Summer Stewart is the publisher at Unsolicited Press, a small yet dynamic publishing house based in Portland, Oregon. We had a chance to connect with Stewart, who shared her company’s various strategic adaptations in response to evolving market trends. Throughout this discussion, Stewart explores the impact of book bundles and subscriptions on Unsolicited Press’s business model, sharing strategies that have fostered reader loyalty while maneuvering through pricing challenges.
She delves into the art of reimagining inventory strategies at prominent book festivals, highlighting a shift toward selectivity and personal engagement. From adjusting the company’s approach at events to a bold move toward self-distribution and nontraditional sales channels, she offers candid insights into the trials and triumphs of these transitions.
The conversation extends beyond immediate business tactics, touching on Unsolicited Press’s ambitious long-term goals, aiming to revolutionize the industry while remaining deeply rooted in their commitment to authors and readers. Stewart’s vision for the future involves not just expanding her press’s literary footprint but also a dedication to amplifying voices from underrepresented communities, promising exciting endeavors in the coming years.
Can you elaborate on the market trend toward book bundles and subscriptions? How has this impacted your business, and what strategies have you implemented to capitalize on this trend?
The small press world is a difficult niche to navigate when it comes to staying afloat. Our readers are very loyal, but with book prices going up, some of our readers are becoming less likely to purchase our new titles. Last year, we had to raise our retail prices (about 5%) to cover new distribution charges and increased printing.
After doing research and talking to other small presses, we decided that offering book bundles and subscriptions would be a neat way to retain readers. For us, book bundles are so amazing. It gives us a chance to bundle all the books from one author, or the books that we nominated for a particular award, into one item that costs less than buying each book individually. For subscriptions, this ensures longevity for the press, and it instantly creates a loyal reader.
We offer book subscriptions with several tiers: monthly/for six months/annually. Book subscribers get every one of our books published in the respective time frame. It’s pretty rad. And it’s fun. I don’t know about others, but I know that subscriptions have a surprise factor because sometimes you forget about it, and then BAM, a book shows up in the mail. We were nervous about the subscription model at first, but within three days, we had 10 subscribers. In terms of capitalization, we are offering the long-term subscribers deep discounts on future years as well as the option to get every book in electronic form for free.
I understand you’ve adjusted your inventory strategy at book festivals. What is your new approach?
Book festivals and conferences are excellent, don’t get me wrong, but the larger ones leave you in debt. At the AWP 2023 in Seattle, we only sold about 15% of what we brought with us. (Compare that to selling 95% of what we brought with us to the Portland Books Festival in both 2022 and 2023.) It was dismal. Professionally speaking, it was the least marketed AWP we’ve ever seen. Many of the people who stopped by our table mentioned that they hadn’t even heard of the book fair until that Saturday.
I mention this as a point of reference, and not to say anything unbecoming of AWP. But it’s these larger festivals that we have had to reconsider how to approach. What does that mean, exactly? Well, we are bringing less and being very selective about what comes with us. For example, at the PDX Book Fest, we brought our bestsellers, newest releases, and books that really draw readers to the table. We sold out of almost everything on the first evening. How we dealt with readers who stopped by looking for a specific book was to offer them free shipping to their house (and we placed the order for them right at the table). For festivalgoers who were from out of town, they actually liked that they didn’t have to tote more items home on the plane. Due to its success, we will be implementing this strategy at the 2024 AWP in Kansas City.
Another approach we have been using is to only bring books for the authors who we know are going to be present. This approach allows your book fair table to have a little more intimacy between the reader and the author. The author is there is field questions, sign copies, and really feel what it means to be appreciated in the literary world.
In terms of scaling your business, are there any specific goals or targets you have set for Unsolicited Press?
I think about this all the time. Scaling a small press up is hard. We have a five-year plan in place right now that will drastically change the way we do business, but it won’t change how we interact with authors or readers. A big goal is to have a fully independent sales and distribution team with the goal of cutting out the middle players (wholesalers/distributors/warehousing).
What kills us the most right now is returns and high retailer discounts. To eliminate those pains, we are actively working on creating a dedicated list of places to sell our books into—and not necessarily bookstores—without having returns. We’re looking to branch out, so if we can shelve our books at a bar or food truck or whathaveyou and know that the relationship we build is as solid as the sale, then I will be happy.
Unsolicited Press recently shifted to a self-distribution model with in-house sales reps who target nontraditional sales channels. What led to this decision, and what kind of results have you seen so far?
The major factor in this decision is two-pronged: better profit margin and tapping into markets where our readers are when they are not in a bookstore. Bookstores are disappearing. We love them, and we certainly support the ones in Portland that are champions of small press books, but how many of those can you count on to stock your books?
A better profit margin is really needed right now as fees for warehousing, distribution, and printing rise. I don’t even mean to make a ton more money; what I want is to be able to pay our authors what they deserve. They all work so hard writing, and it’s hard to explain that we net $2-4 on a book. I respect booksellers and distributors, but they are taking a lot of slices of that pie, leaving the artist with crumbs. My dream would be to have authors who can say their passion is also what feeds them.
In terms of non-bookstore outlets. I love the idea of selling books into non-bookstore places. Doesn’t it make sense to shelve a novel about a florist at a floral shop? Sounds like a key reader to me. We aren’t there yet, but it is going to happen. I want our books to live in environments where they can thrive and be celebrated. I don’t want them to be hidden away on a small press shelf in a very large indie bookstore where no one ever ventures.
Can you discuss the challenges associated with getting books on the shelves and the impact of returns? How has your transition to a self-distribution model addressed these challenges, and what advice would you offer to other businesses in the publishing industry facing similar issues?
We are in the beginning stages of going full self-distro, so I can’t look back at this yet and be perfectly clear on it. We’re in that odd phase of a relationship right before you break up with your partner. It’s hard and an icky feeling because the standard is known and comfortable. But it’s also exhilarating and somewhat reassuring because I know we are making the right choice for our press. We’ve never been “normal,” and we have never been fans of the current book publishing traditions. It’s those traditions that keep small presses from surviving and, more importantly, it keeps exceptional authors from being discovered because their books are written for the masses.
But I think I can address shelving and returns with enough insight to partially answer this. Returns impact us the greatest. Imagine selling 1,500 copies in May, not getting paid until August, and then, come October, have 700 of those come back to you as returns. You must pay the retailer back in full. You also eat the cost of printing those copies because they never come back in a condition that allows them to be resold into another store. I’ve seen books come back with UPCs crossed out in Sharpie, covers ripped off … we had one returned to us with a smudge of blood. What am I supposed to do with that? And if we did opt to keep the books that are returned (blood and all), we would incur costs for that as well. So, we do not keep the books that get returned—we pulp them. No matter how you look at it, it is a loss. The solution to this? Nonreturnable book sales. This guarantees that the retailer ordering the book has a budget to afford it, and that they probably have a plan in place to sell that book to a reader.
And then this nonreturnable dream impedes shelving in an already hard-to-get-into shelf. As a small press, we cultivate relationships with independent bookstores to help get on the shelves. Sometimes this means having an author read and donating the profit from those book sales to the store as a thank you. Sometimes it means donating a shelf of books in return for guaranteed author events. And then sometimes it simply means we cross-promote each other on social media and at festivals. But if you are trying to break in, getting shelf space without returnability is tough. Getting shelf space at all these days is tough; you are up against million-dollar publishing conglomerates.
Are there any upcoming projects, strategies, or exciting developments you’d like to share with our audience that could give a glimpse into the future of your business?
We have several projects and items coming up in the next three years that will really help us continue our forward momentum. At the start of 2024, I will be starting a snarky publishing newsletter on Substack. It will be geared toward anyone in the writing industry. I will tell stories and share advice on making the small press thing work for so long (going on 12 years soon).
By the end of 2024, all our books will have an audiobook in addition to the paperback. That has been a long time coming. One of the things that I am most excited for is, in 2025, we will be publishing only books by womxn, something I’ve wanted to do for so long. Our team strives to publish projects written by the underserved and underrepresented. I can’t tell you how excited I am! We’ll have corresponding merchandise and, of course, a special 2025 book subscription package for the year.