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Board Member’s Memo: Recent (Mis)adventures, and Changing Course

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by Shannon Okey, Founder, Cooperative Press –

Shannon Okey

As an IBPA board member, I am fortunate to work alongside very talented publishing peers while advancing our industry’s causes. I like to believe that I pay close attention to what is happening in the rapidly shifting publishing industry, all the more so in the niche arena that is my particular specialization. Our company, Cooperative Press, focuses primarily on knitting- and fiber arts-related books, as well as books targeting small business owners such as Tara Swiger’s Market Yourself, a guide to finding your “right people” and focusing your efforts on capturing and retaining their business.

I honestly should have paid more attention to the words we were publishing, because I made a very short-sighted mistake recently, and now it’s going to take additional effort to right the ship and improve what we’re doing long term.

From the beginning, we did direct-to-consumer sales. At first, we did them via our own website and at major knitting festivals. (Yes, that is “a thing” … the crafts industry is a billion-dollar plus enterprise, and we knitters aren’t even as big a percentage as the woodworkers and scrapbookers. You would be surprised where the money pools!) We started small in terms of distribution, primarily selling to the main distributor to yarn stores across the country, and direct sales to yarn stores who preferred to work with us.

Eventually, we added on more direct sales via Amazon’s professional seller platform, and filled those orders directly from our office. For $40 a month, we had full control over our selling prices and were not subject to Amazon’s price-changing algorithms. I allowed my own book, The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design, to float pricewise as part of Lightning Source’s full distribution option. You can set your wholesale percentage off, but you still can’t control what price Amazon actually charges from day to day. This is fine when the money is going into your own pocket, but when you have authors complaining that their book is suddenly cheaper on Amazon, it’s a headache.

As Cooperative Press grew, filling orders became an issue. My assistant works remotely, I travel frequently, and I wasn’t happy with the lag time between orders and fulfillment. We chose to move to a new shopping cart platform that could interface directly with a third-party warehouse. Orders come in, orders are processed and sent by the warehouse, we retain full control over our mailing list and other factors. It worked really well until our backlist sales started dropping off. Suddenly we weren’t publishing enough new books (thanks to staffing levels and growing perspective on which books were worth taking a chance on), which affected revenue. We needed to cut costs. Goodbye to the hundreds of dollars per month our cart software and warehouse fulfillment took out of our shrinking budgets. We were going over to full distro!

Lightning Source’s full distribution option is a lifesaver for the small publisher who doesn’t have time to seek out and place their book(s) in a variety of different selling venues. You set a wholesale percentage off cover price and away you go, their automated system takes care of the rest and you just wait for the money to show up. We spent time altering our website to send our existing thousands of customers Amazon-ward when they wanted to buy the print edition of our books. Bonus? Those links were tagged with affiliate information, which netted us a bit of money here and there.

And then, the holiday season.

For one thing, losing the wholesale percentage off the top seems like a great proposition if it results in increased sales. We cut our expenses. We still didn’t have to figure out a way to handle and ship the orders coming in. We could still do festivals and other direct sales events if we chose to do so, by ordering in stock for our own use. It seemed like a winning way to solve a number of problems at once. It wasn’t.

For one thing, that wholesale percentage adds up! I hadn’t quite realized how much we relied upon it. My margins were tighter and my ability to pay that remote assistant got more and more constrained. Honestly, it was nerve-racking. I counted on a banner holiday season to bring in bigger dollars and see us through the slow start of the new year. But the 90-day delay in getting paid means I’m not going to see the big holiday sales money until next month. We may have to use some of our line of credit to float royalty payments until it arrives. I wouldn’t wish my anxiety insomnia on any of you, honestly!

What to do? Do we revert to our old cart and third-party warehouse, costs be damned? Or do we try a different option? It feels as if we’ve switched carts so many times now that we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. So I thought it through, and went back to basics. Our customers are crafty. We have always sold copies of our books on Etsy. Now that Etsy offers the ability to sell digital downloads, we won’t have to pay extra to our cart for that ability. Etsy also offers a surprisingly robust means of pay-per-click advertising that allows you to find your “right people.” In other words, why wasn’t I listening to my author’s book sooner? It was a tough lesson to learn, and I’ve set myself up for some additional work in the coming month, but sometimes you need the direct experience to teach yourself the lesson. Theoretical doesn’t always cut it. Don’t be afraid to change course if something isn’t working. We learn and we grow through our mistakes.

Shannon Okey is the author of more than a dozen books with larger publishers and the founder of Cooperative Press, with about 60 titles in print as of last count. She’s presented on niche publishing at SXSW, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference and more. Her most recent innovations include working on a new library licensing program for small publishers (Readtailor) and developing ways to implement software development techniques for the publishing world to streamline processes.

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