Tag Archives: publishing

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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Can an Authoring Platform Make You an Author?

At the recent Tools of Change conference a new program called Inkling Habitat, an “authoring platform,” was introduced. This new “authoring platform” does serve a purpose, because it helps authors easily add digital bells and whistles to their texts. This help is welcome. However, a Google search now turns up over 300 “authoring platforms,” most of which claim to make authors out of amateurs. Can they do it?

Authoring Platforms

Let’s unpack that phrase, “authoring platform.” The term “authoring” is a very odd duck indeed. We used to think that writers authored, or wrote, books, a process that had an end and therefore required the past tense. Now we are to suppose that authoring is a sort of continuous daily activity, like eating, sleeping, or breathing. This is a sneaky way to suggest that a computer program can make being an author a straightforward, usual thing that almost anybody could do successfully.

The “platform” part implies two things. One is the familiar idea that computer programs can interact much better with one another if they sit on top of a common substrate, like Word, Excel, and so on perched on the Windows platform. This is fair enough. The other implication, however, is quite misleading: the idea that a speaker often stands on a platform when addressing a crowd, an image that appeals to the egos of some aspiring authors because it positions them at a level above their audience–gives them a bully pulpit.

Both of these connotations obscure the real issue—are intended to obscure the real issue—by suggesting that if an author just has the right support, the right place to stand, he or she will be freed from the organizational, structural, and inspirational problems that bedevil even the most gifted writers. Somehow software will eliminate such difficulties.

The truth, of course, is that good writing is very hard to do. The real problem most would-be authors have is a lack of training, or experience, or something to say, or talent. Will these issues be solved by using the right authoring platform? Microsoft Word is an early authoring platform that certainly makes many tricky editorial operations very easy to do. But Word has not led to an explosion of terrific prose. On the contrary, many people think word processing programs have made writers more verbose. There didn’t used to be so many 800-page books. Legal documents are certainly four times as long as they used to be. (Perhaps we now spell a little better.)

The authoring platform is just another example of the sort of “easy shortcut” that Americans fall for every time. When I was a kid, it was “get rich writing short paragraphs.” For years the internet has offered me advanced degrees with no need to study or attend a class. Now I can become a famous author by climbing up on an authoring platform and broadcasting my thoughts in all directions. Of course everyone has a book in them! It would be highly undemocratic to think otherwise. Too bad it is not true.

Self-publishing is just the latest bubble. Tens of thousands of people are being relieved of serious amounts of cash by charlatans offering quick publication fixes. It is entirely possible to publish your own book in a responsible way. There is, however, one tried, tested, and highly effective authoring platform: a publishing company.

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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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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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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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