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by Florrie Binford Kichler

Publishing’s Future: A Fuller Picture and a Not-So-Modest Proposal

In a letter published in Shelf Awareness, David Didriksen, owner of Willow Books and Café, an independent bookstore in Acton, MA, postulated that publishers need to return to their roots to survive the current economic downturn. The industry’s historic missions of developing backlist and authors have been ignored in recent years, Didriksen suggested, by an “overreliance on bestsellers,” and the mass distribution of mediocre product. Publishers might just discover that the path back to profitability lies in working together with bookstores to help mine the backlist gold and develop new authors, he said.

I felt compelled to respond and sent a short paragraph to Shelf Awareness. Following is the expanded version:

What David Didriksen Didn’t See

Out of challenges arise opportunities, and while corporate publishers are busy downsizing and cutting lists, independent publishers are continuing to do what they do best—creating the backlist gold mine Mr. Didricksen spoke of in his article, “Time for Publishers and Booksellers to Get Back to Basics.”

While our size may preclude blockbuster titles, being small and nimble allows us to choose and deliver books that readers actually want to read—year after year.

Independent publishers have never stopped nurturing authors and promoting backlist titles; indeed, those are our greatest strengths. Although no publisher, regardless of size, escapes mediocrity on occasion, the independent’s lower overhead allows us to spend the time required to invest in excellence, and our shorter lists allow us to give each title the attention it deserves.

IBPA has been working with independent publishers for more than 25 years to support publishing excellence. Our yearly and regional Publishing Universities have educated thousands of publishers in best practices since 1984. Our Benjamin Franklin Awards—which routinely involve our member publishers competing head-to-head with larger publishers—have honored the best in publishing for a quarter century. A roundup of the winners and finalists through the years includes publishers as diverse as John Wiley and Sons, Smithsonian Press, Hip Pocket Press, and Girls With Dreams.

The Benjamin Franklin Awards are open to all publishers. Just as all publishers compete against one another for shelf space and readers in the marketplace, so should they for an industry award. Each one of the approximately 1,800 yearly entrants who do not make the final cut—there are fewer than 200 finalists and winners—receives a written critique of their books by the judges, yet another example of IBPA’s focus on publishing education.

Today’s frontlist is tomorrow’s backlist, and while winning an award is an achievement to be relished, one or two or five or ten awards do not a publishing company make. Our goal as an association is to support and teach independent publishers as they create books that don’t just win awards but go on to sell, year after year. As Didriksen said, that is the road to revenue.

But there is a roadblock.

Getting Rid of Returns

Certainly the path to economic health lies where publishers and booksellers work together. That partnership could be most beneficial if we eliminated the bane of our industry—returns. Can bookstores, online and off, work with publishers to find ways to eliminate this wasteful and costly process that consumes resources unnecessarily and encourages inflated print quantities?

After all, common sense and economic realities dictate that we produce only as much product as we can sell. But despite some promising uses of POD and despite a publisher or two dipping their toes in the water of the “no-returns” model, an industry solution throughout all segments of the supply chain eludes us.

Since returns were instituted in the mid–twentieth century, the classic argument in favor of them has always been, “Booksellers won’t stock the books if they can’t return them.” Isn’t it time for a new book-industry model that emphasizes quality over quantity, marketing focus over marketing flab, and responsible stewardship of resources rather than their heedless consumption?

As I write this, I am encouraged to learn that the Book Industry Study Group is forming an industry-wide committee to examine this ongoing drain on time and productivity, and I will certainly volunteer my time to support such an effort. Returns are a money pit that affects every part of the bookselling community. As we search for ways to weather tough times, we continue to ignore this elephant in the room at our peril.

On the flip side, books that are evergreen sellers are not returned (nor are e-books, but that is a topic that deserves its own column), and backlist gold is the independent publisher’s bread and butter. In terms of “getting back to basics” to regain profitability, I agree with Mr. Didricksen that publishing better, not more, may be a way to get there, and I suggest that doing away with returns may be another way. In fact, eliminating the latter would encourage the former.

And about that partnership between publishers and booksellers that Mr. Didriksen suggests—independent publishers would be delighted to work more closely with booksellers, and not only when times are tough.

My virtual door is always open. Please share your comments, thoughts, and ideas by emailing me at fkichler@patriapress.com.



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