Independent publishers get their start in many different ways. As an author of knitting and DIY books for large publishers, including Chronicle, Ten Speed Press, and several divisions of Random House, I was fortunate to observe some of their inner workings and gain a large amount of experience quickly, moving from house to house as I wrote, publishing a dozen titles in less than four years. What I experienced and learned led me to form Cooperative Press, which currently has about 40 titles in its backlist, all published since 2010. Over the past decade in publishing from both sides, I’ve learned that the extinction burst is just starting to hit critical mass, and we need to rethink our strategies and partnerships if we want to survive. Goodbye dinosaurs, hello furry mammals. What’s an extinction burst? It may sound Paleolithic (and despite the recent popularity of “Paleo” titles, that’s not always a good thing), but it’s actually a behavioral psychology concept in which a given behavior becomes significantly worse before it improves or goes away. Children’s tantrums are the usual example. If you regularly buy candy bars to calm your children in the grocery store, but decide to stop doing so, they’ll scream even louder for candy before eventually giving up. That is an extinction burst. The modern publishing industry still wants its candy, but independent publishers have a cart full of vegetables, and they’re much better for you in the long run.
Accessing the Right Readers
One of the best “vegetables” we have at our disposal is better customer access, via both social media and direct-to-consumer sales. That helps us know our markets more thoroughly, and it gives us the ability to respond to changing conditions faster. Why is this important? Let me tell you about the last conversation I had with an acquisitions editor before starting Cooperative Press. We were negotiating terms for selling single patterns from my book on a specialty website dedicated to knitting that had millions of active members. The short version of the editor’s response was, “We can’t do that, because we’ve never done that before.” My reasoning? “If you do it, you’ll earn more money without any extra work; you’ll increase sales; and you’ll get free publicity for the book. Most readers will just go buy the print edition if it has more than one or two patterns they like inside.” “But we can’t.” This went on ad infinitum until I finally walked away from the deal. Frustrating! When I discussed putting one of my already published books onto the (then-new) Kindle platform, I got a yawn from my editor at the trade show we were attending, an actual physical yawn. You can probably guess what happened next. Releasing single patterns? The publisher started doing it years later, but in places where the people in the target audience weren’t buying patterns—just the kind of chaotic attempt that signals an extinction burst. As for a Kindle version of the other book, fortunately the text of my ancient contract saved me. When I was asked to sign a new contract and give up all digital rights in the middle of an existing full-rights reversion negotiation, I refused. Too little, too late. Authors like me were walking away. In the meantime, I’d started Cooperative Press, and built into the fabric of the company the things that today’s authors and readers want and need to have to create satisfying, uplifting publishing and reading experiences. Through a small press, I could deliver the connection and customization that readers wanted. As for digital? All our print book purchasers receive a PDF copy of their books immediately, sans DRM. We even gift copies of the books into their personal libraries on that knitting social network, so they never have to worry about losing a file. Not to mention, they see our books every time they flip through their collections, a gentle way we use to stay at the top of their minds that’s virtually free for us to offer, requiring only minimal staff time. (We’re working on a way to automate the process with software, and then it will be totally free.)
Along with having better customer access than the giant publishers, smaller publishing companies can effect real change as publishing innovators if they make the right connections. In researching an article I recently wrote for an American Libraries magazine supplement on digital content, I found that we have more and more options for making content available to a wider audience. That article focused on library use, so programs from OverDrive, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram were front and center. But the Ann Arbor District Library has started contracting directly with publishers and other content providers to make their material available to patrons, whatever it may be. For example, author Anna Hrachovec, who writes about knitting, has licensed 20 of her standalone patterns, which would normally retail at $5 apiece and up, to the AADL. She sees this as a good way to access patrons who may not already know her work and to get fees at the same time. When the story of her licensing deal was picked up on a popular Facebook group for librarians, AADL benefited from increased publicity. It was win-win-win, Hrachovec says. The long tail is real, and we’re the ones controlling it every time we produce a book that is specialized or otherwise considered “niche” content. Our power lies in the ability to market directly to specific audiences, or serendipitously find the right audience through the quality of our offerings, without worrying about pandering to what a marketing department feels is a big enough audience. Lowest common denominator content helps no one. Often a book is a hit because it reaches the right people at the right time due to factors outside our control. You can assist the process by tapping into what readers are currently enjoying. When we started publishing our fiction line, the rising popularity of both the TV show Vikings and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books certainly didn’t hurt Beautiful Wreck, our Viking-themed time travel novel. How did we reach out to that specific fandom quickly and take Beautiful Wreck to the top 10 Historical Romance books on Amazon? We leveraged existing relationships with the knitting community that Cooperative Press and author Larissa Brown had built over a decade of responsive, small-press-like behavior. Larissa had written knitting books prior to her novel, and had an existing online fan base, so we offered free copies of her Viking-themed patterns to readers who purchased the novel and forwarded their receipt to our autoresponder. We offered a second freebie for users who forwarded links to the reviews they’d written. And we specifically asked our thousands of mailing list subscribers, Twitter followers, and Facebook fans to buy the book within a certain time period in order to qualify for the giveaways. After that, Beautiful Wreck shot up in the online rankings on an hourly basis. Once it hit the top in multiple popular genre categories, it caught the eyes of the people we didn’t know, and it continues, a year later, to expand its reach. Our flexibility is our biggest asset. We don’t have to worry about how things were done before, because we can quickly retarget our messaging and campaigns using low-cost, ultrahigh-touch technology. Curated e-mail lists such as The Fussy Librarian and BookBub can deliver genre-specific recommendations for independently published e-books right to readers’ inboxes. We’ve used those lists, as well as lists of targeted subgroups inside our own mailing list to reach the right people, not all people, at very reasonable cost. People who knit socks may also knit shawls, but they will probably prefer one to the other. Whatever topics you publish likely have similar categories to drill into, so use them. If you try to make a book right for everyone, you lose the attention of those who really do want or need it.
A Simple Recipe for Success
Eat your vegetables. Get strong. Beat the old-school publishers at their own game by focusing on what you do best, and let the quality of your work speak loud and clear as you forge new partnerships and connections that will take you closer to your readers than you ever thought possible. That may be through direct-to-consumer sales, library lending, or even reviewers, and any number of other ways to connect. Exhibit at trade shows with IBPA. Go where your readers go (we spend a lot of time on the road talking with knitters at conventions, watching them interact with our books in person, and finding out why they purchase the books they do). Well-defined networks are what will propel you forward in the next decade, and we’ll be right there with you, chomping a carrot or two.