Uniquely positioned to think outside the box and pursue opportunities, independent publishers embrace a culture of community, swapping information, ideas, and even services. No wonder successful collaborations abound.
Whether formal or informal, publishing partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. They many involve industry partners, like-minded organizations, or book packaging efforts. What they have in common is an emphasis on realizing shared goals, identifying and capitalizing on strengths, and making adjustments as needed.
Like Attracts Like
With goals that include bringing more books to market, building readership, and increasing services, indie publishers have devised many ways of partnering with one another.
Fostering diversity in publishing is a stated goal of American-owned Rising Action Publishing, so it made good sense for the company to partner with South Africa’s BlackBird Books to bring South African titles to the North American market. “It’s both a licensing deal and a shared marketing partnership,” says Rising Action’s chief operations officer Tina Beier. “We share the profits from book sales, and we have collaborated on the cover redesigns, events such as webinars and author interviews, and social media posts.”
When establishing a mutually beneficial arrangement, Beier notes the importance of outlining goals and responsibilities from the start, which her company did with BlackBird through a written agreement. “Realize there will be some learning curves along the way,” she says, pointing out that both companies had to adjust expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Successful sales matter, of course, but Beier cites other, less tangible results as equally valid reasons to enter into a partnership. “We benefit on an intrinsic level by helping to encourage diversity in the Western publishing world,” she says.
Beyond Words Publishing found its industry soulmate, so to speak, in the online magazine Soulivity. With a shared focus on mind, body, and soul, the companies have joined forces to coordinate virtual events, virtual summits, and an online book club. For instance, Soulivity makes a monthly book club pick from Beyond Words’ titles, and then the companies collaborate on ways to engage readers and involve the author while talking up the book club with their respective social media audiences.
In establishing the partnership, the division of responsibilities proved “almost effortless,” says Brennah Hermo, director of marketing at Beyond Words, with each company bringing different strengths to the relationship. Soulivity’s online presence means it can contribute a virtual event platform and a strong social media following. With 40 years in publishing, Beyond Words brings a well-established community and access to leading creators and thinkers.
Operating under an informal verbal agreement, representatives from Beyond Words and Soulivity meet weekly to review goals, brainstorm ideas, and plan their next actions. “We want to find innovative and unique ways to reach our audiences and maintain a strong following,” Hermo says.
The partnership looks to engagement as a measure of success. “There is mutual benefit when we further an author’s reach and support their recent release while also providing value for our following,” Hermo says.
Another approach to industry partnerships happens when companies team up to provide services. For instance, hybrid publisher Teri Rider of Top Reads Publishing wasn’t able to offer social media and marketing services until she began project-by-project partnering with David Wogahn of AuthorImprints.
Connecting several years ago through Publishers and Writers of San Diego, an IBPA affiliate group, Rider and Wogahn began meeting regularly to share trade tips. Along the way, each hired the other for consulting services. The arrangement has now progressed to each company providing services to benefit the other’s clients, such as book launch marketing by AuthorImprints and distribution through Top Reads Publishing.
Rider and Wogahn let clients know they’re collaborating, but they bill their services separately. Looking ahead, they’re open to the idea of bundling services. “The main goal we are hoping to achieve is to provide the best set of services we can offer each individual author,” Rider says.
Their long-term relationship of trust and mutual respect serves the partners well as they expand their collaborative opportunities. “There is some overlap in the services we provide, but we are open to giving the client the best options for their book and don’t feel we need to compete for the same business,” Rider says. “The most challenging part is to ensure the client understands our collaborative process so they know who is doing which part for their book. Transparency and trust are essential.”
Organizations with similar goals and values can also become valued partners. In fact, for Karen Pavlicin of Elva Resa Publishing, such partnerships have helped define the company’s focus.
Shortly after Elva Resa’s second military family book, Deployment Journal for Kids, came out in 2005, a military family support center director contacted Pavlicin to ask if this was what the company did—specialize in books for military families. “In that moment, I said, ‘Yes, we do,’” Pavlicin says. “And I asked her what she needed most. We started working on those resources right away.”
The company’s partnerships within the military community continue to this day. A prime example involves Elva Resa’s collaborations with United Through Reading (UTR), an organization that promotes reading as a way for military families to stay connected. The nonprofit hosts “story stations” where deployed service members record themselves reading a children’s book. Both book and recording are then delivered to the service member’s children back home.
“Over the years, we have supported UTR in many ways, such as donating cases of overstock, bringing authors to read at their events, and letting them use PDFs of our books for free while their story stations were closed during the pandemic,” Pavlicin says. Recently, major news outlets drew attention to these efforts when first lady Jill Biden, traveling in Eastern Europe, participated in a story station recording of Elva Resa’s Night Catch, a picture book about a deployed soldier and his son playing catch with the North Star.
As Pavlicin points out, such partnerships matter in ways that go well beyond the news cycle or the balance sheet. “I think sometimes publishers only focus on transactions and evaluate partnerships on their financial value,” she says. “Our team at Elva Resa focuses on nurturing long-term relationships with organizations that share our mission. When you have that focus, rewards manifest in a variety of meaningful moments.”
In its partnership with the nonprofit Teen Author Boot Camp, which hosts the nation’s largest teen writers conference, Owl Hollow Press doesn’t turn a profit, but editorial director Emma Nelson says both partners gain credibility from the arrangement.
“As an institution with strong PR and roots in their community, Teen Author Boot Camp provides credibility and connections with libraries, bookstores, and larger publishers that we wouldn’t normally have access to,” Nelson says. “As a publisher, we provide authors for webinars, conference classes, and other learning opportunities. In conjunction with Teen Author Boot Camp, Owl Hollow also publishes an annual anthology of teen writing.
Elva Resa Publishing collaborates with United Through Reading (UTR), an organization that promotes reading as a way for military families to stay connected.
Having begun six years ago on a trial basis, the partnership now operates from a written agreement. Along the way, the partners have made adjustments, especially in the realms of budgeting and fundraising. “After several years, we’ve decided that it works best if we have autonomy with the decision-making and publication process, and they lend their credibility toward getting well-known YA authors to the yearly anthology launch event,” Nelson says.
She also notes the importance of communication to make sure the partnership remains worthwhile for everyone involved, including the teen writers. “We work well together and have formed strong professional and personal connections,” she says. “I believe we will continue looking for ways to grow both of our businesses, and our focus will remain on creating opportunities for writing, literacy, and publication for teens and other emerging authors.”
To distribute books as part of his company’s social responsibility effort, CEO Jonathan Joseph of Little Red Fashion created a partner program through a fiscal sponsorship. In turn, the program, Little Red Literacy, partners with other nonprofits to facilitate distribution of donated books. “Rather than simply selling to nonprofits at a discount, our program links charitable donors, both organizations and individuals, to literacy and distribution partners,” he says.
In addition to the tax deductions associated with donations, the arrangement is helping Little Red Fashion expand its reach, impact, and readership. “As a startup indie publisher in a unique niche, we felt it was important to find a vehicle for industry players and private foundations to give back,” Joseph says.
In its early stages, the Little Red Literacy Program has an informal agreement with Reading Partners, a community-based nonprofit that provides reading support and distributes books to children. Going forward, Joseph expects more formal arrangements, with the initial partnership becoming “a case study for more creative corporate social responsibility solutions in publishing more generally.”
With a background in philanthropic and fundraising management, Joseph admits to some complexities in his arrangement. “Fiscal sponsorships can be a minefield of reporting and compliance, as they should be,” he says. “But while we’re attempting a rather uniquely complex model at Little Red Fashion, other indie publishers can definitely leverage fiscal sponsorships to speak to their own goals and communities of interest in less intensive or structured ways.”
Involving authors, publishers, printers, and distributors, every book is in some ways a collaborative effort. But some publishers have taken the collaborative element to the next level by packaging books to meet the unique needs of their partners.
When the United Services Organizations (USO) launched a program to distribute care packages to the military spouses of service members deployed to remote locations, they wanted to include a copy of Elva Resa Publishing’s Deployment Journal for Spouses. But to fit the package requirements, they needed a different trim size and some minor content alterations.
In collaboration with the USO, Elva Resa created a special edition of the book, adding a custom message and packaging with a custom cover to distinguish it from the original. As part of the arrangement, the USO agreed to nonreturnable terms.
Despite a tight timeline and budget constraints, Pavlicin says the effort was worthwhile. “The USO pilot program solidly matched Elva Resa’s goal to support military spouses during deployment and gave us an opportunity to introduce our resources to more military families,” she wrote in a 2019 article for the IBPA Independent. (For details, see “Business Considerations for Creating Custom Editions” in IBPA’s online archives).
The Collective Book Studio has also had success with custom packaging. Marketing manager Ella Gilbert says the company’s first such partnership involved the art book Rita Blitt: Around and Round, which they packaged so the Mulvane Art Museum would have a unique edition to sell in their gift shop.
“Since then, we’ve worked with numerous other clients on custom packaging,” Gilbert says. A notable example is the custom “club edition” of the company’s Baby Animals board books, which they created for Costco, making slight alterations to the content and format to meet the retailer’s specifications.
In forging such partnerships, Gilbert says her company relies on publisher Angela Engel’s network and reputation in the industry. Gilbert characterizes the collaborations as limited distribution arrangements in which the companies involved delineate responsibilities for the book’s design, production, sales, and marketing.
Publishers with the capacity and interest can get the partnership ball rolling by approaching potential corporate and institutional partners with a proposal, Gilbert says. “When you have the skill set as a publisher to be able to produce high-quality content in a printed format and you have relationships with printers, it is a great way to diversify revenue,” she says.
The team at The Collective Book Studio.
Looking back over the many partnerships her company has enjoyed, Pavlicin sees a common thread. “At the end of the day, they all come back to helping an organization fulfill a shared or complementary mission,” she says.
Yet no two publishing partnerships may look exactly alike. That’s the beauty of collaboration—each facet of the arrangement can be tailor-made to maximize benefits to the partners. It’s all about recognizing common interests, staying flexible, and building on each company’s strengths.
Deb Vanasse is the author of several traditionally published books, her most recent being Roar of the Sea. She also works as a freelance editor and self-publishes under the pen name Vanessa Lind.