In April of this year, IBPA, PubWest, and Portland State University’s (PSU) Graduate Program in Book Publishing released a report outlining the findings from PSU’s student-led research on publishing distribution practices.
IBPA Independent caught up with two of the people involved in that project, Dr. Rachel Noorda, director of book publishing and assistant professor at PSU, and Michele Cobb, executive director of PubWest, to hear about the partnership and some of the report’s findings. You can view the report at tinyurl.com/Distribution-Report.
IBPA Independent: How did the partnership among IBPA, PubWest, and PSU come about?
Noorda: PSU, IBPA, and PubWest have had a close relationship for the past few years. However, it was Angela Bole from IBPA who initially came up with the idea for the Publishing Distribution Practices project. Supply chain issues have been a major sore spot and talking point in the industry lately, so it seemed like the perfect time to create a project like this together.
IBPA Independent: How was the partnership structured? What role did each organization play?
Noorda: IBPA and PubWest developed the initial research questions that needed to be addressed, based on the problems that their members were bringing to their attention. I then took the proposed research project through the human ethics research approval process at PSU. Then, over the 10 weeks of the winter term, PSU graduate students researched the five research questions in groups, gathering primary data and analyzing secondary data. Three times during the term, IBPA and PubWest representatives joined the class via Zoom so that students could update them on how the project was going and ask questions. At the conclusion of the 10 weeks, the students presented the findings to the IBPA and PubWest representatives.
In terms of the roles that each organization played, IBPA and PubWest brought the initial problems, questions, and industry expertise. PSU students and faculty brought the research skills, creative thinking, and fresh eyes to gather and analyze the data, culminating in the final report.
IBPA Independent: Tell me a little about the graduate program in book publishing at PSU, and specifically the class from which this study came out, “Researching Book Publishing (WR 579).”
Noorda: Nestled in the literary hub of Portland in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, the Book Publishing Program at Portland State University equips students with skills in writing, editing, design, and marketing that prepare them for work inside and outside of the publishing industry. There are only eight graduate programs in book publishing in the United States, and the graduate program at PSU is the only one that has a trade publishing house (Ooligan Press) that is completely staffed by students from the program. Students at Ooligan Press gain valuable work experience and make real books. Through work at Ooligan and the curricular range of courses, students gain a comprehensive view of the publishing industry. Founded in 2001, the Graduate Program in Book Publishing at PSU is at the forefront of publishing education nationally. In fact, Publishers Weekly described the program as a place where “publishing education gets innovative.” The book publishing program provides a general publishing education with specialized opportunities (particularly in book editing, marketing, design, and digital), and experiential learning through Ooligan Press. Equipped with this unparalleled interdisciplinary education, graduates of PSU’s book publishing program report success in their post-graduate lives. A recent alumni survey found that 30% of graduates found ideal jobs within 30 days of graduation; that number jumps to 89% within six months of graduation. The Ooligan alumni network is strong, networked, and well-placed in New York City, Portland, and around the United States.
The Researching Book Publishing course is a core requirement in the graduate program. This class teaches students research methods and analysis skills, which they practice through their own research projects (that become master’s theses later on) and work with industry partners. The class has worked with not only IBPA and PubWest, but also the NW Editors Guild, Literary Arts, and others. The insightful master’s thesis are freely available on PDXScholar (pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/eng_bookpubpaper) on topics such as eco-friendly publishing, female YA characters, the patriarchy in publishing in COVID-19, audiobooks for small publishers, BIPOC representation in book covers, millennial parent book buyers, and more.
IBPA Independent: How long did the study take to research and produce?
Noorda: IBPA, PubWest and PSU started discussions about the project in October 2021, and the research was completed at the beginning of March 2022. The majority of the work was done in the 10 weeks from beginning of January to March.
IBPA Independent: Which fact do you find most interesting from the study results?
Noorda: One of the interesting things that came out of the study is the importance of page count and trim size, which impact the environmental impact of shipping the book, the cost of shipping the book, and the cost to print the book. Shorter books will have to become the new norm if publishers want to be cost-effective in their printing and delivery and more eco-friendly.
Cobb: I found the potential changes in paper used in the printing process a highlight. While changing to recycled paper is definitely a great goal, even a reduction in paper weight has an impact on multiple factors—reducing the amount of paper used and the cost to ship/distribute the books.
IBPA Independent: Were you surprised by any of the results?
Noorda: The results showed that many common “green” practices are not as green as publishers would like to think. For example, print and plant is a practice where a new tree is planted for every one that was cut down for printing; it’s a very common practice from publishers. But it’s not enough, especially in the long-term, and there are several issues with it (types of trees used, health of the tree planted, forest fires, etc.). It’s a place to start, but there are other solutions that make a bigger impact for eco-friendly publishing.
Cobb: The idea that book pricing could be cut in half if there was a more efficient distribution system. Returns have always been a unique difficulty in book publishing, and in the climate of rising prices for all element of the supply and distribution chain, that was a number that stood out to me.
IBPA Independent: What do you hope the industry takes away from this report? What’s the first thing an individual, publisher, or distributor should do?
Noorda: I hope that individuals, publishers, and bookstores see that they can start where they are and start small. The most important thing is to start; even small companies or organizations can make big change this way. The first thing individual readers should do is support local companies and preorders. The first thing publishers can do is choose more eco-friendly paper, get an emissions assessment, join trade organizations, reduce print runs, and emphasize pre-orders and authentic marketing.
Cobb: I’d like everyone to view this report as a jumping-off point. Our members are on the front lines day to day working to create amazing products and get them into the hands of consumers. I hope they can take a break to read through the report fully to shine new light on the pain points and to both take away interesting ideas and to encourage them to generate their own individual solutions that work best for their business.
IBPA Independent: Are there any future studies you envision embarking upon?
Absolutely! We’re already planning research projects with Audio Publishers Associations, Book Industry Study Group, Young Authors Publishing, and others. Additionally, my colleague Dr. Kathi Inman Berens and I will be coming out with a research report on book consumption for Gen Z and millennials in the coming weeks.
The 5 Important Issues Facing Publishing Distribution
- How can the book industry decrease the return rate for books sold into trade channels from an average of 30% to an average of 15% (or less)?
- As consumer buying habits further migrate from retail to online, what does efficient and cost-effective delivery of print books to readers look like going forward?
- What needs to be done to make book printing truly carbon neutral by 2050?
- What’s stopping the industry from embracing POD as the preferred means for printing non-illustrated, black-and-white trade books?
- Although COVID-19 did not create the book industry’s supply chain problems, it certainly exacerbated them. What shortcomings in the book industry were most exposed due to the pandemic?