For Productive Author/Publisher Relationships, Part 2: Strategies That Empower Authors

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October 2015
by Deb Vanasse

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As budgets tighten and social networking opportunities expand, a common refrain among publishers is that authors must become active advocates for their books. But from an author’s perspective, this expectation can be daunting. After all the work that goes into producing a viable manuscript, there’s the seemingly endless chore of promotion layered over the work of penning the next book.

Reframing this prospect for the benefit of both authors and publishers begins with creating effective author-publisher relationships, as detailed in Part 1 of this series last month. Building on these relationships, publishers who commit to innovative strategies for empowering their authors add value to their products and to their marketing efforts while attracting and retaining authors who partner fully and effectively to fuel success for their projects.

Whether you’re running a fledgling startup or working in an established company, you can readily adopt (or adapt) these proven approaches to profit from author empowerment.

Inviting Input

Photo of Steve PiersantiWhen it comes to empowerment, independent publishers and their authors profit from a mutual commitment that extends beyond the balance sheet. “The economics of book publishing are very challenging, and many publishers try to cope by seeking to minimize interactions with authors,” explains Steve Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

“As a result, authors often feel that they are treated like nuisances and that their books receive little attention.” In contrast, Piersanti adds, “we view authors and Berrett-Koehler as partners who are working together to make a difference in the world, and we collaborate closely with each author on each book.”

Photo of Bennett ColeLikewise, publisher Bennett R. Coles runs Promontory Press with what he terms an “author-centric” perspective. “Our relationships with our authors are very important,” says Coles. “We do our best to keep them informed of our plans; we train them as required for marketing and publicity; and we respect their wishes as much as we can when it comes to production and promotion of their books. Every member of our team remains accessible to all our authors—including backlist authors—and we welcome their input.”

Photo of Kimberly McDoleAuthors are empowered by relationships in which their unique challenges and aspirations are considered and respected. As submissions manager Kimberly McDole of Greenleaf Book Group explains, “We view our authors as our partners, and every service we provide them is custom-designed to fit the distinct needs of their book and whatever goals they may have for it.”

On the matter of author involvement, independent publishers have the advantage of flexibility. “At our company, the author is given a chance to voice opinions regarding cover and interior layout design,” says Tom Doherty, publisher at Blue River Press. “This sometimes becomes problematic and slows down the process, but overall I think it is important to have the author on board with the packaging.” Empowered by this involvement, authors are more likely to engage with their publishers toward the book’s ultimate success.

Articulating the Partnership

Information lays the groundwork for empowerment. Conveying it can involve something as simple as picking up the phone. “The challenge is to take the time to develop a relationship via more than one communication channel,” Doherty explains. “Slowing down a bit to make a phone call or set up a meeting if the author is local can make a big difference in your relationship. Relying on e-mail communication alone is more likely to cause problems.”

Authors are empowered by conversations that clearly address the expectations of both parties to a publishing agreement. “I always talk to the authors on the phone or in person before I send an offer and contract,” says Doherty. “I ask them about their expectations and tell them my expectations for them to help with marketing and selling the book.”

Photo of Sheyna GaylonSheyna Gaylon, owner of Yotzeret Publishing, uses contract language to formalize such conversations. “My book contract is 14 pages long,” she explains. “I’ve tried to include all expectations of my authors in that contract so that we can eliminate miscommunication and confusion.”

At Berrett-Koehler, a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors is a fundamental tool for articulating expectations. BK has been sharing this document with all prospective BK authors since 2008. In it, the publisher articulates its commitment to integrity, partnership, communication, transparency, environmental responsibility, and community. For each project, Berrett-Koehler promises editorial value, professional design and production, multichannel distribution and sales, and long-term commitment that includes at least a five-year run for the title.

In return, the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors notes that authors are expected to collaborate with staff, function as active members of the BK community, support the company’s mission, and communicate with staff about their writing and promotional efforts.

With regard to the author’s work, the document articulates the need for quality and scholarship. In terms of promotion, it emphasizes the need for authors to be active advocates for their books, seeking out training as needed in order to plan and carry out their own marketing campaigns.

The Berrett-Koehler Fall 2015 catalog features endorsements that attest to the benefits of a clearly articulated partnership between authors and the publisher. “From our first conversation, I could tell that my new book was in competent, talented, and loving hands,” writes Karen Kimsey-House, coauthor of Co-Active Leadership. “BK artfully balances a deep respect for the author’s vision with a solid commitment to professionalism and clarity. This was a true partnership every step of the way.”

Empowerment Tactics

By providing services and training to empower their authors, independent publishers demonstrate their commitment to value. “Greenleaf houses both marketing and branding departments that provide our authors with such essential services as website creation, endorsement outreach, award submissions, advanced reviews, social media management, brand audits, and speaker press kits,” McDole explains.

The flexibility characteristic of independent publishers allows indies to accommodate differences among authors. “Many authors are uncomfortable with social media and online marketing in general,” Coles notes. “Our team will train them thoroughly and provide guidance and support as they start to make those connections with readers. We also brief our authors prior to any personal appearances on how to present themselves ‘as the author,’ and whenever possible we’ll have a staff member physically present to support the event.”

Coles’s Promontory Press formalizes its empowerment efforts in annual, full-day author summits designed to train authors and create marketing material for their books. Following an introductory presentation on the state of the publishing industry, summit participants form small groups of three to four authors.

“Each group has a Promontory staff member sit with them for an hour-long, interactive workshop on a particular element of marketing,” Coles explains. The staff members rotate among the author groups throughout the rest of the day, and for those unable to attend in person, Promontory offers a separate summit via Skype.

Summit topics include perfecting the “elevator pitch,” coordinating social media outreach into a viable campaign, and understanding the publisher’s approach to marketing. During the summit, Promontory also offers professional photography, videography, and interview sessions to its authors.

“In addition to the practical material we take away from the summit for use in our marketing channels, I find that the biggest benefit to Promontory is having trained and confident authors who can do a lot of their own marketing in concert with ours,” says Coles. “Every book these days needs the author’s full attention for marketing, and the better we can equip our authors for this, the better it is for everyone.”

An alternative to an annual gathering of authors is Berrett-Koehler’s Author Day, which Persanti deems “one of our signature ways of partnering with authors and giving individual attention.” Approximately seven months before each book is published, the author is invited to a full day of interaction with the entire BK staff: editorial, design and production, sales and marketing, international sales, and digital community-building teams.

Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager and of 12 Berrett-Koehler books, cites Author Day as one of the key reasons he appreciates his publisher. “It’s a fabulous team-building day that connects authors to the people who will be working on their books,” Blanchard writes. “I’ve gotten to know so many people at BK—and I love them all.”

With a mission of “Connecting People and Ideas to Create a World That Works for All,” Berrett-Koehler embraces community as a means of author empowerment. “The ultimate support for BK authors is the amazing BK Authors Cooperative,” Piersanti explains, adding that while the cooperative is legally, financially, and administratively separate from the company, the two are closely allied. “The Co-op gives BK authors far-reaching advantages because authors help each other in numerous ways to increase their success and impact,” Piersanti says.

Mutual Benefits

A publisher who fosters mutual respect, attends to individual authors’ needs, and trains authors to become better advocates for their books is more likely to attract and retain top-notch talent. Berrett-Koehler, for instance, has attracted several bestselling authors who have moved from other companies.

Author empowerment is one of many ways in which independent publishers work flexibility and creativity to their advantage. Strategies that encourage and inform authors benefit the entire publishing team in their efforts toward reaching a shared goal: the success of each title.


About the Author:

Deb VanasseDeb Vanasse, who co-founded 49 Writers and founded the author co-op Running Fox Books, is the author of 16 books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; along with Cold Spell, a novel set in her home state of Alaska. To learn more: debvanasse.com.

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