Longevity Lessons: The View from a Company Six Decades Strong

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January 2015
by Carolyn Sakowski

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bigstock-Colored-arrows-vector-13569362While we were celebrating John F. Blair, Publisher’s 60th anniversary during the past year, I noticed that half of our staff members have worked for Blair for more than 20 years, but a quarter of the staff members are under the age of 30. That gives us the unique advantage of having a historical perspective as we strive to remain current.

And as I reflected on what has kept our independent publishing company in business for so long, I realized that a few things stood out, and that they might help other independent publishers survive and thrive

Survival Depends on Your Ability to Change

This business is always changing. If you think you’ve figured out how things work, wait six months. Examples are all too plentiful, even if you forget about technological change for the moment and focus in on the booksellers that publishers rely on.

When Mr. Blair first started his press in 1954, there were a few high-profile independent bookstores, but the book departments of large department stores handled most of the book business. In the South, which is our area, pilgrimages were made to Rich’s
Department Store in Atlanta, where book buyer Faith Brunson reigned as the doyenne of southern bookselling.

By the 1970s, the golden days of department store book sections were waning, and publishers worried about what would happen to the book business without these outlets.

Into their place stepped new independent bookstores. You may have noticed that some of our best independent bookstores have celebrated major anniversaries in the past few years. By 1995, ABA, the American Booksellers Association, had 5,500 members representing 7,000 stores, its highest membership ever. Publishers had to figure out how to reach those 5,500 booksellers, which meant
changing the way they did business.

This period also saw the rise of major wholesalers such as Ingram Book Company and Baker & Taylor. Again, publishers had to learn how to sell to those buyers and change their standard operating procedures.

And when the big-box discount stores such as Sam’s Club began to dabble in books, that required another set of selling knowledge and another set of changes.

Still other changes were necessary as chain stores in malls began competing with independent bookstores in the 1980s. As soon as a publisher figured out how to sell to chain buyers, starting with Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, Waldenbooks morphed into Borders, and B. Dalton was absorbed into Barnes & Noble. As soon as a publisher learned which chain buyers purchased which categories, the chain would change its system, forcing publishers to learn and deal with a new set of rules.

Borders and Barnes & Noble introduced the superstores, which took their toll on the indie booksellers. By 2000, the ABA membership had dropped to 3,100. Publishers’ great fear was that control over book sales would go to the chains and independent bookstores would cease to exist.

New requirements for change confronted publishers in 1995, when Amazon began selling books online. Jeff Bezos had the foresight to recognize the potential for online sales that the still-fledgling Internet would offer, and Amazon leveled the playing field for publishers with fewer resources. But yet again we had to learn how to sell to a different kind of customer and we had to change to meet its needs and demands.

Then, after Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007, e-book sales began their steady rise. Forecasters predicted the demise of the printed book. Recent figures show the meteoric rise of e-book sales seems to have reached a plateau, but the e-book is here to stay, so publishers again have had to change and adapt.

What all this history shows is that if you remain complacent and stagnant, you’ll get left behind. Flexibility and ability to change are keys to survival in this industry.

Everything You Do Should Focus on Reaching the End Consumer

People entering the publishing business may not realize that producing a book is the easy part. The difficult part is finding a way to tell your potential book buyer that the book exists.

The discovery process for books has undergone as much change as the delivery part. With the disappearance of book reviews in many newspapers, finding channels for reaching readers has gotten more challenging. In some ways, of course, the Internet has made it easier to reach your target market, especially if you have books that appeal to a niche audience. However, getting the word out about literary fiction, for example, now requires multiple tactics.

Of course, these include tactics for using social media, and just when you think you’ve figured out something that will work, a new web phenomenon pops up and everyone abandons the former hot site to run after the new one. In 2006, MySpace was the most popular social media site, but by 2008, Facebook had surged ahead. Five years from now, the most powerful social media site will be something that doesn’t even exist today. So publishers need to pay attention and realize that it will be necessary to revise their contact databases over and over.

Personal Relationships Are Still Important

Even with all the changes, personal relationships remain powerful. Knowing the particular human beings who are your chain and wholesale buyers and knowing how they want materials presented and when; knowing the buyers at the bookstores you sell to and their tastes; knowing your media contacts and how they want materials presented and when—all that makes a difference as to whether your books are reviewed, noticed, and purchased.

Although we rely more and more on e-mail for our communication, a lot of people in positions of power are in my generation and may respond better to the kind of person to- person communication that the telephone enables. Sure, almost everyone has figured out a way to post a gatekeeper, whether it’s in human form or voicemail, but sometimes you just get lucky.

Because personal relationships are still important, it’s vital to keep up with personnel changes. We publishers can’t simply assume that people we’ve worked with previously are still where they were, just as we can’t simply assume that the format of any particular outlet still features books.

Little Fish Don’t Have to Act Like the Big Ones

There are numerous quirks in our industry that drive us all crazy. Just mention our returns tradition to a banker and see eyes pop open in amazement. We all hate the fact that the large chains and wholesalers ignore requirements that books must be in “resaleable” condition, and the fact that they sometimes return copies of a book they are ordering on the very same day. But independent publishers may have to accept the fact that when large houses allow a practice to continue, trying to change the practice is probably futile.

Practical options include either incorporating the irritating practice in your business model or deciding you don’t want to do business that way and refusing to do business with certain vendors. Over the years, we’ve kept a close financial eye on some outlets to see whether the high percentage of books they return plus the cost of damaged returns wipes out profit for us. When dealing with a wholesaler or retailer is not profitable, it makes sense to quit selling to them, even if it seems that everyone else does.

Other observations may apply to your situation. Independent presses are, after all, independent, and they usually reflect the personalities of the people involved. But I hope some of what we’ve gleaned from 60 years of publishing will prove as useful to you as they are to us.


Sakowski_CarolynCarolyn Sakowski has been president of John F. Blair, Publisher, since 1992. She began her book career as founding manager of Watermark Books in Wichita, KS, before joining Blair as publicity director in 1986. To learn more about John F. Blair, Publisher: blairpub.com.

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