Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Small Publishers and Foreword Magazine

Foreword Magazine is celebrating their 10th anniversity and they asked me to write something on the changes I have seen in the past 10yrs or so.

Many years ago I attended my first BookExpo conference in Miami. On subsequent visits ever since, the rows upon rows of independent publisher booths have both awed and discouraged me. I have frequently said to friends and colleagues that as a reality check anyone considering establishing a publishing company should attend a BookExpo before committing dollar one. For many (myself included), there is a romantic notion attached to publishing which isn’t entirely undeserved; however, a trip through the aisles will prove that the unique idea you thought you had for the ideal publishing house or list is represented multiple times perhaps even in the same aisle.

At Bowker I saw a relentless procession of new publishers adding their information to Books In Print. Each year we saw approximately 10,000 new applications for ISBN numbers and these applications were fairly constant between the mid-1990’s and 2002. At the turn of the century, the numbers of new applications began to grow inexorably and is most likely well over 12,000 by now. The growth in self-publishing and the democratization of the publishing process is to ‘blame’.

In 2005, (if I recollect correctly from my Bowker years) 18 publishers produced almost 40,000 titles and 13,000 publishers produced 77,000 titles. (Including all titles the number published in 2005 was 180,000 give or take). On average, each of the 13,000 publishers published less than 10 titles per year. While these numbers reflect one year (2005) the data was proportionate to the entire Books In Print database of 5mm titles and 165,000 publishers. To emphasize the breadth of suppliers, I have heard Barnes & Noble say they order at least one title from 45,000 publishers in any given year.

All new publishers and existing independent publishers publish in every niche imaginable with lists ranging from one title to several thousand. Each publisher knows their market is intensely competitive and that titles will never be successful unless they are supported by an intensive focus on marketing and promotion. Naturally, some do this better than others.

There are significant challenges that small and medium publishers must overcome; getting their titles noticed is the greatest. At Sourcebooks, the company has adapted traditional advertising and marketing principles and applied them to the book industry. The results are instructive (and impressive). At the core of their business model is the understanding that each new title is a ‘product’ which requires a specific marketing and promotion plan. (Marketing’s four ‘p’s: product, promotion, price and place). At Sourcebooks, the difficult questions regarding how the title will be marketed and promoted are asked at the adoption stage rather than applied by rote as the book is being printed. Sourcebooks is a proven example that publishing can be done successfully by approaching the business less as an avocation and more as a market driven business. In order to be successful, more small and medium sized publishers will need to adopt similar programs to support their publishing efforts.

Other challenges abound. For example, we may begin to see the self-publishing model begin to impact the available pool of authors. Many authors may come to realize they can produce and promote their own title(s) and make more money rather than work with a traditional publisher. It has long been the case that the success of any title was dependent on the level of self-promotion provided by the author: As manufacturing and editing become commoditized, the author may wonder what a publisher’s value add will be if the titles’ success resides entirely on their promotional abilities. More authors may decide to do it themselves.

All businesses evolve and publishing is no exception; I see more and more independent publishers begin to adopt better financial controls, better marketing and promotion and make more astute title selections. While some significant challenges have occurred over the past 20 years – publisher consolidation, retailer consolidation, a reduction of independent bookstores – there have also been some impressive positive improvements. Opportunities represented by more effective use of technology, digital distribution and online advertising should all be experimented with, embraced and adapted to the publishing model. I also believe we will see more small and independent publishers seek out and work with some of the self-publishing companies (Author House, Lulu) where each supports the other’s business model. There remain opportunities in the independent publisher market: Look for me in the aisles in Los Angeles.

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