Tag Archives: indie ebook publishing

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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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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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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