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Antarctica Arts Book Named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best 100 Indie Books of 2019

Thursday, May 14, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Christopher Locke
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Antarctica Arts Founder Stephen Barnwell celebrates his book Willoughby’s World of Wonder being named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best 100 Indie Books of 2019

This article was originally intended to be posted in March, but once the COVID-19 health crisis began, IBPA adjusted our attention to creating content that would be helpful to our members in relation to the pandemic. Stephen Barnwell’s achievement is certainly worthy of celebration, and his insights and experience can be of use to other indie publishers. Accordingly, we’re happy to post the article now.

In early 2020, Antarctica Arts Founder Stephen Barnwell received the news that Kirkus Reviews had named his book, Willoughby’s World of Wonder, A Field Guide to Strange Beasts & Curious Creatures, (for which he is also the author, illustrator, and designer), one of the Best 100 Indie Books of 2019.

“I was overjoyed!” says Stephen. “I was pleased to get a great review from Kirkus before that, and if that was it, I would have been happy. Getting a ‘Best Book’ nod was the icing on the cake.”

Interestingly, Stephen originally submitted his book through the paid Kirkus Indie Reviews program, so he had no idea it would go as far as it did. “I was quite surprised,” Stephen adds. “It was wonderful to have indies and big publishers’ Best Books all together in the same magazine. I think it really shows that Kirkus does value and recognize indie publishing as something that can be of equal quality and value as from the big guys. I admit, I did have high hopes for Willoughby’s because it was my first real trade paperback. All my other books were niche-market oriented, but Willoughby’s has true mass-market appeal. It is for this reason that I paid for a Kirkus review, and I’m so glad I did–it really paid off.”

On that note, Stephen shares his thoughts on what books are a good fit for a paid Kirkus Review: “It depends on the book. I had published six books previously, but I didn’t think they had any mass-market appeal, so I used other promotional strategies more suited to the intended audience. I think that if you have a book that is truly capable of attracting a wide audience, then it’s worth the investment. Books that are oriented towards niche markets or demographics may not warrant mass-market strategies like an expensive paid review.”

Full-page ad for Willoughby’s World of Wonder in Kirkus Reviews magazine

Once Stephen found out that his book was named one of the Best 100 Indie Books of 2019, he took his marketing efforts one step further with a paid ad in the magazine. “I had a lot of faith in Willoughby’s when I published it, and I made the decision to go ‘all in’ on the marketing, to the extent of my small budget. Getting named a Best Book was huge, and a rare opportunity, and I decided to double down. I also had a discussion with the Kirkus marketing person and she said that the ‘Best Of’ issues of Kirkus Review magazine were kept by libraries and indie bookstores all the next year, to guide them in their purchases for 2020.

“The full-page ad cost $1,500. It was printed in black and white in the print magazine, and in color in their PDF version of the magazine. I did see a small bump in sales in late December and January, but I imagine that late in the year, library budgets were already spent for 2019. I am hoping to see a rise in sales as stores and libraries spend their 2020 budgets.”

Instead of using Kirkus Reviews’ standard ad, he took the unique route of submitting his own image. “I created my own ad because I am a retired commercial photographer. I spent 36 years shooting products for major, national clients in New York City, so that is an advantage that I have over most small publishers. The standard Kirkus ad is just ‘Cover and Copy,’ and I knew I could do better. I don’t have access to a studio any more, though, so I shot the ad (and postcards) on my dining room table using ordinary household lamps—it’s the first national ad I shot in my dining room!”

In terms of the sales results and social media buzz, Stephen follows up: “Frankly, I’m not seeing as much as I had hoped. I feel that I am still doing the heavy lifting on social media myself. I do think that a Best Book tout is a giant tool in my toolbox, and that it will pay off in the long run. It’s a rule in advertising that customers need to see your product three to five times before they decide to purchase, so repetition is key. The ad may have planted the seed that other efforts will capitalize on.”

Now that Willoughby’s World of Wonder has had such great success, Stephen shares details of his newest project, Far Country by John L. Barnwell. “It’s a monograph of my father’s paintings; a fifty-year retrospective of his amazing work. I commissioned an introduction by a recognized academic, Dr. Daniel A. Siedell, Senior Fellow of Modern Art History, Theory, & Criticism at The King's College in New York City. He is a former museum curator, specializing in mid-century American art, so he was a perfect choice.”

Four Questions with Independent Publisher Stephen Barnwell

IBPA: Can you list three key lessons you’ve learned about how one can succeed as an independent publisher?

Stephen Barnwell (SB): First: promote, promote, promote. Promotion is essential and never-ending: online, postcards, ads, Facebook content, etc. You need to use your imagination to find new ways to get the word out about your book, especially on a tight budget. Remember that repetition is absolutely necessary, so a continual stream of content to the same channels is important, while also trying new channels. If you believe in your book, be willing to invest the time and money to promote it for a while.

Second: care passionately about the quality of your books. Take the extra time to go over your manuscript again and again and again. My editor and I went through the book for many weeks, with at least ten careful proofreads each. Care about the quality of the images, interior design, cover design, paper quality, binding, gutter spacing, laminate finish, everything. I am a perfectionist and I tried three different printers before I was happy with a printed proof. I was actually tearing my hair out in frustration, but I digress….

Third: I strongly believe in the back-catalog. Big publishers will promote a new book for a short time and then move on to the next title. I’m rather unorthodox and consider myself an outsider to publishing, really. I don’t do book launch parties (for now), and I don’t do much pre-launch publicity. I expect my books to sell for years to come, and I focus on building an audience for long-term sales. Great books can sell for decades, and new books help sell older books by the same author. I am growing my small press slowly and organically with an eye on the future.

IBPA: Can you share three marketing tips for other indie publishers?

SB: I’ve worked in advertising my whole career (I’m 59), with the last 18 years spent in a major, global ad agency called R/GA. One thing I learned from this agency is to elevate your perspective from selling products to selling big ideas. For example, my Instagram feed doesn’t sell books, it promotes me as an artist. If they like my artwork, they will naturally seek out my books (which I gently point them to). People really hate in-your-face ads, so they don’t respond well to overt advertising. I tried putting out obvious ads for Willoughby’s, and they didn’t do so well, so I shifted to providing cool content (illustrations from Willoughby’s without any ad copy) and the metrics improved. Content, rather than ads, is not only better received by potential buyers, but it’s also free! I market my coloring books by posting colored-in pages from the book on coloring-themed Facebook pages. I built an audience for free by posting fun content of around 15 pages, and now I’m doing that with Willoughby’s, starting with a variety of steampunk-themed pages. My first coloring book, EQUINOX, is still my best seller!

Also, being an old-school kinda guy, I still believe in postcards. With each new book, I do a mailing of postcards to my customer list, and I always get a nice surge in initial sales. Emails get deleted, online ads are ignored, but postcards are fun. Everybody loves postcards! I am currently mailing postcards for Willoughby’s to thousands of libraries and indie bookstores—with the Kirkus “Best Book” badge right on the front. I should say that each postcard must be tailored to the audience: I make cards intended for consumers (which I bundle inside every order that I ship) and separate postcards for the wholesale industry.

IBPA: As a follow-up, COVID-19 has taken over most of the news cycle, so this has made it difficult for independent publishers to stay afloat and get the word out about their latest books. Can you share tips for indie publishers about how to get the word out about their latest books during the COVID-19 crisis?

SB: My sales and marketing efforts have been affected as well by the pandemic. I had planned on doing a major library postcard blast for Willoughby’s, cashing in on the Kirkus nod, but now all libraries are closed! Almost everything is on hold, except for one type of book that I publish: coloring books. With the quarantine, everybody is looking to find hobbies and crafts to work on while at home, and coloring books are having a resurgence, from my perspective. I’ve tried several paid advertising programs in the past: Facebook, Google Adwords, etc., but none worked at all.

Recently, I tried Etsy Ads, because I sell a few of my books there. It’s one of many channels I use to sell my books. To my surprise, I found that I am getting a high conversion rate for my ads, and I’m selling more coloring books per week than ever before! I must caution you that I believe that only craft/hobby oriented books sell well on Etsy, because two other books of mine listed there are not selling, only coloring books. But I am happy to have something work well during these trying times. Also, I feel that those ads might be raising the awareness of my books in all channels: eBay, Kindle Direct Publishing, and my own website all got a slight uptick in sales when I placed the Etsy Ads. Might be a coincidence, though.

IBPA: How has it been beneficial to you to be a member of Independent Book Publishers Association?

SB: I do enjoy the IBPA Independent magazine, which is filled with advice, information, and experiences from other publishers. My favorite benefit, however, is your IngramSpark discount. With three editions printed through Ingram, including a new hardback edition of Willoughby’s (made just for the library market), I have already paid for all my IBPA membership dues, and am now making a profit. The free setup and free changes with IngramSpark are wonderful, especially since I am a perfectionist and can upload a book and get a physical proof, knowing I can make changes for free.

IBPA: Congratulations again on this achievement, Stephen, and thank you for sharing your expertise with the IBPA community!

Click here to learn more about Antarctica Arts!

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