PUBLISHED MAY 2017
by LM Browning, Founder, Homebound Publications -
At the age of 27, I was offered every writer’s dream: a book deal. And not just one book, but five. I enthusiastically signed and went from scribbler to author only to be quickly disillusioned by the entire process. The manuscript I had worked on for so long was taken from me. It wasn’t edited for errors but was changed significantly from its original vision; a horrendous cover was slapped on it; the interior design was childish; and I was marketed on a platform that went against everything in which I believe. It was at that point that the five-book deal was renegotiated into a two- or three-book deal so that I could break from the “publisher” sooner. On the heels of this experience, I got a job at an independent press in Boston and started learning the ins and outs of publishing. Through that, I began to ponder opening my own house where I could operate as I felt a publisher should—with courtesy and transparency.
In 2011, with less than $1,000 to my name, I opened Homebound Publications. I left a teaching position where I had a steady income and health insurance. I opened the press in the middle of a recession, at a point in time when everyone was convinced print was going to be extinct. In the first year, we did four titles, two of which were my own that I had fought to regain the rights from the former publisher. That year, we cleared under $5,000, but our reputation was buzzing among authors. We offered higher-than-average royalties, consulted authors during the editorial and design phase, and worked to market all our titles. Three of the four titles we did that first year went on to win major indie awards, so we knew we were doing something right even if things weren’t exactly high grossing.
We continued on like that for a number of years—putting out solid, award-winning titles but never reaching a six-figure income. This past February, we celebrated our sixth anniversary, and I once again had to get in touch with the entrepreneurial bravery with which I founded the company. I needed to renew that bravery because it was time to take a huge leap.
Like so many small publishers, we signed up with Lightning Source as our printer with some vague notion that they were also our “distributor.” For the entire length of our company, we’ve worked with Lightning Source, and I have nothing but good things to say about the company. IngramSpark and Lightning Source are a solid place for a publisher to start. However, do not think they are your distributor; they are your supplier. This became clear to us at the end of year two. We tried to do what seemed prudent for a (very) small budgeted press: We acted as our own sales representation with indie bookstores.
The big houses have in-house sales reps and the staff, budget, and connections to see to it properly. Our decision to try to do sales representation in-house was a costly mistake. We were not staffed to properly handle the sales either in a logistical sense (handing the pick, pack, and ship) or energy sense (the time and attention a sales rep must properly give to ensure that the indie bookstores are properly stocked and they have ordered in moderation to ensure massive returns didn’t come back to negate profits). Working without a distributor also locks you out of most larger stores such as Barnes & Noble, which cuts you off from a big part of the market. Distribution is the linchpin of the publishing endeavor, and we’d fallen short. It is all well and good to publish stellar titles, but if no one knows about them, then what is the point? Sales in brick-and-mortar stores will never extend beyond the local indie bookstores you’re used to dealing with.
This is not to say we were “successful” as a publishing house. Homebound Publications did well. We have over 100 titles in print, a healthy backlist, four divisions, two imprints, and our titles routinely gather indie awards. Yet it was clear to me that we were rapidly reaching the cap of what we could do without proper distribution. So, with fear and trembling, I reached out to some of the likely candidates—IPS (Ingram Publishing Services), Midpoint Trade, and so forth—to find the company that is right for us at this point in time. Being without active distribution and sales representation hadn’t put us out of business (thankfully), but it had stunted us, and we had to grow. I always thought a traditional distributor was out of our reach because our budget was so small, but I was mistaken.
I negotiated the deal for six months, paring down the risk where I could and approaching investors to help bring the money we would need in order to make the transition from print on demand (Lightning Source) to the short runs required to stock the warehouses of distributors. Even when everything was in place, I was still uneasy because I didn’t want to risk losing this house that I’d so painstakingly built.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of success and failure, saying, “Both are proud and terrifying.” Well, that was where I was: proud to have reached this point of success and terrified at the thought of everything getting bigger—the deals, the money, the returns, the risk. In the end, though, I tried to remember the entrepreneurial bravery with which I founded the press; I tried to remember all that I had learned from my years in business and trust in my ability to handle issues as they come up and learn from mistakes. I measured the risk and only signed the deal when it was feasible to do so, all the while knowing even the safest deal has risks.
I see independent publishers putting out exceptional work, but I also see a lot of independent publishers struggling, and often the reason is distribution. There are places to be thrifty, but distribution isn’t one of them. I cannot stress how important it is to seek out distribution. It is a cornerstone you’ll need if you intend to build a house that will weather the years.
L.M. Browning is an award-winning author and publisher; the founder of Homebound Publications, Owl House Books, and The Wayfarer; a partner at Hiraeth Press; and a member of the IBPA Board of Directors.