Forty years ago in Southern California, a group of 15 independent publishers wanted to attend the American Booksellers Association’s annual convention but were limited by cost. They decided to pool money and send one member of their group, Jan Nathan, to go as their representative. Jan returned with such excitement that she formed the Publishers Association of Southern California (PASCAL) to help indie publishers combat the many challenges facing them, marketing being chief among them.
PASCAL grew and became the Publishers Marketing Association (PMA), and then, in 2008, the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). Marketing was and continues to be a big concern for indies, but IBPA has grown to tackle so much more, including offering other educational opportunities, publications (like this one!), and advocacy support.
In celebration of IBPA’s 40 years, we caught up with some of the most influential members over the years to hear about their biggest challenges, the changes they’ve experienced in the industry, and their fondest memories of the organization.
When did your involvement with IBPA begin? What years were you president/board chair?
Peter Goodman (PG): I started with IBPA, then PMA, back in the 1990s. I was board chair in years 2015-2017 and, for four years prior to that, was a board member.
Bob Erdmann (BE): My first involvement was as a guest speaker on distribution shortly after PMA was founded, probably about 1985. I served two terms as president, 1990-1992. I was also a board member in 1989.
Linda Ligon (LL): I joined IBPA (then PMA) board in the 1990s and became chair in the 2000s. The organization’s emphasis was on marketing, with services aimed at small publishers and especially at self-publishing individuals. The majority of the several-thousand members didn’t have trade distributors, so they depended on PMA’s mailings to libraries and independent bookstores and its presence at regional, national, and international book fairs for exposure of their titles.
Jerry Marino (JM): I believe I became involved in IBPA (then PMA) in 1985 or so. I was president from 1994-1996.
Kent Sturgis (KS): In 1988, I co-founded Epicenter Press to publish regional nonfiction books from Fairbanks, Alaska. At that time, there were no other independent trade publishers based in Alaska, and experienced editors, designers, and publicists were impossible to find.
It was going to be difficult to acquire book-publishing experience. So, I moved my family to Seattle, became active in the local publishing community, and joined the Publishers Marketing Association, a relatively new group founded by the energetic Jan Nathan. The PMA’s mission was to mentor independent publishers and help them “to achieve and succeed,” as the motto goes. I learned so much from Jan and PMA.
I served two terms on PMA’s board of directors and then was elected president and board chair, serving from 2004-2006.
What were the big challenges you were facing during your time working closely with IBPA?
PG: Defining the mission; understanding the needs of our membership and the composition (real and desired) of our membership; the role of the board: activist and working versus strategic; hiring a new CEO and reorganizing admin, accounting, and leadership; and trying to anticipate how publishing was changing and how IBPA was to respond.
BE: Getting the mainstream publishing community (B. Dalton-Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks-Borders, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Publishers Weekly, etc.) to recognize our organization and its members’ work. Quite successful in accomplishing that goal!
LL: PMA provided important coaching for new publishers: Did their titles have proper ISBN numbers? Library of Congress locating information? Did their covers have shelf appeal? Were they finding the best and most efficient printers for the size of their print runs? At the same time, mid-size members with substantial catalogs (many of whom joined in order to enter the Benjamin Franklin Awards competitions) needed access to chain buyers, specialty markets, and distribution services. Filling both these roles equitably was sometimes a challenge for PMA.
JM: During the period I was active in IBPA, independent publishing was a “cottage business.” Many of the publishers were self-publishers. Learning how to market and promote books was a major challenge for most of these budding publishers. In addition, independent publishers had very few channels for marketing and distribution. They also were not part of the publishing main stream and were very challenged in getting exposure and visibility to widespread publishing markets.
KS: I was president when the PMA board voted to rename the organization the Independent Book Publishers Association.
Though the forward-thinking Jan Nathan supported this proposal, it was controversial. For many months, the board warily, and sometimes wearily, considered all the angles before acting.
Some thought it foolish that PMA would consider giving up its strong brand of emphasis on marketing. However, the association long since had expanded its education programs beyond marketing.
It turned out to be a good decision made at the right time.
What do you see as being the biggest changes in the independent publishing industry since IBPA’s founding 40 years ago?
PG: The digital revolution in editing, design, marketing, prepress, and production. Publishers used to outsource a lot more of prepress and production-related tasks to printers than they do today. The integration into trade distribution of print on demand to manage inventory and service customers. Amazon and its disruption of retailing along with opportunities it gave to author-publishers.
Social media, blogging, and other opportunities for authors and indie publishers to interact directly with readers (and, more recently, the development of Zoom events, which probably would have happened without the pandemic but not so quickly). A greater emphasis on and demand for diversity and more opportunities for a diversity of readership and retailing (publishing is less white than it used to be), a trend led largely by indie publishers, with Big Four publishers playing catchup.
The rise of e-books and other forms of digital delivery. The (still somewhat grudging) acceptance of new business models, like self-publishing, hybrid publishing, and crowdfunding. The clear divide between “big” publishing and scrappy indie publishing, with the evolution of very distinct business models and expectations for each.
The demise and re-emergence of indie booksellers, reflected by the shrinking of shelf inventory along with more focused targeting of the communities they serve. The loss of wholesale outlets for broad distribution, creating an indie world of haves and have-nots.
BE: I served on a panel long ago with a young man who was just beginning a venture in publishing. Although he was a very unassuming, “awe shucks” kind of guy, it was very apparent that he was something special. He had this crazy idea, one that the mainstream New York publishing establishment laughed at for years. Something about selling books online. Yep, his name was Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. Need I say more about the biggest change in independent publishing, and all of publishing?
LL: The biggest change I’ve seen, both for IBPA members and really anyone in the business, is the emergence of Amazon, and the challenges small and independent publishers have in meeting its demands. I remember Jeff Bezos dropping in on a PMA board meeting when Amazon was still just a bookseller. The conversation was cordial; he seemed interested in the needs of the smaller players. As Amazon grew, the subsequent demise of Borders, Waldenbooks, Crown, and other chains created challenges for publishers of any size.
JM: Over the years, with initiative of founder Jan Nathan, who was a fierce promoter and advocate for independent presses, independent publishers gained respectability in the market place and acceptance of their products. Through IBPA’s programs, they not only gained training in fundamental publishing skills but also could afford the shared marketing programs that IBPA offered. Previously only the most outspoken and adept independent publishers were successful, but IBPA helped many learn skills and become more successful as a small or “nontraditional” publisher.
KS: One of the association’s crucially important challenges was to help its members develop the knowledge and know-how needed to publish professionally edited, designed, printed, distributed, and promoted titles. It encouraged members to take advantage of game-changing new technologies that gave small and independent presses the ability to find a place in the industry and to reach national audiences.
At the same time, Jan Nathan sought to disassociate self-publishing from so-called “vanity” publishing, which, for the most part, had a bad reputation, and to demonstrate to the industry and the reading public a transformation of mostly ignored self-publishing into a phenomenon to be reckoned with. Self- publishing was here to stay.
Terry Nathan (TN): The biggest change by far is the ability to get your book published. When I started working in this industry a little over 30 years ago, it was difficult to get your book published. Publishers acted as gatekeepers, limiting access to the marketplace. If an author was not able to connect with an established publisher, they had to figure out the business of publishing and publish the book themselves. Either way, authors embraced the business of publishing and approached it as such. Roles were clearly defined: Author-Agent-Publisher-Wholesaler-Distributor-Retailer-Reader. About 15-20 years ago technology exploded, turning the industry on its head. Exciting times for sure, but it has not been without its challenges. Nowadays many self-published authors fall into the industry confused. But for those that embrace the business of publishing, opportunities abound that definitely did not exist 30-40 years ago.
IBPA was originally the Publishers Marketing Association (PMA) and, as the name suggests, focused mostly on marketing. This issue of the magazine is aptly themed “Marketing & PR.” What have been the biggest marketing-related changes in the past 40 years?
PG: No. 1, of course, is the internet, but also:
- The demise of print advertising
- The closure and shrinking of book review media
- The rise of social media
- The use of sophisticated analytics to evaluate and target audiences
- The importance of keywords and discoverability (and that book covers be “readable” at thumbnail size online)
- The irrelevance of many trade shows and the de-evolution especially of ABA/BEA show
- The demand for authors to do their own media and publicity/marketing outreach
- The explosion of use of email versus person-to-person encounters
- The rise of a more skeptical and highly siloed reading audience with a short attention span
BE: Unquestionably, the internet and social media.
KS: Because acquiring trade distribution often was difficult for small presses, PMA and IBPA helped many of its members harness the power of the internet to find creative new, nontraditional ways to sell books. Among other things, the association showed self-published authors how to exploit niche content by targeting the consumer directly with artful self-promotion.
TN: Forty years ago, people purchased books from brick-and-mortar stores. Library budgets were plentiful. Newspapers and magazines allocated plenty of space for book reviews. There were a lot more independent bookstores—stores willing to work with independent publishers. Far fewer books were being published each year, which meant more people could have representation with distributors and sales reps. But not anymore. Books are being sold all over the place, and there are far too many books being published now, making it difficult for reviewers and distribution outlets to handle it all. In addition, there are far fewer bookstores, making it harder for publishers to know where to direct their marketing dollars. The future of marketing for publishers will be marketing direct to consumers, which is a far cry from what it was 40 years ago when publishers relied on bookstores and libraries to be their connection to consumers.
How have you seen IBPA evolve over its 40 years?
PG: IBPA has evolved as the industry has evolved and has mostly successfully been able to respond to and even anticipate changing needs by educating its members and connecting them with effective partners. IBPA is much better organized than it used to be: It has a website, a strong administrative backend, and a few projects that it does well. That is, it’s more focused and effective and more clear of its mission and what it needs to do to fulfill it.
BE: We brought the membership up to about 3,500 during my two terms. And we were successful in getting PMA/IBPA and its members’ books more visibility in order to increase sales, as well as national distribution through the national chains.
LL: Though I haven’t been directly involved in IBPA in many years, I’ve been impressed with how it has evolved and kept pace with all the changes the years have brought. A robust website, broad-reaching educational programs, a must-read magazine for anyone in the industry—pretty impressive. Founder Jan Nathan must be smiling.
JM: My involvement with IBPA ended in the mid 2000s, so I can’t speak of recent events. But early on, the board, through Jan and her staff, offered new and innovative ways for a small publisher or self-publisher to afford marketing programs. Initially IBPA was founded as the Publishers Association of Southern California (PASCAL). It evolved into PMA and then IBPA. I think the biggest changed came from the transition to digital marketing and e-books. In the 1990s, digital marketing tools developed, and the organization started a listserv, then digital email marketing, and ultimately offered classes online.
KS: PMA matured from an association of mostly alternative and new-age publishers networking in a California beach town into a widely respected national organization that helped independents gain a growing market share going head-to-head with the New York houses and other major player in the industry.
TN: I’ve been fortunate enough to see IBPA from its beginnings back in 1983. Even though I didn’t start working here until years later, I got to watch my mom start the business and nurture it from just a few Southern California publishers needing someone to represent them at a trade show, into the industry force it is today. The publishing industry has been constantly changing around us, especially for the last 20 years, and we have adapted right along with it. At times, that change has felt overwhelming. But one thing I am very proud of is despite all this change, IBPA is always helpful and always accessible. “I’m happy to help” has been our sign off in emails and phone calls since day one, and I have a feeling it will be long after I’m gone.
What are your fondest memories of IBPA over the years?
PG: PubU, of course, and I always enjoyed the human connections, especially the walks back to the hotel and after-hours drinks with other board members after our board dinners. Debating the future of publishing and hearing from insiders about the latest and greatest during board meetings.
BE: My fondest memories are the lifelong professional and personal friends that I made during my PMA years. Especially Jan Nathan, Howard Fisher, and Leslie Smith, as well as many others.
JM: My fondest memories of IBPA are the relationships developed with other publishers in those early years. Jan Nathan was like a sister to me, and I was very saddened at her passing. And Ron Mazzola was a very good friend who contributed greatly to those early years. I miss them both every day. There were many others that I shared time, meals, and valuable discussions with that I also miss. The early days of IBPA, PMA, and PASCAL created great fellowship and solidarity among many publishers, suppliers, and supporters of the publishing industry, and the organization greatly contributed to my personal and professional growth.
KS: I loved the camaraderie of serving on the PMA board. I could relate to these men and women and share publishing experiences with them. No matter how much I might have worked to support the organization and to help fulfill its mission, I always felt I was getting more from the association than I gave.
TN: Definitely the people! When I started in 1992, I was working at General Dynamics in San Diego. My job as a buyer in the Computer Systems Department was being moved back to Falls Church, Virginia. At that time, IBPA (then called PMA) was growing quickly and needed additional staff. My mom, who started PMA back in the early 80s with a group of Southern California publishers, asked if I wanted to come help her at the Publishing University and ABA show. Little did I know, she had bigger plans for me. From the moment I arrived, I was drawn to the incredible passion and energy each individual publisher had for their books. I continue to see that energy and passion in every new member that comes our way. It’s amazing!