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The Wisdom of Successful Publishers

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Countless times, I’m asked, “Have you seen many changes in your forty years in the publishing industry?” The answer is always “Yes, of course. And far more in the past ten than the previous thirty.” The biggest change? Undeniably in technology and its effects in the areas of production, graphics, and particularly in statistical analysis. New technology, as we are all well aware, has caused an explosion in independent/self-publishing. Today, literally anyone with an idea, access to a computer, and a checkbook can become “a publisher in a day.” Becoming a successful publisher isn’t quite so easy!
Recently I was asked to speak to the San Diego Publishers Alliance on the “10 Secrets of Success in the Book Business.” I thought the best preparation for this would be to reflect on experiences that I have had with ever so many publishers over these four decades and set aside those characteristics which were common to the publishers who have achieved the highest quality of success over time.
In my experience, the following 10 characteristics are those that are most common among successful publishers. Most certainly, each of the 10 requires an education in itself and I can only touch upon them in this article. A number of these are so very, very basic and fundamental that, for some of you, I will be preaching to the choir. But sadly, many others will hear them for the first time.
Here is the wisdom you can learn from successful publishers:

  1. Publish for all the right reasons. Successful publishers are pragmatic and realistic. They don’t publish for self-gratification! They understand their readership and thus publish to fill a real, not perceived, need. A question I have heard time and time again from buyers at major accounts is “Does the world need another book on…?” Successful publishers understand that publishing is a business, a very intensive and expensive business, and that it needs to be dealt with as such. They listen to the latest “Gee-Whiz” stories, but don’t have knee jerk reactions to them. They understand realism. And they certainly understand that there is far more to achieving success than reading the glut of publishing and self-publishing manuals that have become available in recent years, as well as reacting to the savvy of the many self-anointed “experts” who now roam our industry. And probably the worst of all the wrong reasons to publish is “I love to write.”Pragmatic is the operative word heard most often among successful publishers. 
  2. Planning!!! Whenever a potential client contacts me, one of my first questions is “Do you have a written business and marketing plan?” Far too often, the answer is “Oh, I have it all up here in my head. I just haven’t written it down yet.” A very bad answer! Successful publishers plan and evaluate, and then plan and evaluate again. Smart/successful (the two are synonymous) publishers have a business plan that takes them forward at least three years, preferably five years. The business plan is monitored quarterly and updated annually. They also have a detailed marketing plan for each title published, which begins its actions at least a full year prior to the publication date. The marketing plan also is monitored frequently and altered when needed, but not by knee jerk reactions, only by intelligent consideration of all criteria. 
  3. A book should be considered a financial asset. Successful publishers consider a book as a financial asset, as it certainly should be. As such, that financial asset should be manipulated to achieve its highest possible return in revenues. If you were handed $50,000, would you simply place it into your checking account? Of course not. Today’s financial buzzwords are “asset allocation.” The same is true of your book when it’s properly positioned as a financial asset. You must diversify to receive the maximum return on your investment. That means selling to all possible venues, i.e. trade, library, clubs, subsidiary rights, international, nontraditional, and more.
    Successful publishers understand profit and loss statements. They will run a P&L on every title before publishing it, as part of the decision-making process as to whether or not to publish in the first place. And successful publishers understand that cash flow is not simply selling some books and getting paid for them. They understand that cash flow is the timing of revenue and expenses and being certain by forecasting that the former adequately meets the later.


  4. Successful publishers are focused. They publish for their readers. A unique concept, isn’t it? Well, your readers are your ultimate market, not Ingram, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, or a distributor. Publishers succeed or fail on their understanding and ability to produce a product that their ultimate consumer needs and wants, not on the fickleness of a retailer, wholesaler, or distributor who really doesn’t give a hoot about you or your book(s). Successful publishers are focused on this pragmatic fact. Their focus is on creating a complete publishing entity that is capable of filling the needs of the consumer, then finding the best methods to get books to them. (More on this below in #6 – distribution and #8 – marketing.) Their focus is on success and the necessities required to achieve it. Publishing is not a business that you can put one foot in and keep one foot out. It’s demanding. Demanding on time, energy, and funds. Successful publishers are able to maintain focus on each of these. Niche publishers, of course, have been some of the more successful independent publishers. Finding a niche greatly facilitates focusing by reducing, even eliminating, possible proliferation of their efforts. 
  5. Packaging is critically important. Great pains are taken by successful publishers in packaging their books professionally. Many times I have heard key buyers comment that a book “looks self-published” and discard it immediately. There are many surveys from which you can draw the same conclusion… a book can be sold by its cover! In the best display position in a store, a book’s cover has less than 2-1/2 seconds to catch the attention of a prospective purchaser. Successful publishers are cognizant of this and never shortcut this all important part of a book’s packaging. It isn’t necessary to spend a fortune on cover designers, but it is important to use designers who know what they are doing. A graphic artist who does direct mail brochures isn’t necessarily aware of the nuances of good cover design. Interior design is also very important. Once again, successful publishers know their readers. Older readers with poor eyesight need a much different type selection and leading than younger readers with 20/20 vision. Smart publishers know when extra gutter and margin spaces are needed. And obviously, they know all about the basics of ISBNs, pricing, bar codes, title and copyright pages, and shelving codes. I admit that I have seen bestsellers that were horribly packaged. However I have seen many more books never even noticed because the publisher either didn’t have the know-how himself, or didn’t hire someone with the know-how. 
  6. Successful publishers are successfully distributed, somehow! They know that more than half of the books purchased are bought outside the traditional book trade-beyond bookstores, book wholesalers, etc. Thus they know the importance of finding “other” means to allow their customer base to access their books. For trade distribution, successful publishers with a limited selection of titles will use a “distributor,” which is essentially an extension of the publisher and performs many of the functions that a larger publisher would. These functions include providing outside sales reps, catalogs, warehousing, shipping, billing, collections, and handling returns. Or successful smaller publishers (recently coined micro-publishers) will use national wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor, and/or smaller regional wholesalers such as Koen, Bookazine, Partners West, and others. If they use wholesalers, the onus falls on the publisher to create demand at the retailers’ level to pull books off the wholesalers shelves. But successful publishers have also found ways to handle key account selling, reaching what remains of the independent booksellers, libraries, and nontraditional markets. 
  7. Publicity sells books. Successful publishers know that publicity, not advertising, is what is most effective in selling books. Publicity (reviews, editorial coverage, author interviews, etc.) seems to the consumer to be far more credible than advertising (space ads in newspapers, magazines, radio commercials, etc.). One of the reasons for this perception is that advertising is controlled. The publisher buys the space and says what he wants. Also note that for a book-a relatively low-ticket item-space ads are not very cost effective. On the other hand, publicity is uncontrolled and cost effective. With publicity, the publisher has no control over what is said, where it is said, or if anything is said about a book. So the credibility connected with publicity is excellent. This credibility enhances the all important consumer awareness and enables the publisher to focus on a specific audience/market. Publicity is cost effective because there is no cost! (That is, other than the expense of hiring a publicist-if one is used-and for mailing and printing).Smart/successful publishers also realize that a publicity campaign starts long before the publication of the book. In fact, successful publishers begin their publicity efforts a year prior to the publication a book.


  8. Smart publishers know when and how to market. They are aware that marketing and sales are two different topics. They understand that marketing creates sales. Successful publishers have learned that marketing is everything that occurs between the time when a publisher decides to publish a book to the time it settles into a reader’s hands. Marketing is developing awareness programs aimed at the various methods of targeting interested readers before they enter a bookstore, go online, or page through a catalog. Smart publishers know that the market for a book is not people who are walking the aisles of Barnes & Noble or Borders. They succeed by creating an awareness that makes their potential readers go online or to a store with knowledge in their minds about their book. They pre-sell their books before the reader gets to a point of purchase. And they have developed the distribution trade channels to facilitate the purchase, not expecting the distribution trade channels to create the desire to purchase in the consumer. 
  9. Successful publishers find their way to the next level, but first they decide if they want to! Every publisher will reach plateaus in the forms of sales flattening, interest waning, trends changing, and others. A successful publisher will decide whether or not he really wants that elusive next level. He’ll do some soul-searching by asking questions like “What will my new objective be?””Do I have what it takes to get there?””If I have what it takes, what am I really willing to do to get there?””What really is my definition of success?””If the next level is attainable, what are the risks?” When the smart publisher satisfactorily answers those questions and is ready to move on to the next level, he’ll set goals in such areas as profitability, sales volume, new titles, and new markets. He’ll set weekly, monthly, and annual time frames. Finally he’ll determine his needs to reach that next level… money, people, equipment, facilities, etc. And do you know what? The successful publishers also realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with “stickin’ with their knittin’.” 
  10. Most important, successful publishers define their own philosophy of publishing. Very simply, they’re selfish. They do what is right for them by controlling and creating their own destiny, not by relying on others. They have found that publishing’s “conventional wisdom” is OK for conventional publishers. However, by definition alone, independent publishing is not conventional publishing. Successful publishers don’t allow themselves to fall into the trap as a “general trade publisher,” since they realize that this puts them in direct competition with the likes of Random House and Simon & Schuster, struggling for display space and inventory commitments from the major chains. They create many, many options for themselves. They have studied the publishing industry, learned how it works, and figured out the best ways to make the industry work for them.

Although many successful publishers have mastered the fine arts of these ten common characteristics while studying at the University of Hard Knocks, many others have been able to figure things out ahead of time. It’s not accidental that many of these are action items which can and should be mastered in advance of publishing a book, and certainly before becoming a publisher at all! When you have mastered these 10 characteristics of successful publishers, there will always be a way for you to succeed.
Publishing consultant Bob Erdmann has spent his entire professional career, which spans four decades, in the publishing industry. He has been involved in countless bestsellers and consulted for publishers ranging from self-published authors to Fortune 500 companies in all phases of their publishing ventures. As a two-term President of PMA, he created the Trade Distribution Program, which has gained over $5,000,000 in sales for PMA members. Based in San Diego, but active worldwide, Erdmann can be reached at 707/726-9200, e-mail BobErdmann@aol.com.

Contact the PMA office at pmaonline@aol.com for a copy of a brochure describing the Dispute Resolution Program. For more information about mediation and arbitration, contact Phil Tamoush at oakwoodpub@juno.com.

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