Tag Archives: book distribution

When It Comes to Authors: Part I

Many people believe that in simpler times authors wrote the books, publishers touched up the spelling and punctuation, designed a suitable package, and published them. The truth however is that you can add books to the famous collection of things that you don’t actually want to see being created, along with laws or sausages.

An author’s manuscript is usually just a promising first draft. All sorts of marketing questions need to be asked and answered even before the editing—which is likely to be extensive—begins. Who is the book for? What is this audience really interested in? Are illustrations needed? What is the right tone, the right length, the right price?

Occasionally, the author’s views on these matters are exactly correct; far more frequently the author’s very closeness to the subject prevents him or her from having an objective, balanced assessment of the material and the market for which it is intended. Most manuscripts need to be cut back here, augmented there, lightened up or made more serious, reorganized or restructured—in short, extensively rewritten by the author according to ideas insisted upon by the editor or publisher.

Some authors object to this process, but anyone who has been at publishing awhile knows that it is usually the new and inexperienced authors who believe that every word they have written is sacred. Experienced authors in fact insist on strong editorial guidance; they often follow suit when their strong editors switch publishing companies.

Independent presses, of course, often publish new authors and have to contend with their inexperience. The time to explain that every word is not sacred, and that extensive revisions will probably be needed, comes before the author/publisher agreement is signed. If the author is uncooperative during this initial phase, find another author.

Perhaps this advice sounds harsh, but consider the likely consequences of going forward with an uncooperative author. A book that is wrong for its market will not sell well. And if you as the publisher or your editor is forced to rewrite the book, you will have so much time tied up in the book that it will almost certainly be a financial failure even if it does sell quite well.

But what if you have signed up an author and despite your best precautions find you have a prima donna on your hands, or else an author who is simply incapable of responding to editorial direction?

The only reasonable course in such cases is to insist to an author that, if the book is to be published, either the royalty rate must be reduced to reflect the work that the author cannot or will not perform, or else that the royalty must be shared with a ghost writer of the publisher’s choosing. To earn a full royalty, an author must do a full author’s job.

In the low-margin business of publishing, there isn’t a percent to spare.
To be continued…

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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An Update on Amazon and a New Direction for Gone Publishing

IPG and Amazon have agreed on terms. As of Friday, May 25th, the 5,000 IPG Kindle titles that were taken down in late February have been put back up on the Amazon site, plus an additional 500 new Kindle titles prepared by IPG over the last three months have been added. To help make up for the lost eBook revenue suffered by its client publishers, IPG will distribute Kindle editions at no charge to publishers for the period from June 1st to August 31st, 2012. As for the overall health of IPG and its client publishers, year-to-date sales are up 26% over last year.

These are complicated times in the book business. While IPG certainly does not seek conflict with its customers, it may be that a certain amount of pushing and pulling is inevitable in our industry until settled terms of trade for the new electronic book formats can be agreed upon by all participants. We hope that our dispute and subsequent agreement with Amazon have helped to advance this difficult but necessary adjustment.

The recent news accounts of the way the “Big Six” publishers operate have made it perfectly clear that independent publishers inhabit an essentially different world. This blog will now return to its original purpose, which is to promote a well-informed discussion of that world. Knowledgeable guest bloggers will be invited to express opinions that challenge received wisdom, and IPG will not shy away from posting well-argued comments even if they rock a few boats.

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 Trouble with eBooks: A Recap

Most of the blog posts put up in this space over the last two months have circled around three very major issues in regard to eBooks. Here they are, together with an account of what if any progress has been made in resolving each of them.

eBook Distribution: What’s the Deal?:
No one who is really privy to hard information about what is going on is able or willing to speak out.

Non-disclosure and Confidentiality Agreements, Most Favored Nation Clauses in distribution contracts, and then out of nowhere, the Department of Justice restraint of trade litigation against most of the biggest houses—all these things conspire to silence any informed debate about the issues. And to be blunt about it, most independent publishers feel abject terror at even the thought of confronting Amazon’s enormous market power. This part of the problem has not improved at all.

Market Share: You’d Be Surprised What the Big 6 Controls:
“The Big Six publishers, who control about half of the entire market for trade books, have been able to drive a better bargain with Amazon than the independent publishers could.”

A structural difference of that magnitude (roughly 20 points of discount) would put the independents out of business in short order (See also At What Discount Should Publishers Sell Ebooks to Resellers). This part of the problem may have eased a bit. The Department of Justice’s litigation could have the effect of largely taking away the discount advantage briefly enjoyed by the Big Six which would level the playing field. We will see.

The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content: Part II:
“The 50% plus take that Amazon insists on for distributing eBooks from independent publishers bears no relation at all to the cost of delivering that service.”

A free market and real competition would squeeze out excessive margins wherever they might be found in the supply chain from author to book consumer. So far we have not had anything like a free and competitive market for eBooks. On this issue, however, there is some very good news on the horizon. Microsoft’s investment in Barnes & Noble’s eBook programs is very welcome. Two other eBook programs, which look to be robust and publisher friendly, are well in the works. Of course for the reasons explained in point one above, I can’t tell you a thing about them.

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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Book Distributors in the Age of Electronic Publishing

Will there be a need for book distributors in the age of electronic publishing?

This post will cover what distributors do now at a time when printed books still dominate book sales overall. The next post will describe the role of distributors as the industry transitions to eBooks.

For most of the forty years that book distributors have been around, our major function has been to gather together many independent publishers, thereby creating an entity that booksellers can deal with just as easily and profitably as they deal with the major publishing houses.

IPG, for instance, now actively markets about 50,000 different titles, and another 10,000 eBook titles, to consumers, wholesalers, and resellers down every viable sales channel for books. This marketing effort involves a combination of in-house and commissioned reps that adds up to a sales force of over 200 people, a plethora of sales materials, and a state of the art warehouse that turns out most orders in under 24 hours.

There is never any haggling with our customers over discount or returns because our terms of trade are clearly stated and consistently applied. Our accounts are clean and complete. Our service to our customers is as good (sometimes better) as the largest players in the book marketplace provide.

Many participants in the book business understand the important functions of distributors which I have just described. There are, however, other less obvious yet crucial benefits that distributors bring to the table. Here are three of them:

  1. Independent publishers are independent in more than just one sense. They are independent thinkers down to the soles of their feet, and they do not suffer received wisdom, or fools, gladly. They certainly are not in this game just for the money. The cross-grained mind set of most indie publishers is exactly why they are indispensable to our culture, and why they are often extremely interesting people. No middle of the road for them; they beat the bushes. But working with these interesting people one-on-one takes time and can therefore be expensive. Distributors cheerfully undertake this work because it is an essential part of our job. The other players in the book business are happy to leave this to us.
  2. In addition, there is a very large educational component to what distributors do. Good distributors offer their client publishers solid advice, all of it free, on titles, covers, print runs, publicity, business strategies, and much more. Even the most accomplished authors need editors; even the most sophisticated independent presses can benefit from informed feedback.
  3. And finally, the major distributors have made major investments in the technology that increasingly drives success in the book business. EDI, ASN, and ONIX metadata feeds weekly to hundreds of customers; data mining, POS information gathering and analysis; reorders generated by algorithms trolling through huge databases—these are just a few of the competencies distributors have had to master in order stay competitive with the big publishers. It is certainly no longer just the shoeshine and the smile that brings in the orders. IPG, for instance, now has an IT staff of thirteen highly-trained people working feverishly on new ways of storing, sharing, and interpreting data; and an IT budget of almost a million dollars a year. Very few independent publishers could afford anything like this level of expense, and very few would want to master a technology which is, after all, not what brought them into the book business in the first place. Yet without this sort of technical support at their backs, independent publishers are unlikely to thrive in this changing environment.

For all of these reasons distributors no longer think of themselves just as a conglomeration of publishing companies. Many of the difficult and expensive services we offer our client publishers greatly benefit our customers because these services improve the quality of the books we sell to them, and because our IT expertise makes us a profitable trading partner for them.

Distributors will continue to have an important role to play in the print book business. But will this role disappear as the book business shifts from “tree” books to eBooks? I should say not.

Photo: Curt Matthews, CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated. Courtesy of The Chicago TribuneCurt 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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E-Book Distribution: What’s the Deal?

“Follow the money” is good advice for anyone trying to get to the bottom of a business dispute. This has been next to impossible in the case of the squabble over the distribution of eBooks; none of the parties can release any numbers. A great many people who have tried to understand this dispute have said, in a state of high irritation, “What exactly are the deals on offer? Who gets what?”

The problem is that publishers and distributors are constrained from providing any hard information by the Non-Disclosure or Confidentiality agreements eBook retailers compel them to sign. Such agreements are required before negotiations begin and become an integral part of any agreements signed. The length of these eBook marketing agreements is about twelve to twenty pages; and their duration is for three to five years, an eternity in the fast-changing world of e-commerce. And many of them require that the publisher never can give any other reseller a better deal.

Is this opacity, and are these intricate agreements, a good thing for the book industry? One thing certain is that this way of doing business is a sharp departure from past practice. Below is a quote from the American Booksellers Association’s Handbook, which shows how the print bookselling business has worked for many decades:

ABA Book Buyer’s Handbook: Online, searchable, and continuously updated, the ABA Book Buyer’s Handbook is an invaluable resource for ordering and returns information, and it is available exclusively to ABA members. This electronic publication features publishers’ trade terms, including discount schedules, returns policies, imprint and ISBN prefix listings, co-op policies and more, as well as timely special offers.

Since the ABA is hardly a secret society, every seller of print books knows exactly what every other bookseller is paying for stock. Everyone is treated the same so long as they operate more or less in the same category of the book business. (There are different terms for wholesalers, chain stores, gift stores, catalogs, and so on.) Publishers still cheerfully publish their detailed terms of trade for print books in the ABA Handbook. This sort of transparency has long been considered a simple question of fairness, an obvious way to keep the playing field level, and a painless way to prevent disputes.

And until quite recently there just weren’t any unmentionable agreements between booksellers and publishers or their distributors. The idea was that long-term, trusted trading partners could be relied upon to keep the business humming along. Yes, there were some tough negotiations, but they were conducted in good faith, guided by the understanding that to keep the industry healthy all the players had to have a fair share of the profit.

But now the agreements that certain eBook retailers insist on are draconian, multi-year, intricate; they have to be negotiated from scratch one by one; and all the parties to these agreements are rendered mute by non-disclosure or confidentiality provisions. There certainly is no “Handbook” to illuminate this murky business.

Try this thought experiment. Your company has signed an agreement with an eBook reseller that specifies particular discounts and maybe also gives up some points for more discounts by another name, such as a co-op or an advertising allowance. You have committed to a non-disclosure or confidentially provision. You also have agreed to not give any competitor a better deal.

Now you want to sign on with an additional reseller. This new customer wants to know the terms of your other deal, but you are contractually prevented from saying what these terms are. You are in a position where you have to say, “I can’t tell you the terms but trust me, they are just as good as the other guy is getting.” What a perfect recipe for misunderstanding, then mistrust, and finally litigation.

Traditional participants in the book business, whatever their size, are in for a rough time. New players now marshal squads of lawyers and MBAs to strive for market dominance. They know nothing about the collegiality that used to be a defining characteristic of the publishing community; and they are unencumbered by any notion of cultural stewardship.

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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