The Corner Office: Change, Distribution Top List of Challenges for Indie Houses
It is a difficult time to be an independent book publisher. Fractured distribution models, soaring manufacturing costs, technology changing at breakneck speeds and the ongoing global recession are just a few of the threats coming at indies from all directions.
Despite all of these land mines, however, independent publishers continue to be a significant force in the marketplace. They accounted for up to half of the $37 billion in total net book publishing revenues in 2007, as reported by the Book Industry Study Group’s most recent “Trends” report, which compiles annual data on publishers’ net revenues and unit sales.
Keeping a watchful eye on their interests is the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). Formerly PMA, the trade group is home to more than 4,000 publishing members and the organizer of Publishing University, a three-day conference for independent publishers.
Florrie Binford Kichler recently served as president of the association. She is also founder and president of Patria Press, the Indianapolis-based publisher of the “Young Patriots Series”—children’s biographies featuring American heroes like Frederick Douglas and Alexander Hamilton. She spoke with Book Business about the challenging landscape facing independent publishers, the IBPA’s critical role in helping independent publishers thrive and her thoughts on the industry’s future.
• The Publishers Marketing Association ditched its PMA tag a year ago in favor of IBPA, expanding its mission in the process. How and why did the organization’s focus change?
Florrie Binford Kichler: … We actually began the journey to a new name in 2004 under the guidance of [former executive director, the late] Jan Nathan and President Kent Sturgis, when the board of directors, after months of discussion, consultation and serious thought, voted to change our name [from Publishers Marketing Association] to PMA, the Independent Book Publishers Association. We retained the PMA initially to ease the transition and then eliminated it last year.
… We changed the name to truly reflect our mission, which still includes, but has gone far beyond, marketing. Not only do we continue to provide marketing support and education to our members, but we have formally added industry advocacy to our mission in order to take a leadership role in positively influencing the publishing industry for the benefit of independent publishers everywhere.
We are independent publishers—and our association exists to support a thriving, vibrant and strong independent publishing community. To best serve our members, and all independent publishers, our name needs to reflect who we are and leave no doubt about why we exist. PMA is our history and our legacy, and it is thanks to that history that we are able to move ahead in a position of strength as IBPA.
• How is the IBPA responding to the various pressures that have resulted from today’s economic climate, and specifically, how is the association assisting its members in these troubled times?
Binford Kichler: The challenge for any association when times are tough is proving that the value of membership far exceeds the dues.
In the past year, we have completed a major overhaul and upgrade of our more than 30 benefits, which include discounts on services including marketing, promotion, distribution and more. Our marketing programs are also undergoing major changes in order to better meet our members’ needs as well as the requirements of an industry that is changing at the speed of light.
We are … in the process of a member outreach unprecedented in our association’s history. We know there are many more publishers we can serve, and we want to offer IBPA’s benefits, support, education and advocacy at all times—but especially when times are tough.
• Economic issues aside, what are the biggest challenges independent publishers face in 2009?
Binford Kichler: The biggest challenge all publishers face in 2009 (and beyond) is change. … “That’s the way we’ve always done it” just doesn’t cut it anymore in the brave new world of social media, content delivery—and even independent publisher trade associations!
As publishers, both large and small, I believe our struggle is less with the concept of change than with trying to figure out exactly how and what to change in order to be effectively positioned for the future. Is the best strategy really to throw it all against the wall and see what sticks? The jury’s still out.
• How has the distribution landscape for indie publishers changed in the last few years, and what should publishers be looking for most in a distribution partner today?
Binford Kichler: Last year, 400,000 books were published in the U.S. alone. When you consider that at the same time, the number of distributors willing to take on a smaller publisher is shrinking, you can understand why the No. 1 concern of the majority of our members is distribution—getting it, keeping it and figuring out how to make it work cost effectively.
As you can imagine, one of IBPA’s most popular marketing programs for our members is our trade distribution arrangement with IPG. … Our members have the opportunity they may not otherwise have for professional evaluation of the sales potential of their titles to the book trade.
As book sales migrate online and bookstores close, the implications for the current distribution model are anything but clear. In choosing a distribution partner, I would advise any publisher to look for financial stability, longevity, industry clout and experience, and most importantly, the ability to both recognize when change is needed and the willingness to adjust and adapt to that change.
• What would be your advice for indie publishers trying to weather this economic storm?
Binford Kichler: I write a monthly column for our association magazine, the Independent. Several months ago, the topic of my column was “Ten Tips for Tough Times.” My top three favorites are:
• Keep marketing. During a slump, cutting back on marketing is tempting. After all, if nobody’s buying anyway, why should you invest all those bucks to persuade people when they’ve already made up their minds? But assuming nobody’s buying is a slippery slope.
To cite just two examples, libraries must still serve patrons, and schools must educate children. Sure, budgets are being cut, but your challenge is to persuade buyers that your titles are the best value for their shrinking funds. When the economy (and budgets) recover, who do you think those same buyers will think of first? Certainly not those who lost touch with their customers.
• Explore new ways of slicing, dicing and repurposing your existing content. Think “outside the book.” Are your titles available as e-books? Kindle editions? Audiobooks? Large print? Can you offer your content for sale by the chapter? What about turning illustrations into calendars or note cards? You’ve already invested in the up-front creative costs—now’s the time to get creative with new income streams going forward.
• Join IBPA. Twenty-five affiliate groups around the country provide invaluable in-person networking opportunities, benefits save publishers’ money, online education programs allow publishers to increase their professional knowledge without leaving home, and cooperative marketing programs reach buyers at a fraction of the cost of going it alone.
• How are you positioning your own company, Patria Press, to go “beyond the book”?
Binford Kichler: Our “Young Patriots Series” of historical fiction for children ages 8-12 is available in audiobooks (CD and MP3), Playaway audio [a small audiobook player with digital content preloaded], all possible e-book formats and the Kindle. We have sold nonexclusive electronic rights to a large database that supplies libraries and will be seeking more electronic rights opportunities.
In addition, since each one of our books features the childhood of a famous personage in American history, we are always exploring publishing partnerships with associations/entities that have a relationship to one or more of our titles—for example, a historic site or birthplace.
The joy (and challenge) of being an independent publisher is the ability to “turn on a dime” to take advantage of opportunities—and the freedom to mine that niche that may be 2-inches wide, but 12-miles deep.