we had an impact.

It also helped that we made the book short, readable, and cheap. There are not many serious books you can buy for 10 bucks. But 10 bucks seemed like the right price. It meant that many people bought multiple copies to give away; it meant that many progressive organizations bought cases to sell or give away to their members; it meant that we were able to get a copy into the hands of every Democratic senator in the first days after the Republican convention; it meant that the book was actually read.

How to Make It Happen Again

So, where to from here? Well, we’d like to repeat this, to show that it’s not just dumb luck, or good timing, or some kind of quirk, but that there is a new model for independent book publishers who want to compete with the big guys. It’s called being creative, nimble, moving fast, and using the power of the Internet-based constituency networks to spread the word.

Instead of playing by the traditional book industry rules, taking 6 to 12 months to publish a book, getting all the advance info out to sales reps and key buyers way ahead of time, sending lots of review copies and galleys to the increasingly irrelevant book-review media, scheduling releases according to the two-season catalog timeline, and then waiting to see what happens (all moves that work better for big publishers with lots of money and distribution muscle to throw around), indie publishers should be making up their own rules and appealing directly to their audiences by partnering with other like-minded groups.

As MoveOn and the other grassroots Internet players demonstrated during the election process, we can create our own echo chambers by working together. Call it “partnership book publishing,” where instead of having to compete for big-name authors by paying six-figure advances, authors tap the power of their own constituencies to help raise the up-front project money by asking people to buy the book in advance.

Why Authors Are Enthusiastic

That’s what Chelsea Green is doing with two authors who are very “big” political bloggers and who have been avidly pursued by some of the fanciest agents in the industry. But instead of signing up and getting sold to a corporate media conglomerate (which they politically oppose), they’re going with us. They took a two-day poll and asked the members of their online communities if they’d be willing to buy the book three to six months out to help support the project and supplement our modest advance. Over 80 percent of the 700 or so respondents said yes! Many small purchases can quite a substantial advance make (do the math: 5,000 presold books @ $25/book nets over $100,000, which we’re willing to split 50/50 with the authors.)

For authors with reach, this is easily doable. For authors without such reach, other ways need to be developed, such as collaborative fundraising and partnering with mission-related nonprofits. The key is that the money–raised via Amazon or other Internet commissions or bulk purchases that function as fundraising tools–is kept by the people who are doing the creative work, the authors, the publishers, and the constituency groups, and not by conglomerate media companies and agents (I have nothing against agents per se, but why do they deserve 15 percent of something forever when they had nothing to do with creating it? If agents are willing to work as partners with authors and publishers and get a reasonable fee for their negotiating services, then they are more than welcome to sit down at the table with us.)

As we know from experience, once the word is out and demand is building, then bookstores are more willing to stock the book and keep reordering. The buzz created by moving it to the top of Amazon’s rankings then helps all booksellers, independents and chains alike, to sell lots of books. A special initial-stocking order also helps (we offered 50 percent free freight for 10 copies, a $50 net order), but if the demand is strong, booksellers will keep coming back for many more. And the sales reps are happy because they keep earning commissions on sales generated by this demand.

Of course, the book has to be really good, timely, and able to meet the needs not just of the publisher, but of the mission-related groups that are helping promote it. The new model won’t work with schlock, and it won’t work if the author isn’t happy about earnings at the end of it. Suffice it to say that Professor Lakoff is very pleased. At 175,000 copies sold so far and with the current rate of sale at 10,000 copies a month, who wouldn’t be?

Margo Baldwin is co-founder, president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing Company, a 20-year-old independent book publisher located in White River Junction, VT. To learn more, visit www.chelseagreen.com.

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