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The Mad Hatter Recipe for Making Progress in Publishing

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The Mad Hatter Recipe for Making Progress in Publishing

by Davida G. Breier

I grew up the daughter of an independent bookseller and got my feet wet going to trade shows, selling, and even occasionally working as a buyer. But I didn’t set out to work in publishing. In talking with my colleagues over the years, I’ve found that many of us got into this business by falling down the rabbit hole. While falling—and I am fairly sure I haven’t stopped yet—I started acquiring (proverbial) hats in many different areas. Now I wear so many of them it may be hard to discern the skilled professional from the crazy lady.

In the late ’90s, I found myself working at a nonprofit that supported itself by publishing books and a magazine. Like most nonprofit jobs, this one meant I was a Jill of all trades, doing everything from writing articles to editing and designing a book to maintaining a huge Web site (which, during those early days of the Internet boom, had traffic of 100,000 people a month).

From there I moved to Biblio, a book distributor that served small presses. With an ever-growing list of clients, I found myself selling to the major wholesalers, designing seasonal catalogs, and talking publishers down off ledges (metaphorically speaking).

After Biblio was sold in 2008, I became the marketing director for National Book Network (NBN), which meant organizing trade shows (some with booth spaces of 3,600 square feet and 40-plus publishers), negotiating with e-book vendors, running Webinars, and presenting books at sales conferences.

In January 2010, I moved to Johns Hopkins University Press to run its distribution division, HFS, which serves academic presses. That same month I officially joined the board of No Voice Unheard, a nonprofit publisher I had been working with since 2006. In June, it published a book I had contributed to as a photographer and writer. Then in July, I found out I’d been elected to the IBPA board. Needless to say, 2010 has been an amazing, and incredibly hectic, year.

Why More Is More

And what has all this taught me? That despite this varied experience, I still need more hats, and I need to make sure I am wearing the ones I already have when they’re right for the occasion

While I am probably one of the youngest IBPA board members, the world of publishing I fell into is not the one I am falling through right now. The only way I have found to survive, and also to help other publishers survive, is to keep learning and taking advantage of every presented opportunity. I don’t feel I have the luxury of specialization if I want to stay in the industry; I need to keep broadening my knowledge.

Here’s an example. Just yesterday, at a meeting with a traditional printer and a POD printer, I was overwhelmed by the unfamiliar terms and acronyms being thrown around the table. There is always more to learn and understand, because the more you know, the better able you are to see the holistic impact of your decisions.

This summer, I found all my publishing worlds colliding when I worked to organize a panel for the Baltimore Book Festival. I had pitched the director of Baltimore’s CityLit Project on an idea in the spring, and he liked it. My concept was to take five writers writing about the same subject (veganism), but in different genres, and have them explain their inspirations. (I should mention I was one of the five writers.)

I had to put on my distribution hat to make sure that the on-site bookseller had all the information he needed to order our books, and, still wearing that hat, I followed up a week or two before the event to make sure he had the books. Then I had to don my marketing hat to write a press release, create and distribute flyers, and arrange some social media for the event. I also had to make sure the authors had everything they needed, including directions, parking spaces, and a schedule.

With my event manager hat in place, I reminded myself that food is key for success with trade shows. (In fact, BEA 2008 proved to me that salt-and-lime potato chips remedy a publisher’s bad mood a lot faster than a good bottle of wine.) I ordered three dozen mini-cupcakes for the Baltimore event. And wearing my writer hat, I decided to do something I’d never done before—write a speech for the occasion instead of just winging it. It made two people cry, so I took that as a measure of success and handed the speech over to the social media manager (oh, wait, hat-change, that is me, too) for the No Voice Unheard blog and Web site and for Facebook.

The night of the event I went around and passed out flyers, checked on our books, and handed my partner my camera so he could get photos. While we were waiting to get started, someone came up to talk to me. She had picked up one of my flyers at another event the previous week. She was interested in hearing the authors speak, she told me, but she also had a book idea she wanted to talk to me about.

I wasn’t sure if she was asking me as an IBPA representative, a small publisher’s board member, a former distributor for small presses, or just a fellow author. In that instant, I realized the insanity of my summer had caused my disparate hats to fuse a bit, and I could now wear them simultaneously. I think I threw more questions at her than she had for me, but it started a dialog, and when I am done working on this article, I will respond to her email with feedback on her formal proposal.

And Now What’s Next

We had a full tent that night at Baltimore Book Festival, and I left with a satisfied sponsor, happy authors, and the knowledge that publishing really is a journey, and where it leads you is always into the unknown.

The best preparations you can make for the trip are to keep learning and to remain receptive to opportunities. In this industry, people often learn by (unofficially) apprenticing, and I was lucky to have Marianne Bohr, an IBPA board member before me, as my mentor. I now see it as my responsibility to mentor other people just getting started.

IBPA is currently working to organize a mentorship program, so stay tuned for details about that. I am pleased to be part of the IBPA board and to help continue the mission of advocacy and education. I also look forward to the opportunities IBPA offers to discover more about this changing business.

In modern publishing, there really is no such thing as too many hats, and—who knows?—if you wear enough of them, you may eventually be able to answer the question, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

Davida G. Breier works for Johns Hopkins University Press, managing its distribution division, HFS. She can be reached at dgb@press.jhu.edu.



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