When it comes to deciding whether or not to bring on a publisher for distribution and leading its onboarding process, one must dig deep for clues that are not obvious. As the publisher development manager for Independent Publishers Group, I realize it’s critical to research the potential publisher’s sales history and its existing books in print, as well as to carefully review the information they present in their application, but mainly I want to judge what chance a publisher has to significantly grow its business. I’m always looking for a publisher whose list has been undersold, or who hasn’t yet quite gotten its publishing program into focus but could do so with some solid advice from our team. If its business cannot grow, the publisher doesn’t want us and we don’t want them. I have been on both sides of the table, buying and selling books, for large and small players in the book business. Because of my diverse background working for a book wholesaler, as a house rep for a number of leading publishers, as a commission rep for a high-powered sales group, as well as a stint as a retailer buying children’s books for a strong independent bookstore, combined with my many years on the distribution side, I can look at things from many different perspectives.
Addressing Knowledge Gaps
It’s my job to determine and begin to fill in publisher knowledge gaps, however wide or narrow they may be. To do this, I quiz new publishers about what they know, what they’ve done, and what they’re looking for. Sometimes the conversation is pretty straightforward—such as how to get an ISBN [international standard book number]. Other times, the conversation is more layered or comprehensive, such as helping a publisher refine its business model or rethink its marketing approach. It’s best that we get involved in these conversations and resulting questions as early as possible. In fact, if a publisher has a book it’s not quite sure is a good publishing venture, I’ll sometimes talk to the team even before they make the acquisition decision. We want to make sure they know how much the book is going to cost to edit and print, how many readers they expect to reach, and identify the necessary resources to make the title successful. While I’m normally the person at IPG who initiates these conversations, I draw on the expertise of everyone in the company. It’s crucial to understand the nuances and differentiators. The gift trade is very different from ordinary trade. The education market is quite unlike the library market. The independent bookstores do not much resemble the chain bookstores. And special sales is a thing unto itself. We have experts in all of these channels, and very often publishers spend most of a day at our office with our whole marketing staff refining both their individual titles in progress and their general marketing plans.
Separation of Labor
While most publishers understandably want to know what we can do for them, they may not think to ask what we don’t do. There are parts of marketing that we cover and there are parts that fall under the publisher’s purview. For example, it makes more sense for author appearances to be coordinated by the publisher since the publisher has direct access to the author and venue. In general, PR efforts are typically best handled by the publisher. We offer detailed advice on these matters, but in general our job is to get the books onto the bookstore shelves, while the publisher’s job is to inform the public that its titles are available.
Catalogs and Metadata Information
For our many catalogs, both print and electronic, we need at a minimum good catalog copy, author biographies, marketing plans, and book specifications. For our metadata, we need an amount of information for each title that surprises many publishers. A good example of this is our need to know the author’s hometown. Buyers use this to determine regional interest in a title, and if we don’t provide it, our customers are really annoyed. As publishers know, author bios need to address the following questions: How is this author qualified to write this book? Is he or she a professional in the book’s subject area, a recognized expert in the field, the author of related articles or books? We also request a list of comparable titles. These are books that are similar enough to your new one to help predict its sales. From our buyers’ point of view, a comparable title is a book that is about the same price and similar format as yours. It has been recently published by a house that is comparable in size and reputation to yours. And while this comparable title doesn’t necessary address the exact same topic in the same way as your book, it would seem to be relevant to a related or similar audience.
The earlier in the process a publisher can provide its publicity plan and the more specific it is, the better. And while some of our client publishers have the resources to do extensive author tours and media blitzes, many do not. But we need to have something to say about what will be done to support every title, even if that support is only a very modest publicity budget and a bare-bones approach to generating reviews. Some of our publishers have mounted novel PR efforts to draw the attention of readers and luckily, social media is an affordable and effective promotional tool for most titles.
An Effective Elevator Pitch
The “why to buy” idea is really the sales rep hook. The reality is that a sales rep sitting in a bookstore office has only a few seconds to engage the buyer in conversation about any one book. An effective “why to buy” is whatever can catch the bookstore buyer’s attention in the limited time they have. For fiction, it might be a quirky, interesting plot twist or character. For nonfiction, it might be a new take on a trending subject.
A New Era for Reprints
We all know that a badly timed or unnecessary reprint can be disastrous for a publisher. However, so can letting a book go out of stock for even a short time. Reprints used to be a nightmare— the new copies would arrive at the warehouse just as the returns start to flood back in! But we now have much better information to work with. In addition to BookScan sales data, we have incredibly detailed sell-through information direct from our major retail accounts and also from the national wholesalers. We know what these customers have of every title in stock at each of their stores and distribution centers, how many copies have sold through in the current week and last week, and whether demand is increasing or decreasing. Our inventory specialists know how to interpret this information and offer informed reprint advice to our publishers, and all of the IPG publishers have direct access to this sell-through data themselves.
Habits of Successful Publishers
As the publishing game continues to evolve, it’s clear some players are at the top and others consistently struggle to stay in the competition. Some publishers just get lucky, and that’s hard to replicate. But two-way communication with real players in the book business is crucial for success. I’m astounded at how some publishers are crazy about focus groups—publishers who would never publish a teen title without getting a group of their 14-year-old daughter’s friends together to comment on the cover—but spend very little time in bookstores looking hard at the competition. Likewise, national and regional trade shows, whether you exhibit at them or not, are great places to make direct contact with frontline booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and school teachers. These professionals can give you really valuable insight into what they think is wrong with the books that are being presented to them; what subject areas are in demand but for some reason are being neglected; and how you could make it easier for them to match up your books with the readers who could really benefit from them.