< back to full list of articles
Spotlight: John Mutter, IBPA Board Member and Co-Founder of Shelf Awareness

or Article Tags


November 2013

by Linda Carlson

Closeup: John Mutter

A delightful conversation with John Mutter—IBPA board member and co-founder of the Shelf Awareness publishing newsletters—recently touched on espresso, comfortable chairs, e-publishing, and many other things that go into selling books these days.

It was delightful in part because Mutter’s fun to talk with, and also because he’s been in publishing long enough to be able to put the transformation of bookselling in context and still be enthusiastic about what the changes mean for readers, booksellers—and, yes, publishers.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and doing a stint at a print trade journal, Mutter went to Publishers Weekly, where he spent 23 years. As late as the 1970s, he reminds us, “department store book departments were the largest outlets for books besides carriage-trade bookstores and drugstores.” There were no large bookstore chains; in 1971, Barnes & Noble had only a single location.

By contrast, today’s bookselling market is “shattered,” Mutter says. Go to a shopping mall now, he suggests, “and see how many places sell books.” One of the huge challenges for publishers is determining how to get access to the book buyers in all those outlets. “It’s hard to find the book buyers for stores like Restoration Hardware,” he points out, noting that although such specialty stores carry few titles, they display them well.

Another change affecting publishers and retailers alike: Bookstores have become entertainment venues. “Bookstores weren’t a place to hang out and drink coffee,” Mutter says, recalling that the independent store in his grandparents’ town had a couple of easy chairs; what a novelty!

Mastering the digital world for marketing and public relations has also been challenging. As Mutter notes, “We have more opportunities to make contact, and to create attention for books, for authors, for the publishers—opportunities that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” but publishers and authors have to compete for contacts. And since “it’s easier to publish and print,” he points out, publishers are challenged to keep the quality of their content and design high as the barriers to entering publishing drop.

Mutter and his Shelf Awareness partner, Jenn Risko, focus on high-quality titles. The staff, now totaling 11, and the 50-some freelance reviewers issue 25 book reviews each week, along with articles on publishing facts, figures, and events. That’s 1,200 reviews a year. The original Shelf Awareness, established in 2005 and oriented to librarians, booksellers, and other retailers, is now called Shelf Awareness Pro and is sent by complimentary subscription to more than 30,000 people. Shelf Awareness for Readers, introduced in 2011 and also free, comes out three times a week and now has more than 210,000 subscribers.

Many subscribers live far from Mutter’s base in the New York suburbs and the Shelf Awareness headquarters in Seattle. And the newsletter has been popular overseas, which was a surprise. When Mutter and Risko visited Singapore in June, they discovered a huge market for English-language titles. “It’s almost like a 51st state,” Mutter said, chuckling. “People are really clued in to U.S. shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

So the obvious next step for Shelf Awareness is international. For IBPA members selling across borders, or hoping to, that makes John Mutter’s expertise on the board even more valuable.

Sourcebooks’ Latest Acquisition

One of IBPA’s large members, Sourcebooks, has made perhaps the most significant acquisition of its 26-year history with the purchase of a Naperville, IL, neighbor, Simple Truths, a publisher of motivational and inspirational books with about 100 titles in print. Simple Truths—which will become a Sourcebooks imprint publishing books in hardcover, e-book, and digital audio formats and calendars—is expected to add $10 million to Sourcebooks sales.

Since its launch in 2005, Simple Truths has sold its publications direct-to-consumer, primarily through its Website; approximately half its 1.2 million customers are corporations; the rest are individuals. Founder Mac Anderson will continue to acquire content for Simple Truths as executive editorial director.

Sourcebooks intends to add Simple Truths books to its personalized books Put Me in the Story digital platform (putmeinthestory.com) in 2014.

Selling On Site and Contributing to a Cause

Bend, OR, publisher Don Compton traveled to Yellowstone, one of the national parks featured in his America’s National Parks: A Pop-Up Book (W.W. West), where he sold 45 copies in three two-hour signings in the Old Faithful Inn lobby and the Canyon Yellowstone General Store.

“More important, the gift store managers decided to move the inventory to a more visible location. This will result in more sales,” said Compton, who reported that in the first five months after the book was published, sales of the deluxe edition raised almost $40,000 for the National Parks Conservation Association. This month, an email to NPCA members will feature the title, in time for holiday sales.

Featured at Harvard

CCB Publishing in Terrace, BC, reports that Mrs. Queen’s Chump: Idi Amin, the Mau Mau, Communists, and Other Silly Follies of the British Empire, a military memoir by Jeremy Hespeler-Boutlbee, has been selected by Harvard University professor Caroline Elkins as a required text in a fall semester course. Elkins has also invited Hespeler-Boutlbee to Cambridge for a week to make presentations to students in British Colonial Violence in the 20th Century, says publisher Paul Rabinovitch.

Website Makeover Turns Dorky into Discriminating

Ready for a chuckle? And some ideas on how to create a Website that builds credibility? Click to beaverspondpress.com, run by Beaver’s Pond Press in Edina, MN. The home page of the new Website for this author-services company starts, “If you want to publish here, we’ll have to get to know each other, even if we never meet in person. If we don’t get to know each other, how else will your book become excellent? Our process relies on a lot of human interaction, judgment calls, and tough love. We know that no two authors and no two books are the same, so that’s how we roll. We’ve been doing this since before Facebook, and before PayPal. Heck, back when our company first started [in 1998], you could board an airplane without picture ID. . . . It stands to reason that we’d have this whole publishing thing down to a science. But you know what? We don’t. Because this is not a science. It’s an art. And that applies to science books, too. Okay, enough about us. Let’s talk about you!”

Select “Let’s talk about you,” and you’ll reach a form full of menus, many with at least one humorous option, including: “What? No advance? Please connect me to Random House!”

“We tinkered with this new intake form,” reports Lily Coyle, publishing director. “First it was too long—users didn’t want to invest the time. Then it was too short—it didn’t properly vet the projects. Now, by the time authors get to the bottom, they know if we’re a good fit. It weeds out the wannabes and motivates the let’s-gos.”

The old Website, which Coyle describes as “dorky,” had an open-ended submission form. “Great spam magnet,” she says, “and a great kook magnet. We got a lot of crazy pitches from people unlikely to ever write (let alone publish) a book.”

Self-publishing consultants and author services companies should “just shoot straight,” says Coyle. “It’s no good wasting anyone’s time (particularly mine) on a project that’s not going to happen. And it’s not going to happen by creating unrealistic expectations. . . . Authors need to know what they’re getting themselves into. It’s a lot like having a baby—once you bring your book into the world, the real work starts. Be ready to feed it, clothe it, send it to college, and babysit the grandkids.”

Dealing with Heckling

How do you handle hecklers? Theresa Mulligan, author/publisher of Sugar Hill: Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem (Impulse Press, St. Louis, MO), says her solution is to ignore the discomfort they cause and treat them with respect. It’s something she encourages other authors to anticipate and mentally prepare for.

Recently, while signing books after a public library appearance, she was approached by a man in full leather motorcyclist attire, someone she describes as “a rough-looking African-American.” He smelled of liquor, and interrupted her conversation with a young book buyer with challenging off-topic questions.

“I’m black, my book is about Harlem as a black community, and I could tell the guy was trying to determine if I was talking and acting ‘uppity’ or ‘white,’” Mulligan explains.

She addressed answers to the young customer’s questions to both the customer and the heckler, which calmed the heckler, Mulligan reports. “His conversation became more honest, and then he wanted to talk about some of the tough times in his life.”

He had asked for her email address, which Mulligan provided—”It’s a Gmail address and public information”—and he left happy, but never contacted her. “In the end, he didn’t feel disrespected.”

She’s not always calm, the author/publisher adds, but “I do well at remaining calm at my talks. The serenity might be because it’s a feel-good story. I know my topic well, and, despite all the books on Harlem, there is no other history/memoir that covers the time and places Sugar Hill covers or is written the way it is.”

In the Media

● Tabby House’s Ghost of the Chicken Coop Theater by Linda Salisbury was selected by Indiana Public Radio for the first chapter book of the fall season of the weekly StoryBoard children’s program. “I sat around the computer and listened to this program streaming live, just like the old days of radio,” Salisbury reports, adding that she has “no idea how they came across my books, but we heard from them midsummer about wanting to read from one on the air, and they picked Ghost as the season opener.” StoryBoard is a Ball State University production.

● “Indie Sleepers: Titles to Watch” is how Publishers Weekly titled a fall preview issue that started out, “As large houses merge and some writers turn to self-publishing, indie publishers and university presses have become even more important as they fill in the publishing gaps.” Among the 35 books featured was Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White, from New York-based NBM Publishing, and It’s All a Kind of Magic: The Young Ken Kesey from the University of Wisconsin Press headquartered in Madison, WI.

● Brad Herzog—publisher at Why Not Books in Pacific Grove, CA, and author of its title Francis and Eddie—was interviewed in late summer on the Golf Channel. Already in its second printing, the picture book was issued for the hundredth anniversary of the triumph at the 1913 U.S. Open by 20-year-old amateur golfer Francis Ouimet and his 10-year-old caddie, Eddie Lowery.

● Poisoned Pen’s Night Zone: A Posadas County Mystery by Steven F. Havill received a starred review in a recent PW.

● Old Line Publishing in Hampstead, MD, was profiled in a late-summer issue of the Advocate of Hampstead & Manchester, which reported that this IBPA member has published 125 authors since it was founded in 2006. Publisher Craig Schenning, who calls on a small network of freelance professionals for editing and cover design services and uses digital printing to print books to order, was quoted as saying, “Everybody who needs a book gets a book. It’s shipped direct from the printer. It’s a less expensive way to do business today than holding thousands of dollars in inventory.”

IBPA board member Peter Goodman of Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, CA, was also quoted in the story: “[Digital printing] is basically a big laser printer. You can print one book at a time or 1,000 at a time and it doesn’t make any difference in price since there is no significant setup. You don’t have to invest in inventory. You can print fewer copies and see how it goes and if it doesn’t sell, you can scrap it and not lose too much money.”

According to the Advocate, Schenning believes many more authors will self-publish in the future. “But,” he also was quoted as saying, “many will still desire the services of professional editors and designers, just as many readers will still purchase printed books even as e-books proliferate.” Eventually, the publisher said, “a balance point will be achieved.”

Linda Carlson writes the Spotlight column from Seattle.

Spotlight is compiled by Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com), who welcomes members’ news of notable special sales and licensing deals, significant recent media coups, movie and television options, and other achievements at linda@ibpa-online.org.

Please report on how you accomplished something as well as on what you accomplished so others can benefit from your experience as they applaud your achievements.

Note: We must have URLs for accessing any media coverage you’d like us to mention.

Please submit your news for Spotlight in the text of your email (no attachments) and remember to include:

● your name and title

● the name of your publishing company as it appears in the IBPA membership directory

● your email address

● URLs for the archived editions of any media stories you’re telling us about

Since information for this column is needed about eight weeks in advance of an issue’s publication date, news you submit by November 14 can be considered for the January and later issues. News that is time-sensitive should be directed to lisa@ibpa-online.org for consideration for the IBPA e-newsletter, Independent Publishing Now.

Connect With Us

1020 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Suite 204 Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
P: 310-546-1818 F: 310-546-3939 E: info@IBPA-online.org
© Independent Book Publishers Association