As I think about where we’re at in publishing today, the first thing that comes to mind is change. The potential Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster merger has been in the news for much of the year, leaving everyone wondering what it all means for publishers big and small and where the next M&A will be. And the last couple years of living in a pandemic have led us to a changed industry, as well.
There’s no more BookExpo America, Barnes & Noble has changed its buying practices, and so many of us are now fully working remotely without offices to go back to.
When I started to think about how I could contribute to the theme of this issue, I kept coming back to a saved Instagram post I’ve now come across more than once. It said:
Too many businesses suffer from FOMO when it comes to their marketing. “We NEED a podcast!” “We NEED to be on TikTok!” “We NEED video!”
Nope. Optimize what you’ve got first. Scale second. At first blush, this is just a smart approach to marketing. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s applicable to running a business in a climate of change.
When it seems like every aspect of our industry is morphing into something new, it can be easy to jump on all the wagons to keep up. Sure, you need to be nimble, willing to pivot, and possess a certain level of ingenuity (which is one of the beautiful aspects of indie publishing, IMHO!), but you don’t have to try everything if it means watering down your brand, creating chaos within your company, or spending dollars you don’t have.
In the sea of change, it’s OK to batten down the hatches and focus on what you do well. Add to that one, maybe two, areas where you’d like to take a shot at growing, plus some metrics for measuring their success, and you’re optimized. In other words, it’s OK to focus on what you’ve got now and scale later when the landscape has steadied or you’ve added more experience or information to your arsenal.
And this is where my next social media meme comes in. (Are you following The Marketing Millennials (instagram.com/the_marketing_millennials) yet?).
Play the long game! Working at indie publishers can sometimes feel like a startup world and, in some cases, indie publishers actually are startups. But I’ve always subscribed to the long game model, and I think it’s still possible to be an innovative startup with an eye toward the bigger picture. You just must be smart and strategic and stick to the plan.
So, here are four changes in the industry and some things that I keep in mind as I take it all in.
Consolidation of the large publishing houses is good for indies. The way I see it, with larger publishing companies merging, the door is pushed open even wider for indies to do what we do best: continuing to amplify the works of authors and illustrators whose work doesn’t fit the mold of a corporate publisher. And I think that pool will expand when corporate publishers combine and eliminate imprints, acquisitions teams, and budgets. They will become more reliant on guaranteed sales when acquiring authors and projects, leaving newcomers, debuts, and solid gold gems for us indies to discover. Consolidation also allows the rest of us to build out different publishing models that fill the gaps that large, corporate publishers can’t easily achieve.
What is going on with B&N, amiright? Barnes & Noble has hundreds of stores and should be a big important player for publishers. In the past, whole print runs have depended on the B&N preorder for new titles. The thing is, they’ve been tricky for indie publishers for the last few years. And the last year—between the pandemic and B&N’s new buying model, not to mention the rumor that they’re not buying debut authors in certain genres—has exacerbated the problem.
Here’s the thing, though. With so many ways for consumers to find books they want to buy, do we really need B&N the same way we used to? I’ve been working on focusing on what’s working for my authors at B&N, which is outreach to the local-to-that-author store for a buy and pushing sales for our books in other markets depending on the book’s audience—sometimes this means indies, gift stores, or even directly to consumers. If B&N ever becomes a major player again for indies, I’ll work on scaling up our strategy there. But until then, we’re focusing on our books and where they should be selling without fail.
There are so many trade shows (even without BookExpo) and marketing vehicles to choose from. I want to do them all! But with small indie teams, limited funds, and so many options out in the world, it can feel chaotic, frantic, and disjointed when you try to participate in all the opportunities at once. Not to mention comparing your company’s success to the outward appearance of success that a lot of visible marketing can create. Or, how about competing with the big budgets of big publishers. It’s important to focus on growth, but like the second tweet says, it’s a long game; there are no hacks.
In my marketing plans, I work on maximum exposure for the right price. If there’s an opportunity to send an e-blast directly to the audience for my book and it’s a little spendy, I’ll do it, but I’ll also make sure to get the list of everyone who clicked on the ad and I’ll include some sort of touch point for connecting directly with those eyeballs (like a review copy giveaway). If I want to go to a trade show that’s out of my budget, I’ll seek out lower-budget opportunities to participate: galley giveaways, tote bag inserts, a table within a larger organization’s space (hello, IBPA!). And one of my personal growth dabbling areas for the next year is applying some marketing practices from outside the book world to our book publishing models, like consumer direct marketing (mailings to prospected accounts, text messages, and automation on our email marketing tool).
4. Remote Work
Remote and hybrid models are here to stay, folks. The comment sections on articles about returning to the offices at the Big Five and how reluctant employees are to commit to the old model solidifies that. Some indie publishers were doing that pre-pandemic, which gives us a leg up in that respect. The cool thing about the whole world finally catching on to this trend is that there are so many tools and resources available to us to keep everyone on the same page. At my company, we use Airtable, DropBox, and the Google Office Suite, and it’s excellent. Every single thing I need to use for work is available to me no matter where I am. I can check a project in Airtable from my iPhone at my kids’ playground during school pickup!
While remote work has been the norm for the last two-plus years, it’s also felt sort of temporary. Like, at any moment everything is going to go back to the way it was pre-pandemic, but that’s just not possible. It’s time to start expanding how we’re working together in this new environment, adjusting to the new model, and setting ourselves up for the long game. As business leaders, it’s imperative that we have a growth mindset as we pursue new working models. And as employees, it’s important to understand the bigger picture when it comes to the way our businesses are run. The pandemic forced us to flip the remote working switch overnight, and now that we’re coming out of the strict lockdown life, it’s time to embrace and adapt to what we’ve learned.
I’m an optimist by nature, so I’m always inclined to look on the bright side of things. In the case of indies and the current state of the industry, I think we’re in a unique position to thrive. There may be a recession headed our way, and we haven’t quite landed on how remote life will work in the long run, but we have the tools to buckle down and pivot in order to come out the other side. The changes happening in our industry are to our benefit so long as we are willing to embrace them and play the long game.