The 10th Habit of Successful Independent Publishers

“They have special access to the information needed to make their books content-rich—years of personal involvement in a subject area, a close relation to a special-interest publication, a means of identifying individuals especially qualified to write books for a particular niche—some special advantage or edge.”

In the last post about what makes a good publishing niche, I cited the example of The Piano Book, a very big, long-term publishing success, and noted that the author/publisher was one of the best known piano technicians in the country. He surely had, and has, special access to information about pianos, and this special access means that the content of his book is very strong and that he has contacts in the piano world that have helped him market to his niche.

A very different example of special access is Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc., a company which for many years has published books for professional and amateur airplane pilots. Pilots need to master oceans of arcane technical information and must keep their various certifications up to date. This amounts to a solid and almost unassailable base for a niche publisher, and Aviation Supplies has made the most of it. Another publisher of this sort is the American Academy of Pediatrics. Needless to say, their child-rearing titles are taken very seriously, are widely reviewed, and sell very well.

But most new independent publishers do not have the benefit of access to deep systematic knowledge gathered over many years. A much more typical indie press success story is that of Amherst Media, Inc. A couple of decades ago a young author/publisher/photographer turned up at IPG with a well-written—albeit not yet polished—introductory title about how to use a 45 mm film camera, the hot new thing in photography at the time. What was his special edge? He had a good business going wholesaling photography books to camera stores. He knew what was available and what sold well. Hundreds of titles later, Amherst Media is the dominant publisher of how-to books for photographers, and of course, his company was fast and flexible enough to catch the digital camera revolution on the first hop.

If you are not big, at least you can be fast.

How about fiction? Do you need to be a critic to publish it? Or an author? You don’t need such credentials to publish genre fiction. Tachyon Publications, a very highly regarded publisher of science fiction titles, came out of an early and deep appreciation for literature of this kind. The publisher has simply read everything in this genre, knows the authors and their publishing histories, and has for many years attended the conferences and interacted with the groups that support science fiction and fantasy writing. Science fiction aficionados support their habit with an intensity that is unique in the world of books. A publisher who earns their trust can have solid success.

The really tough nut for independent publishers to crack is literary fiction. For the most part the presses that can stay alive with literary fiction (poetry too) do so with the help of foundation grants. If they can cover 60% of their costs with book sales, they feel they are doing very well. Early in my career the Japan Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts each supported one of my titles. This publishing model did not turn out to be my cup of tea: I spent much more time applying for the grants and creating the follow-up paperwork than I spent publishing the books. But I am full or admiration for the indie publishers who have the patience to do this hard and valuable work.

So, special access to many different kinds of knowledge can serve as the foundation for a successful indie publishing program: real information about an industry, a subject area, a genre, will suffice, but indie publishers really must know what they are doing in some particular niche or niches. They must publish books that build a bridge between some area of expertise they have mastered and the audience that wants that expertise. An abstract desire to be a publisher, however, without such specialized knowledge is unlikely to lead to a successful career in the independent book business.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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5 thoughts on “The 10th Habit of Successful Independent Publishers

  1. maryann_kohl says:

    Good advice, Curt. So true… if you want to be a success, you should know your niche inside and out. I’ve built my publishing company doing that, and going strong after 27 years publishing art books for parents, teachers, and kids.

  2. Maryann, you are no good at blowing your own horn so I will have to do it for you. You need to explain to readers of this blog that you have been the keynote speaker at dozens of teachers’ conferences—all of the major ones—and that a couple of years ago the sales of the modest number of titles that you have authored and published surpassed the million copy mark. I doubt that any teacher has ever looked at one of your titles and not bought it on the spot. They know a master teacher when they see one.

    • maryann_kohl says:

      Toot toot! Thank you, Curt. I have tried to make a true difference in the creative lives of children, and I’m proud to say that creativity in art is far more accepted in current society and education than it was before my books and my speaking engagements were available. I hope that was enough tooting for you. :)

  3. amos soma fuller says:

    Thanks Curt. This was a very informative post. I know the world of action sports and the people in it. Watch for a Mike Ranquet (legendary snowboarder) book sometime in the near future from Thump the World Publishing! Mike and I had an interesting face to face talk the other day. Even though we are a small and new publisher, I laid out a good argument for why he should be published by us. Of course I also emphasized our distribution was the best around. -Soma :)

  4. Linda says:

    “The 10th Habit of Successful Independent Publishers
    | Gone Publishing” was in fact a very good read and thus I really was in fact pretty pleased to discover it.
    Thank you-Bradly

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