Tag Archives: book distribution

eBook Bundling & Supporting a Diverse Retailer Ecosystem

In a previous blog post about the action at BEA I remarked that, “The hall was alive with e-book and e-commerce solutions and propositions that are really beginning to make sense. The geeks now know enough about the actual business of books to go after some real problems and opportunities.”

It turns out that this was an understatement. The technology community is producing plausible solutions at a terrific rate. I covered Zola Books in a previous post. In this one, we have asked Peter Hudson of BitLit to write a guest blog on his company’s solution to the question of bundling print and eBooks. This turns out to be rather timely as Amazon has recently rolled out their Kindle MatchBook program.

I hope that this will be the first of a number of guest blogs that will bring innovative ideas and programs to the attention of independent presses.

—  Curt Matthews, CEO, Independent Publishers Group.

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Peter Hudson is the Founder and CEO of BitLit. As an entrepreneur he’s been told he sees the world differently, but as a physicist he’s not sure that’s optically possible:

Let me propose two things I feel are true: book publishing and selling benefit from a strong and diverse physical and digital retail landscape, and Amazon’s announcement of Kindle MatchBook has forever etched the expectation of print and digital bundling into readers’ minds.

There has been considerable discussion about Amazon’s reasons for launching MatchBook. A point made by Alastair Horne on FutureBook.net is that MatchBook may be mostly about bringing paper book reading holdouts into the Kindle (rather than, say, Kobo) digital reading ecosystem. It seems reasonable that, as the eReader device market saturates, growth must come from traditionalists rather than book mavens and the e-savvy.

MatchBook may also be a tactic to drive Amazon print sales. Print purchases on Amazon as far back as 1995 are eligible for MatchBook. Even if publisher participation is limited at launch, it’s not a stretch to think by buying a print book on Amazon today, the billing record will make me eligible for a bundled eBook sometime between now and 2041. That’s not an offer that a sales receipt from my local indie can match (pardon the pun).

So, while MatchBook is a wonderfully reader-friendly program, it may cause considerable collateral damage to the diversity of both the digital and physical retail landscape.

Enter BitLit.

BitLit is the solution for publishers who want to offer bundled eBooks to readers regardless of where books are sold or what platform they are destined for. It’s all done through a simple and free smartphone app. Readers register their hard copy by writing their name onto the copyright page and snapping a photo using the BitLit app. Once the reader’s print edition has been recognized and registered through BitLit, they can download a free or discounted eBook edition from BitLit’s secure servers to their reading device of choice such as Kobo, Kindle, iPad, etc.

Bundling is not a new idea. Indeed, many well-known publishers have experimented with bundling in recent years. In the UK, Osprey Publishing offered a free eBook edition with the purchase of a print edition through book retailer Mostly Books, for titles published under the Angry Robot imprint.  The result of Osprey’s bundling was a dramatic increase in print sales.  O’Reilly offers DRM free digital “upgrades” through its members.oreilly.com portal for both print books and eBooks purchased through other retailers. In Canada, publishers such as ECW Press and Coach House Books offer free eBook editions to readers who email in a print edition proof of purchase.

The 2012 Canadian Book Consumer Annual Report from BookNet Canada found that 20% of readers would choose one book over another if one came with a bundled eBook edition. Additionally, a further 12% would pay a slightly higher price for a book if it included a bundled digital edition. These figures may well explain the dramatic increase in print sales seen by Osprey when they offered a free eBook edition with the purchase of an Angry Robot print edition.

Bundling has arrived, and offers publishers a huge potential opportunity to drive sales and re-connect with readers. But it’s critical that bundling is used to strengthen the publishing and bookselling landscape.  BitLit aims to do exactly that.

BitLit has partnered with Independent Publishers Group to allow member publishers to opt in and offer free or discounted bundled eBooks through BitLit to readers, regardless of where they purchased their print edition.  There is no cost to participate.  For more information or to opt into the program, please email Peter Hudson or Lauren Klouda (IPG-distributed publishers).

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Should Books Be Discounted?

Should Books Be Discounted? Image from businessblog.winweb.com.

I had a call the other day from David Streitfeld, who often covers the publishing business for the New York Times. He wanted to know if Amazon was discounting the books that IPG distributes at a lesser rate than they used to. There has been widespread concern in the publishing community that Amazons’ game plan is to steeply discount everything until the competition is wiped out, at which point they could put prices way up and start coining money.

It is true that Amazon has discounted very aggressively, and has been content to accept a very low profit margin if this would mean a rapid increase in market share—which it has. If titles are now being discounted less, this might signal that Amazon is turning to Part Two of its strategy, the part where the prices start to go up. In the article that Streitfeld published in the NYT on the 4th of July, one of his sources expressed the view that the discounts were in fact decreasing, especially on independent press and scholarly titles, which would be disastrous for sales.

My take on this issue is quite different. I have no inside information whatsoever about Amazon’s game plan, but I know what I would be doing if I were in their position: I would be experimenting with discounts and mining the sales data to see what effect different levels of discounting would have on the sales of various kinds of books at each stage in their life cycles. Streitfeld quotes me as saying:

“‘They [Amazon] are wondering, “If we knock off only 10 percent as opposed to 35 percent, where do we come out ahead?”‘ Mr. Matthews said. ‘They don’t care how many books they sell. They want to know how many dollars they get.'”

My grammar is regrettable, but the idea is from Business 101: Find the place where the price and volume lines cross on the graph, the balance that yields the most dollars.

Many people are offended by the very idea of discounting books.  After all, books have a list price printed right on the jacket flap or back cover.  Almost no other products have the price printed on them during manufacture. Doesn’t this mean that, for books, the list price is somehow the right price? And aren’t discounted products usually cheap knockoffs of better things? Perhaps Amazon has done a disservice to the special stature of the book as a cultural icon; perhaps all this discounting has convinced many consumers that paying list price for a book means you are a bit of a chump, like the little old lady who pays full sticker price for a new car. Or, it may be that the book is not quite the cultural icon it used to be—for reasons that have little to do with discounting.

I will confess that I was a happier book buyer in the days before they were routinely discounted. The printed list price assured me that the title I wanted would cost the same in any bookstore, and that no one would get a better deal than I did. But perhaps a lower price justifies putting up with a little low-level anxiety of that kind.

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3 Big Takeaways from Book Expo America 2013 for Independent Publishers

At the big book convention in New York, we saw old friends and made new ones against the backdrop of one of publishing’s biggest powwows. I also observed some very exciting things happening for the indie publishing community.

There were many more indie presses in attendance than has been the case for the last four years or so. At the IPG booth we had conversations with dozens of very promising publishers who have quite extensive and impressive publication lists. It is clear that an improving economy has brought forward a surge of entrepreneurial energy in the book business. The future is going to be a lot of fun.

The hall was alive with e-book and e-commerce solutions and propositions that are really beginning to make sense. The geeks now know enough about the actual business of books to go after some real problems and opportunities. For instance, a startup called Zola Books has developed a user-friendly way to deal with the issue of “showrooming”—the term we use to describe what happens when a customer at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore looks over the titles on display and then orders a print or e-book copy from a web retailer, often for a lower price. Zola Books gives a bookseller a well-earned piece of the action for its part in making such sales.

It is now clear that the e-book market will not be dominated by just a few huge web retailers. We were approached by 15 new ventures at the show, all offering very favorable terms for publishers and proposing innovative marketing strategies that could really work. By the end of this month, IPG’s e-books will be available through about 75 web retailers, and it’s great to see that many of the smaller ones are growing quickly. This means there will be plenty of healthy competition, no matter what the Department of Justice thinks have been the sins of the past.

These developments add up to a lot of promising opportunities for independent publishers.

IPG at BEA 2013

IPG at BEA 2013

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CEO Weighs In: “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Platform Author Solutions”

The big shoe that I was certain would drop just did:

Three authors have filed suit against self-publishing service provider Author Solutions, and its parent company Penguin, airing a laundry list of complaints and alleging the company is not a publisher so much as a “vanity press.” — PW May 1, 2013

I have no special insight into the merits of this suit as a legal matter, but the filing of it brings to light the obvious fact that there are companies out there exploiting the hopes and dreams of neophyte authors. More from the PW article, “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Service Author Solutions”:

The suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that Author Solutions misrepresents itself, luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with “traditional publishers,” and the company offers “greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors.”

The problem here is easy to spot. No doubt in the literature that they show prospective authors, and in the agreements that they execute with them, such “publishers” are careful not to promise sudden authorial fame and fortune. But of course the prospective authors do want some degree of Book authors file class action suit against Author Solutions self publishing platformrecognition, and they would like some remuneration too.

What most people think they know about publishing comes from the utterly anomalous success stories the media finds newsworthy. It used to be “first time novelist gets million dollar advance.” Now it’s “first book by self-published author sells 500,000 copies.” Getting hit by lightning three times on a sunny afternoon is much more likely.

So, aspiring authors have some expectations. What expectations do self-publishing services such as Author Solutions have?  Read between the lines of the following “prepared statement,” quoted in the same PW article.

In a prepared statement, Author Solutions pointed to the fact that it has “successfully enabled more than 170,000 authors to self-publish more than 200,000 titles,” and noted that it has received an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau.

I am not sure that the 170,000 authors of those 200,000 titles are all that thrilled by their publisher’s “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau. They might have preferred a place on the best-seller list.

Perhaps the authors who are suing were a little naive. Let’s look at two publishing scenarios. In the first, the publisher pays an advance, covers the editing, designing, and printing costs, and will suffer a big financial loss if the book does not sell. In the second scenario the “publisher” charges the author for all of the publication costs and makes a profit even if the title does not sell a single copy. Which outfit will be motivated to sell books? To understand a business deal you need to follow the money.

And now this article, in Friday’s PW. The CEO of Author Solutions has, for some reason, been replaced by a Penguin executive. Here is how they are spinning the change:

Penguin chairman John Makinson said that the appointment of [Andrew] Phillips [the new CEO] will connect Authors Solutions more closely to Penguin. “Andrew’s impressive range of talents and experience equip him perfectly to extend the international development of Author Solutions, to build on our network of publishing partnerships, and to strengthen the ties with Penguin companies around the world.” — PW May 3, 2013

This statement looks like an attempt to blur the distinction between Author Solutions and Penguin—so that the cash register will keep ringing for Author Solutions. But no amount of corporate speak about building on a “network of publishing partnerships” or strengthening “ties with Penguin companies around the world” can bridge the apparently huge gap between these two enterprises.  The big question is why Penguin, one of the greatest publishing companies on the planet, is willing to wrap its name around a dubious proposition like Author Solutions.

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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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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Making Indie Publishing & Social Media Work Together: Part II

“Social media has one foot in the highly commercial world of advertising and the other foot in the realm of human communication—hopefully sincere human communication. This combination might not always be a comfortable one; but it is now possible to glimpse some social media strategies that may be especially well-suited to the needs of indie publishers.”

Making Indie Publishing and Social Media Work Together Part IIEffective social media marketing has to at least appear to have a higher purpose than just selling a product. It needs to support the idea that community-building information is being exchanged. But can you really make an effective sales pitch, somehow hidden inside friendly communication, in a tweet or a blog or a Facebook post? I think authors and independent publishers can pull it off.

How? With the exception of bestsellers, marketing books has always been a question of bringing the right title to the attention of a buyer already interested in the book’s subject. It has always been a question of matching rather than convincing, a soft sell rather than a hard one. And traditional book marketing has long had a crucial social aspect: word of mouth—information passed among members of a community—is really what drives book sales. Since authors and indie publishers have all along aimed to create some degree of community rather than just driving sales, social networks present a new opportunity to further this goal.

I believe that social media marketing can be particularly effective at the author level. Authors can get away with a little obvious self-promotion. Writing a book is very hard work, often for little pay (again excepting the bestsellers), and most importantly requires a level of self-exposure and risk of failure that most of us simply shy away from. There is a heroic aspect to authorship that serious readers appreciate and admire.

This special connection allows authors to promote their own books, as well as those of their compatriots, without violating social media etiquette. They can inspire readers to buy books through tweets, blogs, and other forms of social media and can use those social outlets to steer customers to their publishers’ websites. After all, to the extent that their publisher is working a niche, that website will in itself amount to a sort of community where publishers, authors, and readers can connect over a shared interest. Over time, it is possible to build a bridge that leads from the author’s social media efforts to the publisher’s website.

What can a distributor do to turn the social media efforts of authors and publishers into sales? IPG has constructed sophisticated shopping carts, at no charge, for some of our client publishers’ websites. These shopping carts are customized to match the look of each website or meet the design preferences of the participating publisher, and they offer eBooks, print books, and streaming audio and video directly to consumers. IPG takes care of all of the back end processing and fulfillment services, as well as automating product and stock information and providing options for promotions. IPG is also developing a “buy button” which can easily be attached to author and publisher social communications, taking readers directly to the relevant book page on a publisher’s new shopping cart. These initiatives are still in beta, but they look very promising and will offer authors and publishers a chance to capitalize on the online communities they’ve cultivated through their social media efforts.

At a macroscopic level, every participant in the publishing industry can be a participant in the larger social conversation revolving around books and the people who love them. By engaging in these conversations, indie publishers (and distributors) can join vibrant communities of authors and readers, leading these groups to their websites, and thus, their books.

**Check out some of IPG’s new shopping carts here: Urban Land Institute Bookstore, American Cancer Society Bookstore, and Nomad Press Bookstore

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 Does the Random House/Penguin Merger Mean for Independent Presses?

Of course it is early to speculate about the effects of this merger, but if we think about it as the latest step in a process that has been moving forward for the last decade or so, it will not seem very surprising.

A place to start is with the lead sentence in last week’s article in the New York Times:

The book publishing industry is starting to get smaller in order to get stronger.

This is the sort of press coverage that drives indie presses crazy. It perpetuates the utterly false notion that the Big Six publishers are all that counts in the book business. In fact, they account for only about 50% of bookstore sales. I think many assume their share is much larger.

If we accept the spurious notion that the Big Six publishers and the “book publishing industry” are the same thing, then it is true that the book publishing industry is “starting to get smaller;”  actually has been getting smaller for years. Unit sales for the Big Six as reported in point-of-sale data are 23% less now than they were in 2007; these numbers actually understate the decline, because the number and kinds of stores included in the point-of sale data have increased over time.

However, the sales of all the other publishers captured in the point-of-sale data have only declined 18% compared to 2007, or 5% less than the Big Six publishers’ sales have fallen. This, of course, means that the market share of the “others,” the non-Big Six publishers, has increased. But how about unit sales in absolute terms? Indie presses depend more on sales made outside of the book trade than big publishers do, and these sales, which go mostly unaccounted for in the available point-of-sale data, have grown much faster than sales inside the regular book trade. Gift stores, museum shops, and specialty stores in general are natural customers for the niche titles independent publishers mostly produce.

Such sales are very hard to track on a national basis, but at IPG, we have seen dramatic increases in sales to such non-standard book trade customers—in actuality, much greater increases than in the regular book trade. So it may be that sales of indie publishers have increased, not just in terms of market share, but also in terms of total units sold.

There are multiple reasons to explain the growth of the indies, but a main one is that the big houses can no longer make a financial success of midlist titles. Their overheads are too high to even think of publishing a book that might only sell 3-5,000 copies—but such titles are the bread and butter of small and medium sized houses, and book buyers, who really want special interest and niche titles. So much so that the number of publishable niches is proliferating right along with the explosion of interest groups we see reflected on the internet.

The Random House/Penguin merger is just the first step in the consolidation of the Big Six and I think that their share of the market will continue to decline. Of course “the suits” say otherwise. According to the New York Times article, one spokesperson stated:

The merger would not result in closing redundant imprints and less editorial independence. The idea of this company is to combine the small company culture and the small company feeling on the creative and content side with the richest and most enhanced access to services on the corporate side.

Right—except every one of the things that will not happen will happen, quickly, right after the merger is completed. Heads and imprints will roll right and left.

Indie publishers do not have to pretend they have a “small company culture” or “editorial independence.” They come by these desirable traits naturally. As the room at the top contracts, there will be more room in more markets for us.

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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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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When It Comes to Authors: Part II

Will good authors put up with rough editorial handling? They will, and with enthusiasm, if from the outset you involve them in the development of the marketing ideas that shape the book. The idea is to get them to focus not just on the publication of a book with their name on it, but on the publication of a successful book.

The essential first step is to have your authors fill out a demanding author questionnaire. (If they refuse to fill it out, find another author.) This questionnaire, in addition to eliciting the usual biographical information, should request information on possible special markets, professional contacts, relevant specialized media, sources for blurbs, and possible sales “handles” or angles. What websites did the author use to help research the book? Social media marketing of a title works much better when it is done by an author with an already engaged audience rather than a publisher.

Then, when the book is past the editing stage, furnish the author with a written description of how your company publicizes the books it publishes. This will provide a second opportunity to discuss with the author how the book will be marketed and to explain the author’s role in making the book a success.

Involving the author in the marketing of his or her book is not a cynical means of manipulation and control, but a highly effective strategy. Authors who really know their subjects (if yours doesn’t, find another author) are easily the best source for marketing ideas, especially niche marketing ideas; and the process of winnowing out the good ideas from the less promising will put your author in the right frame of mind to produce not just a book but a successful book.

Including the author in aspects beyond the creation of the book itself have other unforeseen benefits as well. Over the past few years many independent presses have been pleasantly surprised to find authors with fine track records at major houses showing up on their doorsteps prepared to accept a small fraction of the advances customarily offered by the major publishers. Most major houses do not want to hear an author’s marketing ideas, and if offered them anyway, summarily dismiss them. Many authors feel that they are treated like three-year-olds by such publishers.

If we are willing to listen to our authors (and we are crazy if we are not willing to listen) we can maintain their goodwill and cooperation–even when we are tougher on them. Or perhaps because we have been tougher.

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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