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Publishing on a Mission, Part II: How to Get Started

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

Abe Ogden

How an association can bring books to the market effectively and successfully, regardless of resources.

Article Synopsis:

  • Read Part 1 here.
  • Assess if the best approach for your organization is acting as a publisher on your own or partnering with an existing publisher.
  • Use and repurpose the content that your organization has already created, including educational pamphlets, continuing education material, and so on.
  • The benefits of working with a reputable distributor far outweigh the costs to get your book in front of the most people possible.
  • Focus time and energy on the metadata attached to your book.

How to Get Started

In part one of this two-part series, we discussed how a number of association and nonprofit publishers were seeing success in the commercial book market, generating both revenue and awareness, while also delivering on mission to constituents, members, and a new audience. We also discussed some of the challenges that can face a mission-based organization that are unique to this sphere.

Challenges aside, the benefits of exploring a book program, even a limited one, outweigh the risks for most nonprofits and associations. Expanded brand awareness, a platform to drive media engagement, an additional revenue stream, and the potential to interact and serve constituents provides more value than the effort and expense necessary to bring a book to market. And that’s especially true now with printing and distribution technologies that can streamline production.

In part two of this series, we’ll talk about how an association can bring books to the market effectively and successfully, regardless of resources. If you’re an organization looking to launch a book or a program, first of all, congratulations, you’re in the right place. IBPA has a number of resources designed to help small, new, and self-published authors successfully bring books to market. Beyond that, here are some additional things to keep in mind.

Publish or Partner?

Before moving forward, you have to first assess what’s the best approach for your organization—acting as a publisher on your own or partnering with an existing publisher to bring your book to market. Each has its own benefits and pitfalls.

Working with another publisher certainly removes a number of barriers to entry. The typical arrangement has the organization acting like an author (even if they don’t write the manuscript) with the publisher partner taking on the editorial, production, and distribution tasks related to creating a book; paying a royalty on sales; and usually asking for help marketing the book. If the goal is awareness and delivering the mission, this is a great way to achieve those goals for no or little cost. The downside is that the revenue is going to be relatively minimal (any author will tell you that royalties and advances on those royalties aren’t what they once were). It also often means signing away the rights to the material. Still, depending on the goals of the organization, this may be the best option.

The American Heart Association (AHA) made the decision to go this route about a decade ago. “We decided that this was really about mission delivery,” says Debbie Puccio, managing editor at the AHA. “There’s still revenue, but our focus is on getting this information to people who need it.” The biggest drawback, she says, is giving up rights to the content and not being able to use it in other efforts (see the sidebar, “Tips for Approaching a Nonprift,” on page 28 for how this can be an opportunity for smaller publishers). Not only does this mean repurposing the material for other projects is off limits, but it closes off a number of avenues for rights and licensing opportunities, including foreign translation rights, audiobooks, and permissions fees. Depending on the goals of your organization, the types of formats you’d like to explore, and whether you have members or constituents in other territories, this could be a big deal.

For those who would like to do things on their own, the opportunity to generate more revenue also means doing more of the work. Fortunately, most nonprofits and associations are well-suited to tackle this work with existing resources.

Don’t Recreate the Wheel

Nearly all member-based organizations are in the business of creating content, whether it’s for a website, educational pamphlets, continuing education material, or meetings and conferences. Use and repurpose this content! Most for-profit publishers generate a lot of revenue repackaging the same core content into different formats and delivering through different channels, and nonprofits should be no different. Even if the existing content is aimed toward a different audience than the one you’re targeting with your book, it often has core concepts that can be adapted. More often than not, you also have KOLs and experts in the field as members or constituents who are ready and available to help adapt and package the content.

Another advantage most member organizations have is existing infrastructure and resources. If you’re creating content already, you likely have a team of editorial professionals who could be leveraged for the project. If you already have e-commerce and warehousing capabilities, even better. And perhaps most importantly, you likely already have a marketing department and an engaged list eager to learn about the new book. If you’re looking to make a big splash, you may want to engage an outside marketing firm and publicist who focus on the book trade (this is what ACOG is doing to promote their new titles), but don’t overlook what’s already there. These are resources most new publishers have to build from scratch.

Find a Distributor

That said, there are some things that are better to outsource to a partner, and distribution is one of them. An organization may have warehouse and commerce capabilities, but it likely doesn’t have the experience and talent to navigate the book trade. A good distributor will have a knowledgeable sales staff with existing contacts to chain and independent book buyers, wholesalers, mass market retailers, and the library market (which is a great channel for nonprofits and associations, as librarians nearly always prefer books and materials from mission-based organizations). They’ll also be able to get your title metadata into industry bookselling systems via an ONYX feed (or proprietary feed, like Ingram’s CoreSource) and catalog resources, like Edelweiss, the increasingly prevalent online digital book catalog, or internal catalogs. Additionally, because they typically represent a number of clients, they have more clout when it comes to negotiating terms with booksellers, vendors, and shippers. In exchange, they typically ask for a commission based on a percentage of net sales, which means that upfront and ongoing costs are minimal and there’s a strong incentive to generate revenue. In the past, many distributors were reluctant to pick up a publisher with a very small catalog, but with the rise in self-publishing and focused imprints, that’s changing.

Each distributor is different, and hard fees for specific services like warehousing materials and processing returns are not uncommon, so be diligent. But the benefits of working with a reputable distributor far outweigh the costs, especially if your primary goal is to get your book in front of the most people possible.

Focus on Digital

Make sure that your publishing plan has a strong focus on digital, and that doesn’t just mean creating an EPUB version of your book, though you should certainly do that. This also means focusing time and energy on the metadata attached to your book, such as keyword-rich descriptions, BISAC subject and shelving categories that can determine where your title will be shelved in stores and libraries, comp titles that are similar to yours to give buyers a sense of the market, and content about your author or your organization that gets fed into systems. There can be a tendency to provide just the basics, but rich metadata distributed through the trade through ONYX or similar feeds is the engine that will drive discovery of your title, both with customers and booksellers, who now more than ever rely on digital tools such as Edelweiss to make purchasing decisions. If you have an online team or an SEO expert on staff, this is a fantastic resource to leverage to help you with this process.

Thinking digitally also applies to prepress, production, and distribution. Prepress and editorial are, of course, all done digitally, but making sure production files are organized and formatted correctly in desktop applications can make converting to EPUB even easier. Depending on the complexity of the book, you may even be able to create a workable EPUB file in-house. (A note on distributing e-books: There may be a tendency to want to manage this directly, since there is no physical inventory involved and no sales people to convince, but you’re typically better off distributing digital books through your distributor, who can feed multiple accounts simultaneously, will often have better terms, and will allow you to house your metadata in one place.)

Finally, digital printing offers the smaller, cost-conscious association publisher a number of attractive options for printing books in small runs to reduce inventory costs, even true print-on-demand options that can process single orders and deliver directly to a customer. While unit costs are typically higher than they would be with traditional offset printing, for a program carrying only a few titles that is not interested in capitalizing costs of inventory or overly worried about margin, this reduces a significant upfront cost for publishing a book. As technology improves and prices drop, this will likely be an increasingly popular way to bring books to market, and a number of mid-size publishers are already having success with this workflow. Depending on the distributor, there may be in-house options available, such as Ingram’s Lightning Source digital printing service, which is available to distributed clients at a discount.

A note of caution on digital formats. There may be a tendency to consider an e-book-only title for your book, especially if you’re considering a single title, because there is still a common misconception that digital is “free.” While it eliminates the cost to print the book, that can sometimes only be 15-35% of the total cost to create a new title, so the savings aren’t as significant as can sometimes be assumed. More importantly, digital titles do not sell nearly as well as print copies, and this is especially so for educational titles. According to the American Association of Publishers, e-books represented only 14.3% of sales for its member publishers in 2019, and while this doesn’t account for the entire market (or the spike in digital readership that will likely come out of the COVID-19 stay-at-home requirements), it is weighted by publishers of genre fiction, which typically have much higher digital sales than other categories. There is also an implied value perception by media outlets about digital-only materials, and while that’s not necessarily fair, it will have an impact on the reach, publicity, and impact your title will have. Most media outlets will not cover or review a digital-only title. Think digitally and make sure your title is available in as many formats impossible, including EPUB and, if possible, audio. But also, make sure it’s in print.

In an increasingly saturated media environment, getting your voice to potential constituents and cutting through the noise is increasingly challenging. If you want to increase your organization’s visibility, expand your brand, and drive new revenue, remember that a book is one of the few media formats that requires direct physical interaction. You don’t watch or hear a book, you hold it. And if you’re looking to make a lasting impression, that can mean a lot.

Tips for Approaching a Nonprofit

The same things that make nonprofits and associations well-suited to take books to the trade also make them good potential acquisitions. What publisher wouldn’t want an author with brand awareness, a significant social media following, and a built in direct marketing operation to a significant list? Maybe even an e-commerce operation for good measure!

If you haven’t considered partnering with an organization or assumed a collaboration might be too expensive, it’s worth exploring. A decade ago, a lot of large houses were swooping in and making significant offers to societies and associations, but that acquisition frenzy has largely subsided, and the price tag has diminished along with that. In the age of charity-rating bodies that ding many nonprofits for excessive overhead, most member organizations have also pivoted to outsourcing core activities. This is where a book offer, especially one with no expense tied to it, can be especially appealing. This is an opportunity to raise revenues, fulfill the mission, and not devote donor or member funds to the effort.

Some things to consider:

    • Nonprofits and associations can be proud, and after a history of high-dollar acquisitions, they may assume significant advances on royalties at first. That said, they can often be open to negotiation, especially if there’s a focus on expense savings and publicity opportunities.


    • They may trade revenue for flexibility, especially if they have experience with previous restrictive contracts. Giving up exclusivity to the rights for some channels or activities may help gain a more favorable royalty rate.


    • Go in assuming a traditional royalty rate and an advance. Most organizations won’t be interested in a percentage of units sold or an in-kind donation, and most will be unwilling or unable to simply license their logo or branding marks. They’ll almost certainly want to be treated like an author.


    • If you have an existing project, reach out before the manuscript goes to production. Going to an organization with a co-branding opportunity after a book is developed or published is too late. Depending on tax status, most organizations can’t endorse a product, so they’ll want to be involved editorially, and more often than not, they’ll want to be involved from the beginning.


    • Be prepared to deal with multiple parties. Even though the organization will want to be treated as an author, they’ll likely want another party to create the manuscript. They may subcontract this writer directly or they may want them included in the publishing agreement. Either way, be prepared.


  • Be prepared for significant reviews. Associations are very careful and will want to review the manuscript closely before publication and likely be inflexible about publisher suggested changes. The credibility and authority they’ve built comes from having tight control of their brand and content. Be sure to build this into any publishing schedule.

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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