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Publishing on a Mission, Part I

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by Abe Ogden, Co-owner & Lead Strategiest, Paper Door —

Abe Ogden

The successes—and challenges—some mission-based publishers are having taking books to the trade.

Article Synopsis:

  • Read Part II here.
  • Taking a title to the trade can help a mission-based publisher expand its brand.
  • Having a new book tied to a charity or an organizational mission opens doors for publicity and media outreach.
  • Market research shows that nonprofits, associations, and societies are typically perceived to be more credible and trustworthy than for-profit operations.

For nonprofit, society, and other mission-based organizations, producing content and publishing are typically core activities, and most of these organizations generate a sizeable amount of their revenue producing technical, scholarly, or vocational content to a targeted group of members, who rely on these specialized publications for certification, continuing education, or simply staying abreast of trends in specialized industries. But for some, publishing books to the trade represents a way to deliver important content to both members and nonmembers alike, raising awareness about the organization and the brand, and expanding revenue that can be used to fund other activities. This is true whether the titles are published directly by the organization or with a publishing partner (and often, a blend of both). But while the benefits of publishing in this space are many—especially considering how COVID-19 and an evolving industry have had seismic effects on the trade, making direct access to customers more vital than ever—generating market-based publications that are tied to organizational principles and guidelines can create difficulties as well.

In this two-part series, we’ll first discuss the successes—and challenges—some mission-based publishers are having taking books to the trade. This will be followed in part two by a quick primer for nonprofits and associations on packaging content for the commercial book market and leveraging the resources they may already have to achieve their goals, whether those goals are to drive revenue, awareness, mission, or all three.

Expanding the Brand

The membership base for most nonprofits and societies is the lifeblood of the organization, representing both their reason for existing and their primary, and sometimes sole, customer base. This well-defined customer segmentation offers a number of advantages, especially in terms of marketing and product development, but it also means that growing an audience beyond this base can be a challenge, especially for those organizations catering to specific industries or professional categories. Creating more general interest products for the trade offers an opportunity to expand beyond this tightly defined core audience, while also offering a member base new ways to engage with content. By moving into the retail space, nonprofits and societies can generate additive revenue without undercutting current streams, while simultaneously extending the brand to new readers and creating awareness about the mission.

This was the strategy driving the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) recent “pivot to consumer,” according to Jen Hicks, director of patient education. The organization had long relied on professional members to purchase and redistribute educational materials to patients, including their flagship patient-oriented book, Your Pregnancy and Childbirth: Month to Month, soon to be available in an expanded 7th edition. After revenues from materials began to flatten with its clinician base, management decided to add a direct-to-consumer strategy while continuing to sell to members. They’ve partnered with distributor IPG and plan to take the book to market early in 2021. While the decision was primarily designed to grow revenues, it will also have the added benefit of raising awareness with patients who ultimately rely on the organization to drive best practices and improved care delivery from health care professionals.

“We surveyed patients and realized that they really didn’t know who we were. We want this effort to change that,” Hicks says. That effort will start with the new edition of Your Pregnancy and Childbirth, which was originally scheduled to publish in April of this year but was pushed for editorial reasons. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “The timing actually worked out well,” she says. “Had we published in April, COVID-19 would have drowned out all of our marketing and publicity,” and also made the title more difficult to get into retail chains. This gives the team time to flesh out plans and follow up their first trade title with new consumer-focused books later next year.

Taking a title to the trade can help a mission-based publisher expand the brand in a number of ways. First and foremost, a book widely distributed to retailers with rich metadata is a fantastic opportunity for discovery online, either through search engine results or “in store” at sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and, increasingly, big box store sites, such as Target.com, Walmart.com, and more. Not only does this expand a publisher’s customer base, but because most consumers feel materials from associations and nonprofits are more credible, association materials have an advantage converting a sale, as well.

Having a new book, especially one tied to a charity or an organizational mission, also opens a number of doors for publicity and media outreach. Politics and COVID-19 are dominating the news cycle right now, but in more typical news cycles, a new book is an excellent hook for booking appearances and creating a vehicle for your organization’s platform or the platform of prominent staff, members, or volunteers. Coverage for books at most media outlets isn’t what it once was, but it’s amazing how many doors a relevant new book title can open.

Direct Access to Customers—and Authors

While expanding the brand is a wonderful benefit of developing a trade book publishing program, nonprofit and member-based organizations have a leg up on most book publishers because of the inverse: They have a targeted audience they understand very well and can reach directly. When developing new book titles, this is a huge asset nonprofits are well poised to leverage.

Kristi Switzer, publisher at Brewers Publications, the publishing arm of both the American Homebrewers Association and the Brewers Association, which serve beer and brewing hobbyists and professionals respectively, finds that her defined constituency gives her a significant edge over larger publishers. Most of the Big Five houses have general homebrewing books designed for a large audience written by brewing experts, whereas the editorial niche at Brewers Publications for their line of 50 titles is to take a more focused approach, publishing a small number of books covering specific techniques, styles, or business best practices for professionals. Even the general how-to titles they publish, including John Palmer’s How to Brew, considered by many to be the bible for new and seasoned homebrewers, take a more technical approach than the titles from larger houses.

“We know our readers very well,” Switzer says. “We’re constantly talking to them.” Because of that, and because of her pre-publishing experience working in the beer industry, the Brewers Publications program has a lot of insight into the type of specialized interests that resonate with serious hobbyists and brewing professionals. We get very few [spec] manuscripts; nearly all of our titles come from us identifying gaps in our catalog or the market. We know what’s needed from our conversations with brewers.”

A larger house will need to cast as wide a net as possible with a title, but Switzer’s program can rely on low overhead and a built-in customer base to deliver a healthy net margin on more focused sales. And even though she’s fulfilling the mission of her parent organization to help and educate the brewing community, the margin is always there.

Brewers Publications works with the National Book Network to distribute to the trade, and while Switzer says most of their sales come from distribution, they still do healthy business through their own online store, another benefit of a member base and something most small publishers would kill for. They merchandise mostly their own titles, but they do feature books from other publishers, giving them the advantage of being both publisher and retailer. This is especially important in the COVID-impacted retail world publishers now find themselves in, with retail options sometimes closed and larger online retailers facing supply chain and backlog issues that lead to long delays for consumers. This direct link to buyers can be a lifeline.

“We’ve definitely seen more traffic,” says Switzer, and her team has worked with the marketing department at the Brewers Association to offer discounts and special offers to members and other online buyers. It doesn’t hurt that more people are spending time at home and looking to save money, two trends that have driven increased interest in homebrewing (though professional brewers are understandably facing a tougher time). “We’re just trying to support our members any way we can.”

Credibility and Authority: A Feature and a Bug

Market research shows that nonprofits, associations, and societies are typically perceived to be more credible and trustworthy than for-profit operations. In a saturated landscape, and especially in subject areas filled with confusing and contradictory information, such as health and fitness, this built-in authority can drive consumer and reader buying decisions. Victor Van Beuren, director of book operations at the American Diabetes Association, says, “Any time we do a survey of our book buyers, the number one reason people buy one of our books is because they trust the authority of the association—the credibility.” It’s a big asset; in fact, it’s most nonprofits’ core asset.

Debbie Puccio, managing editor at the American Heart Association (AHA), says that when consumers see the AHA logo, “They know that the content is backed by science.” Her team works with other publishers, including Random House and the publishing program at the American Diabetes Association, to produce AHA-branded patient-oriented books, typically cookbooks and nutrition guides. While her team takes on a number of tasks in the process, their primary role is to review the content and make sure everything aligns with the standards established by the science and medicine divisions of the organization. “When people buy our books, they know they can trust them,” she says. “That’s what we bring [to the projects].”

Part of that trust is built on a consumer assumption that nonprofits aren’t concerned with margins or revenue, and thus less likely to publish questionable information. And while it’s not completely accurate to suggest nonprofits aren’t also interested in revenue, any reputable organization is built around a set of evidence-based guiding principles that direct strategic decision-making and organizational direction regardless of profits. These principles, or standards, are not entirely different from the editorial mission statement that guides most small publishers. However, as opposed to the guiding vision of a publisher or founding group, these standards are typically built on a peer-review process of existing evidence and represent best-practice recommendations. And therein lies the rub.

“You do sometimes feel like you’re publishing for the Vatican,” Van Beuren says. While the peer-review process for standards and recommendations ensures unimpeachable guidelines, it doesn’t leave much room for flexibility.

“Oh, yes, there can definitely be, let’s say, friction,” says Hicks of the ACOG standards and the editorial process for books, especially in the health and professional services fields. Common practices and methodologies that can be effective on the ground may not meet the level of evidence necessary to make an official recommendation by a writing group. When developing content for a professional audience, this is a bit less of a concern; most seasoned professionals understand the gap between a gold-standard recommendation and the metaphorical duct tape that sometimes needs to be used in day-to-day practice. When writing for a consumer audience looking for specific guidance from a respected source—the type of voice most appropriate for a broadly appealing consumer title—it gets trickier. The result is that the expert in the field who’s been tapped to author a title is told that the methods and practices they’ve successfully used for years can’t be included in a book, which can lead to a lot of frustration.

This same dynamic can also apply to entire subjects, including trendy topics that are working well for other publishers. This is something the program at the American Diabetes Association knows well. “A lot of diets are very popular. Keto, vegan, Atkins,” Van Beuren says. “But the evidence isn’t there to support recommending them to everyone [living with diabetes]. In fact, some of it points the other direction. So, we can’t publish a book on that.” Which means a missed opportunity to sell books and drive revenue.

Essentially, it comes down to this. With a traditional publisher, the ultimate deciding factor is “will this be profitable?” Sure, there are profitable projects that publishers pass on, but that’s generally because there may be downstream effects that hurt the brand, and profitability, later on. For associations and nonprofits, the calculus is a little different, and the more pertinent question is “does this align with the mission?” Many times, the answer to those two questions align. Sometimes they don’t, and that can be challenging.

Abe Ogden is a publishing and content strategist, with more than two decades’ experience in the nonprofit and association publishing space, and a focus on chronic conditions, health, and wellness. He is co-owner and lead strategist at Paper Door publishing and editorial.

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