How to Thrive in the “Golden Age” of Independent Publishing

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August 2014
by Kelly Gallagher

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It’s often been said over the past couple of years that this is the golden age of independent publishing. Never before have there been so many opportunities. Barriers to entry can now be crossed with new tools, and it has never been as easy to make a permanent mark in publishing.

The first images that come to your mind when you think “golden age” may feature bankers with fistfuls of dollars smoking fat cigars, or ecstatic business owners fending off large crowds trying to buy out all they have in stock.

So, how are you enjoying this “golden age”? My guess is that many IBPA members may feel a bit left out. Instead of being awash in cash, you may be working hard to keep things in the black, and instead of fending off customers, you may be hoping to sell enough copies of your first book to recoup your costs.

Really, what’s the truth? Is this the “Golden Age of Independent Publishing”? And if it is, how can you get in on it?

As an industry veteran of 25 years, including 10 as a small press publisher, I believe this very well could be independent publishing’s golden age, but I hasten to add that that success is neither easy nor guaranteed.

Here are my top recommendations for increasing your chances of success in this opportunity-rich time:

Commit to being a socially savvy publisher

A lot has been written about the need to invest time and energy in developing a social presence that will connect your readers (or potential readers) with your books. I believe that, after creating quality content, being a socially savvy publisher is the number one requirement for an independent publisher today.

It really is all about discoverability. I encourage you to view the social network from the perspective of your readers and think about where they would be most likely to discover you. Bringing your message to where they are will greatly improve the chances that your book(s) will be discovered and purchased. If you publish craft books for instance, be sure you are pinning them on a Pinterest page for crafters.

Also learn about native retail and its growing opportunities, not only to market and make a book known, but to sell it right at the point of discovery. While you may have to send consumers to sites such as Amazon or B&N, you can also sell direct and realize a greater profit. Several services can help; my favorite is Aerbook.

Invest as little capital as possible in inventory

One of the biggest mistakes that independent publishers make is tying up all or most of their available capital in inventory, convinced that they are saving money by getting the lowest possible cost per unit. While this is true in part, what often happens is that inventory doesn’t sell for a year or two, while the publisher, who has spent money that might be better used otherwise, has to pay for warehousing or take write-offs for overprinting.

I suggest what many are now using as a best practice in the industry—print only what your pre-orders or projected first three month sales will be (whichever is higher), and then use a print on demand (POD) or ultra short run (less than 50 copies) strategy.

If you are not sure how big a first printing should be, you may want to consider using POD from the outset. At Ingram, we often find that POD pricing is competitive with offset pricing, especially when factoring in the risks and costs mentioned above. Plus, with a 3–5 day turnaround time from order to delivery, you will never be really out of stock should your title catch fire.

Use all formats all the time

This is simple. Make your titles available to readers as e-books, paperbacks and hardcovers. A close look at industry statistics reveals that today’s book readers favor more than one format. Making sure you have the formats each one wants is a key to generating as many sales as possible.

Services are available to help you create digital and print editions (with the possible exception of high quality color books). And like many large publishers that are releasing digital and print versions, you may want to choose softcover for longer print runs and POD for case bound hardcovers (with cover text and images printed on the books and without dust jackets). This approach is especially effective for library editions.

Ensure access to expanded markets

While it is absolutely true that your titles should be for sale at the largest online retailers, this is only half the story—or, to be exact, about 40% of it, according to Nielsen. To make sure your titles will be available for sale in expanded retail channels (including local independent bookstores and non-book retail outlets), have them listed through the industry’s major wholesalers, keeping parity with the big houses’ terms wherever possible.

It is also essential to offer the right discount and returns terms. In an effort to gain the biggest possible margin per sale or to price books competitively, many indie publishers make the mistake of putting a short discount or (especially in the case of POD) a “non-returnable” designation on their print books. This is typically a big turn-off to retailers, and often causes them to pass on a title no matter how irresistible its content may be. You’ll do better by setting a higher price if necessary than by specifying a short discount or not allowing a return.

Create an international market presence

International sales opportunities are often overlooked by independent publishers. For many, the barriers entail too much effort and cost, with typically marginal returns. But with services such as Ingram’s global POD program, indies no longer need to worry about shipping books overseas and working with a freight forwarder or distributor to get them sold into larger book markets such as the UK, Europe, or Australia.

If your title is already set up for POD, you can make it available for sale directly into these international channels simply by providing a local currency price to Ingram’s Lightning Source. While that does not guarantee riches, many publishers find that it provides nice incremental sales globally, without significant effort.

Commit to learning

This recommendation and the next three feature a commitment to excellence. As an IBPA board member, I can report that we strive to make following them easy.

In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing market, keeping up with and learning how to master new opportunities is obviously essential. I encourage you to take advantage of every learning opportunity IBPA has to offer, from webinars to Publishing University and the new IBPA institution on OpenLearning. Even when travel or conference fees are involved, those costs pale in comparison to the costs of mistakes and missed opportunities.

Commit to research

Some costs may also be associated with research on the genre you are publishing, or the markets you are looking to break in to, but research is invaluable for letting you know your consumers, what prices they are willing to pay, and what format(s) they want. IBPA has made many deals with organizations such as BISG and Nielsen to give you special prices for access to research that may provide just what you need to sell more books and connect better with your readers.

Commit to networking

The bottom line is, we really do need each other if we are going to reap benefits in this Golden Age. And the odds are that if you are reading this article you are already a member of IBPA, which offers great ways to connect with others in the book business.

I urge you to commit to talking regularly with your peers, and to sharing freely what works and what doesn’t. Publishing and writing can be very solitary experiences, and too often we can become isolated. Networking shows you that you are not alone, keeps you from making mistakes others have made, lets you share your expertise, and has a way of energizing your efforts.

Love what you do

This one goes without saying, but I’m saying it just in case.

Finally, as you consider these recommendations, please think about suggestions and resources that have increased your chances of success, and visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/IBPAonline to post and see what others post.


About the Author

Kelly Gallagher

Kelly Gallagher

Kelly Gallagher, Vice President of Content Acquisition at Ingram Content Group and an IBPA board member, reports that he’d be happy to receive your questions or feedback. To reach him: Kelly.Gallagher@IngramContent.com.

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