Tag Archives: 20 habits of successful independent publishers

Information Technology That Works

I have been drawing attention in this blog to new publishing-related software that over-promises and under-delivers: authoring platforms that are not actually going to make anybody into an author; self-publishing programs that will not turn an author into a publisher overnight; social media schemes that really just amount to fraud or deception rather than legitimate publicity.

Ones and Zeros Extending into DistanceThe fact remains that there are some aspects of information technology which are revolutionizing the book business. Not the flashy, public-facing “solutions” I have been complaining about, but rather a quiet back-office capability to receive, broadcast, and interpret data—lots of data—that is making all the difference.

As recently as four or five years ago, even a quite sizable publishing company could get along just fine with a two-person IT department: one person to keep the server going and another to reboot employees’ computers when the things won’t cooperate. That was the case with IPG for many years.

Now, however, IPG employs fourteen highly trained computer specialists who can program, construct databases, write SQL queries, design websites and dashboards, mine data, generate reports, construct interfaces, and oversee highly complex management systems. Most of the time they are working so hard they have smoke coming out of their ears. Here are some of the technological capabilities, becoming ever more vital to the indie publishing community, that these people make possible:

Point-of-Sale Information. We are able to get information from the largest booksellers and wholesalers about the number of copies of each of our titles they have on hand, the number on order, the number on backorder, the number that sold through this week and last week, both by units and by the percentage of copies sold versus the quantity on hand. It used to be that publishers had little idea what was going on in the marketplace in regard to their titles at the store level. We sent them out and just hoped they would not come back. With point-of-sale data, the timing and quantity of reprints can be handled infinitely better than in the past. Access to this data revolutionizes the way publishers run their companies.

Metadata Feeds. Sophisticated publishing operations now send metadata to their major customers. (Metadata is just a term for electronic title data.) We send our data to 350 customers, formatted in ONIX as well as proprietary formats, once a week. Why is this important? We now have about 85,000 available products on our list. We make hundreds of revisions to our title database every week because of price changes, new editions, new forewords, new reviews, and changed statuses which must all be communicated to our customers. Metadata feeds enable the seamless, automated transmission of these changes to our customers’ servers and databases or else we would all go crazy trying to keep the data straight. At this point in the book business, any friction in the system costs everyone dearly.

Data Mining. IPG has a “data warehouse” that has recorded every sale of every title to every customer for many years. This data can be sliced and diced by any combination of hundreds of parameters. A few simple examples: BISAC subject codes, customer type or location or size, book format, and of course quantities sold over any date range. To this information we can add sales histories of comparable titles from other publishers. The big-box retailers—Wal-Mart, Costco, Kmart, and so on—require that we “model” the titles we present to their buyers. That is, we must demonstrate with data that the title we are pitching to them has the right attributes to perform well in their stores for their customers. No data, no sale.

Ebook Conversion and Distribution. IPG now produces hundreds of ebook editions a week. This would not be possible without automated procedures and work flows. Most weeks we send about 200 new files to our thirty-five ebook retailers, which adds up to about 7,000 ebook files with their related metadata. This would be unthinkable without an automated batch-mode delivery system, another information technology innovation.

Years ago, when my wife and I ran a small bookstore next to the Drake Hotel in Chicago, we used to keep track of the inventory on 3” by 5” cards stored in a little metal box. It is hard not to be nostalgic about those simpler times, and perhaps that nostalgia can help us to keep clear in our minds the truth that book publishing is really about intellectual content rather than the latest whiz-bang technology. Books were books back in those days too. Still, the right sort of IT is now indispensable: it enables publishers to reach an ever broadening audience at an ever diminishing cost.

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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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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Finding Your Publishing Niche

I defined the attributes of a good publishing niche in part one of this post. In this second part I am going to explore the idea of the “pseudo-niche,” the publishing possibility that might look like a winner for an independent publisher but will probably not support good sales because it does not offer the advantages of a true niche. I will also discuss some examples of how new niches can be discovered.

We all know that it would be suicidal for an indie press to publish another book on French Cooking; but how about a book on Northern French Cooking, or Northern French Fish Cooking? Isn’t that a “niche-y” enough subject to be unattractive to a big publisher but still wide enough to provide a viable market for a small one? Perhaps the subject is still too broad. How about Low-Fat Northern French Fish Cooking?

The trouble with this line of thought is that it conflates the complicated idea of a true niche with the way-too-simple notion of mere narrowness. A big subject sliced finer and finer might keep the big houses away, but it does not necessarily offer anything like the pre-existing, structured, and engaged niche audience needed to support a successful indie title.

That said, dividing a strong category into ever finer sub-categories is a time-honored and often effective strategy for independent publishers. Part of the trouble with the French Cooking example above is that French cooking as a category has lost most of its sizzle. There surely was a time when very fine subdivisions of French cooking made viable titles for small presses. That time is over. Here, however, is a current example of the slice-it-very-fine strategy that does work: Chicago Review Press has done well with a series of titles devoted to very specific kinds of movies. The newest one, The Slasher Movie Book, is selling even better than expected.

Another tricky strategy that sometimes works is to combine two strong but seemingly unrelated subject areas into one, thus creating a new and theoretically very powerful niche. Suppose we were to combine the ever popular subject of romance with the ubiquitous hobby of bird watching. Let’s call it Romantic Bird Watching. Could this be made to fly? Maybe not.

But how about combining the idea of doing good with the notion of taking a vacation? On the face, this is not an easy pairing. Isn’t doing good the last thing you want to have on your mind when you’re on vacation? However, Chicago Review Press’s title Volunteer Vacations is in its 11th edition and has sold over 150,000 copies. The difference between the Romantic Bird Watching concept and Volunteer Vacations is that there really are wonderful do-good vacation opportunities: building nature trails for the Sierra Club and so on. As for birder romance…

Then there is the strategy of taking an established subject area up-market. The market for children’s books is of course ferociously competitive, but it is possible to carve out niches within that market. Twenty years or so ago Chicago Review Press started a series of activity books for kids based on the idea that kids are smarter than the education establishment thinks they are. Many educators and parents think that children should never encounter an unfamiliar word or concept in a book. Our notion was that a child should always encounter unfamiliar words and concepts in the books they read.

Out of this up-market niche have come dozens of successful books for children nine years and older with titles such as Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids, The Civil Rights Movement for Kids, World War II for Kids, and just out, Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids. The content within these titles presents refreshing challenges to underestimated youngsters eager to understand the world at large around them and breaks from the typical mold of children’s books.

Finally, publishers may want to consider the concept of the down-market niche. The wild success of Fifty Shades of Grey may indicate that erotica is now just a down-market niche within the category of fiction. Indie publishers, however, should probably leave this new niche alone. The big houses are already all over it.

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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What’s in a Niche?

In a previous post, I cited the second habit of successful independent publishers as: “They focus on a niche, but they are always looking for new, or better yet, related ones, because they know that the half-life of a particular niche may only be about 2.5 years or less.” To begin at the beginning though, what exactly is a publishing niche?

A negative definition, even if it is not flattering to the ambitions of independent publishers, will be helpful here. A niche is a potential market or audience not big enough to attract the attention of a large publisher. Because of their high overheads, large publishers are not interested in titles where the likely sale might be less than 15,000 copies, or even 25,000 now. Titles that do not achieve these numbers will be failures for large publishers.

Independent presses, on the other hand, can come out on top with a sale of only 5,000 copies, so long as the author advance is low, the production costs are reasonable, and the print run is correct. This gap between 5,000 and 15,000 copies leaves independent publishers with a world of potential titles that can be published profitably. In my opinion, a great many of the highest-quality titles, however you want to define quality, fall into this gap. A negative definition thus becomes much more positive when it comes to independent publishing.

A directly positive definition of a publishing niche has two basic characteristics. The first part is that the niche includes a big enough group of potential buyers with a strong, already established interest in the topic of your title. The “strong, already established interest” is critical because it means the job of the independent publisher is simply to inform these already interested buyers that a book intended for them exists. It is far harder, and much more expensive, to convince buyers that they should be interested in a book that doesn’t seem to have an audience. This much more difficult job should be left to publishers with large publicity budgets.

The second essential characteristic of a good niche is that these already interested buyers can be reached accurately and inexpensively. Actually, these two parts are closely related: a niche that is ready for a book will have evolved some structure—an association or club, blogs, chat groups, specialized websites, Facebook or Twitter action—i.e., means through which group awareness is created. This kind of structure can be tapped into quite efficiently and at little cost.

A title which perfectly demonstrates the two characteristics of a strong niche is The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano. First published about 25 years ago and distributed from the start by IPG, this title has sold between three and six thousand copies every year and continues to do so. The potential audience, while not large, is highly motivated (pianos are expensive) and self-replenishing. And piano owners or potential owners are networked together though music teachers, piano dealers, technicians, and many other kinds of groups, most of which have some sort of presence on the Internet.

Note, however, that good niches have to be defended. The Piano Book had the initial advantage of being written by one of the best piano technicians in the country, but the author/publisher has also kept the book current through multiple editions, and he has resisted the temptation to raise the price to an unreasonable level. This book has filled its niche so completely that no competitor has dared to take it on.

Moreover, this niche publisher has found a way to expand his niche. Piano buyers want current information about the prices of new and used pianos. These prices are volatile, so a yearly price guide supplement is very welcome in the market. And of course, the eBook format is perfect for this supplement.

The second part of this post will discuss pseudo-niches and other marketing traps for unwary independent presses.

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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The 20 Habits of Successful Independent Publishers

Over the years my work at IPG has given me experience with more than 500 different indie publishing companies ranging in size from very small to quite large. I am also the founder of a prosperous mid-sized house, Chicago Review Press, which now publishes 60-70 new titles a year.

In this post I make some observations about the way the most successful independent publishers tend to conduct their business. My list is no doubt idiosyncratic, biased, and incomplete. The point is to stimulate some new thinking and, more importantly, to suggest that indie publishing is unique from what big publishers do, and for that matter, quite unique from how standard business is practiced.

Business Strategy

Successful indie publishers spend very little time thinking about how the industry should function or talking to people who do. Instead, they thoroughly learn how the business actually works and how to prosper within it.
They focus on a niche, but they are always looking for new, or better yet, related ones, because they know that the half-life of a particular niche may only be about 2.5 years or less.
They attempt to sell their books into many markets, be the market trade, or library, or gift, or special sales, rather than relying on only one. They create electronic editions of every title they publish. They want a lot of baskets, even if they have only a few eggs.
They develop a business plan, a set of goals, even a mission statement; but they nimbly alter any of these (perhaps not the mission statement) when circumstances change.
They keep their fixed overhead as low as they possibly can. They make use of freelancers and outside services whenever the price and quality are reasonable. They hire additional staff only as a last, desperate, measure.
They use consultants only when they need solutions to very clearly identified business problems. They know Mother is cheaper for sympathetic hand-holding.
They never tell anyone that their author will be on a big national TV show or that their book is going to be a major motion picture until the show is in the can or the filming has commenced.
They never bet the company on any one book. They understand that the first requirement for success is to be able to stay in the game, and that staying in the game brings experience, contacts, and reputation—advantages that cannot be gained in any other way. They don’t imagine they are in the bestseller business.

The Books

Successful indie publishers only publish books that are rich in content. They know that the books with strong content are the ones that can perform as backlist, and that strong backlist is the sine qua non of successful independent publishing.
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.
They work with their authors to deliver manuscripts shaped for very particular audiences, and they don’t hesitate to push their authors until they get what that target audience needs. They know that for every book that fails because the audience is too narrow, hundreds fail because the audience is too broad.
They always have their book covers and interiors designed by professional book designers, even if they have a niece who went to art school.
They understand how to wisely conduct market research. Instead of wasting funds on focus groups and other auxiliary market research, they focus their efforts on their consumer audience and conducting competitive research of similar titles to gain a firm grasp of how their book is unique to the marketplace.
Their books are very cleanly designed, copy-edited, and typeset, but they never ask their customers to pay extra for a level of quality that is not wanted: for instance, 80lb paper or a sewn binding in a book that will only be read once or just a few times.
They put an enormous amount of time into imagining the ideal realization of each book so the finished product is harmonious and (this is the really hard part), somehow, exactly right for the book’s subject and intended audience. They spend a lot of time in bookstores looking over the merchandise with a skeptical eye.
They don’t think for a second that publishing a title as an eBook somehow makes strong content and excellent design irrelevant.

Ethical Considerations

Successful indie publishers treat their employees with unusual care and consideration, because they know a productive employee at an independent press could earn a higher salary working in a different industry—almost any other industry.
They remember that the publishing community is small and that their reputation will precede them. They under-promise and over-deliver.
They understand the power of the printed word and that what they do as publishers can have a cultural influence, for good or ill, completely out of proportion to the dollars generated by their books or the number of copies sold.
They are serious people, well worth knowing.

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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