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I Have Seen the Enemy, and It Is Us

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Mary ShaferBy Mary Shafer —

It’s no secret there are many challenges facing publishers of all sizes, not just indies, these days. So many are out of our control, which has led to a deadly feeling of impotence. That’s something we must all deal with in our own ways, but there is one major step we can all take that can largely overcome that feeling of powerlessness. It’s something that—from what I’ve seen and experienced—many if not most small indie publishers are failing to do, and it concerns me enough to prompt this letter.

We have become overwhelmed by the many changes caused by the insanely rapid development of new technologies. And many of us are afraid. But, as Franklin Roosevelt reminded us at the outset of WWII, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Because that fear is paralyzing and counter-productive. And most of all, because we’re afraid of the wrong thing.

What we really need to fear is our own intransigence in adopting these new technologies, so that instead of becoming the powerful tools they should be in our success, they have become the dreaded monsters that lurk under our beds at night.

I’m not talking so much about publishing-specific applications, because there has been surprisingly little movement there. A few old standby proprietary programs have gone by the wayside, and at least one really good and affordable publishing enterprise platform (Dashbook.com) has arisen from the ashes. But overall, that’s not where the real action has been.

Where small publishers can really make rapid advances in their communications, workflow efficiency and cost-effectiveness is by embracing the multitude of free and low-cost apps that help us do our everyday tasks faster, better, with less repetitive waste and greater reach. I’m talking about apps such as Skype, DropBox and Evernote—all free, by the way—which allow us to stay in touch with our staffs, our authors and ourselves on the go, via mobile devices and the cloud.

And that’s an important related issue: there does not exist an indie publisher who couldn’t benefit from embracing mobile computing via smartphone, tablet or both. I’ve seen a split—not surprisingly, mostly along generational lines—among indie publisher attitudes toward mobile, with the younger, digital natives being first to appreciate and adopt this technology.

That’s an article in itself, but suffice to say that of any industry, I’m confident that one most easily killed through lack of technological adoption and evolution is publishing. Even if we’re personally resistant to these tools for whatever reason, we at very least must know what’s out there and which components our potential readers are latching onto and using. Better yet, we should be using it ourselves, to become fully conversant with the user experience so we can identify the new opportunities it presents.


This is a brutal thing to say, but I’m confident it’s true: With very few exceptions, small publishers who don’t learn these tools and the applications that run on them will simply not be here in five years. As with any emerging and disruptive technology, the market allows a certain amount of lag time for people to catch up. When it comes to computing technology, especially in the publishing field that relies so heavily on it at every stage of the process, that grace period has expired.

I have been horrified to learn that more than a few indie publishers—including some I have worked closely with—are just barely conversant with their computers, much less using them to the full extent of their power. And I’m not even referring here to the aforementioned apps and mobile devices. I’m simply referring to the most basic computer skills:

  • understanding your PC or Mac’s operating system and how to archive and quickly retrieve digital files
  • being fluent with the programs and apps you use everyday: Microsoft Word, Outlook, Quickbooks to create, modify and share documents
  • knowing how to stay current with application upgrades and security patches
  • having a basic grasp of how your wired or wifi network operates

These are no longer optional parts of your skill set as a modern publisher. I hear whispered confessions and nervous giggles among my peers at any given event where we’re all together, but this situation is beyond the cute/funny stage. It has now entered the realm of scary/dangerous.

I understand that it takes time to learn these things, but the industry will not wait for you. If you don’t get caught up very, very soon, it will simply pass you by. Think of it this way: If you were hiring a new staff member, would you think it was funny or cute if they told you THEY didn’t have the skills needed to do their jobs efficiently and effectively?

It’s time for us all to take a hard look at our real skill sets; not the ones we’ve been planning to develop, but the ones we actually have. Assess your weaknesses, then find a way to fix them. Most public libraries and local schools offer basic computing classes for little or no money. After that, there are abundant free (and good quality) tutorials on YouTube, and more professionally produced, guided lessons at Lynda.com.

Yes, there’s a time investment, but you need to make the time to give to this effort. It will pay off handsomely in a very short time. Once you have the basics down, commit yourself to learning all you can about at least one application a month, and practice those skills. It will slow you down now, but in the long run, it will save your professional life.
I think we need to see this in terms of what happened at the turn of the last century. That technology shift has come to be known as the Industrial Revolution. There were many, many small companies involved in servicing that era’s favored mode of transportation: the horse, and its many and varied wheeled conveyances.

When the automobile arrived, to say it disrupted the status quo is the mac daddy of all understatements. Overnight, professional craftspeople such as harness makers, saddlers, tack shops, carriage makers, blacksmiths, etc., had to make a decision. Were they going to consider themselves as craftspeople in service to the horse, or were they going to see themselves as involved in the transportation business? The former finished out their careers early, either through unplanned retirements or switching to another vocation entirely. The latter adapted their existing skills to the use of new tools, machines and equipment that would leverage their basic knowledge and experience to serve this new emerging technology.


September IndependentWe now stand at that same crossroads. Only the names have changed. The decisions we need to make are identical. Are we going to cling to our beloved, but outmoded vision of ourselves as book publishers, or are we going to adapt our skill sets to the new technology that leverages our basic knowledge and experience to serve as this century’s nascent content curators?

Because I believe in being part of the solution, I’ll be contributing articles to IBPA’s Independent magazine over the next year. In them, I’ll be introducing applications like those named above, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, and providing some basic how-to information to get you started using them to help you be more successful publishers. I hope you find them helpful. But overall, this effort must be your own, proactive venture. I wish you success.

Mary ShaferAbout the Author: Mary Shafer has been an independent publisher and an IBPA member since 2005. She joined regional affiliate MidAtlantic Book Publishers Association (MBPA) in 2006 and served as its president from 2010-2012. She’s been involved in the publishing industry since 1990, first as art director for NorthWord Press, then as a partner in the now-defunct Lost River Press. Her first book was published by Heartland Press in 1993, her second by Willow Creek Press in 1995, and she now self-publishes through Word Forge Books in Bucks County, PA. Mary recently launched The Indie Navigator, a consultancy offering business and marketing strategies for authors and indie publishers. Learn more at IndieNavigator.com.

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