In a world where small, independent business owners have been giving way to the likes of Wal-Mart or the seemingly ubiquitous Starbucks, there is one segment of society in which independents are on the rise.
Independent operations in publishing are swarming the market like bees on a honey-drenched hive.
The reason, some say, is due in part to advanced home technology, making the idea of becoming a published writer more accessible to the masses—specifically with the advent of print-on-demand, blogging, e-zines and other venues that allow sometimes even the not-so-literate to become self-described authors.
But high numbers do not translate to success … or books in print. The challenges for small publishers are numerous, and the road is rough. Major houses still reign, leaving independents struggling to overcome obstacles such as distribution and fulfillment, production and financing, and good subject matter.
On the other hand, the little guys' strong suit is in-depth or specialized materials focusing on a single subject—something the big guys won't touch.
Vying for Space
Hands down, the toughest challenge independents face is product distribution. Jan Nathan, executive director of PMA, the Independent Book Publishers Association, in Manhattan Beach, Calif., couldn't emphasize this enough.
"It's an extreme challenge because most of the major stores deal with a vendor of record, or wholesaler, from which they can place an order and get many different books from many different publishers," says Nathan. "There are just two main wholesalers: Ingram, and Baker & Taylor. Ingram predominantly sells to bookstores, while Baker & Taylor distributes to libraries."
While independents have at least some hope of getting into the library, via Baker & Taylor, Nathan says most cannot get sold through Ingram, which requires a publisher to have 10 or more titles in print.
Ten or more titles is the exception, not the rule, for small publishers, says Donald Wulfinghoff, publisher at Energy Institute Press, in Wheaton, Md.
To make matters worse, there are five major distributors with salespeople who actively sell into bookstores. "And to show you just how tight the market is, each [distributor] deals with a maximum of 300 publishers," says Nathan. "Literally, 1,500 publishers are being taken care of out of about 30,000 in the United States."
With the odds set against independents, getting books on the shelves takes some creativity.
"We are the guerrilla market. We look for places where books have not been sold before, like Victoria's Secret, The Home Depot or specialty shops . . . places that don't usually have books or [have] just a small amount of them," explains Nathan. Online catalogs and mail order companies are other avenues, she adds.
Tad Crawford, publisher of New York-based Allworth Press—which publishes books for the creative professional—adds to the sentiment of distribution woes, stressing that the environment for independents is demanding.
"To top it off, publishing is capital-intensive because it is the publisher that has to maintain inventory and handle all fulfillment," he says.
Too Many Hats
This fulfillment issue leads to another challenge for independents: the requisite to wear multiple hats to handle production, fulfillment and the technology that goes with it. This is difficult for many independents who are, in essence, writers, not computer wizards, marketers, nor, well … publishers.
At Energy Institute Press, Wulfinghoff says, "We produced the largest energy-efficiency manual on the market. Our book is 1,536 pages, weighs 81⁄2 pounds and costs $200 per book. The challenge in producing that book [was] that we were creating it in the late '90s with PageMaker," he recalls. "That was the era in which electronic publishing was still sorting itself out. Thank God digital has had a tremendous boon. For our next book, we handed the printer a CD-ROM and said, 'Here it is.' We had no horror stories because of luck and because we are meticulous, but other independent publishers do [still] have horror stories."
Wulfinghoff adds that the typical small publisher doesn't want to do the homework of learning details about postscripts and PDFs. But, he cautions, "Independents cannot be a success if they disdain certain details," he says.
Compounding the problem is the difficulty in obtaining adequate fulfillment. "The only saving grace is the Internet," notes Wulfinghoff. "Most small publishers would not be in business without the Internet because they simply could not distribute and promote otherwise."
Yet another element of independent publishing that can be an impediment is understanding and correctly utilizing related software, like Dreamweaver for publishing on the Web, suggests Wulfinghoff. "And … this has nothing to do with the subject matter being published," he says. "The reality is that the technology end of the business takes more time than writing."
Typically an author's royalties range from 5 percent to 10 percent, and these figures are getting lower. The reason: writing is a small part of what it costs to get a book out there, says Wulfinghoff.
For some independents, however, such added tasks are not an issue. According to Crawford, Allworth Press works with suppliers around the globe, delivering files to them via the Internet.
"Once you get ahead of the learning curve of this process, it is a tremendous advantage," says Crawford. "We are very careful with respect to production costs. We have a relatively high gross profit margin and keep administrative costs as contained as best we can."
On the upside of production, Nathan notes that once independents make a decision to publish a book, they can put it out within six months. "Major publishers can't do that under a year," she says. "There are too many levels of command."
Prevailing as Experts
The one issue that offers a major boost for small publishers is subject expertise. Megapublishers put out so many books, that they don't usually offer significant focus on a topic or niche area of publishing. But independents do.
"As such, they become experts in a certain field, and publish to the market of that field," says Nathan. "For instance, an independent might say it is going to focus and produce everything it can about eating disorders or pregnancy."
This is a great advantage in today's world, Nathan says, where people focus on specialized publications.
One example is Catbird Press, a North Haven, Conn., independent that publishes about four books a year and specializes in Czech literature in translation, and American and British fiction. Another is Camino Books Inc. in Philadelphia; founder Edward Jutkowitz started his press in 1987 out of a love for reading, and publishes about eight books a year on traveling, cooking, history and biographies related to the mid-Atlantic region.
Other areas in which independents are making their mark include self-help, cooking, health, children and young adult books, gardening and parenting.
"Our niche is production of high-end technical books appealing to a broad audience," says Wulfinghoff, whose company is another example of an independent that's found a niche. The company has focused for 25 years on energy efficiency, and he says, "Major publishing houses can't offer that kind of time and devotion."
Crawford adds, however, that as a niche publisher, it is a challenge to acquire titles that outperform average titles. "I can't say independents always know what the best titles are. For us, it is based on experience and lessons learned from mistakes," he says. "We do know that [some] of our niche areas are stronger, such as photography and graphic design books, and we have been [planning] to focus on them."
Despite the overwhelming challenges, Nathan believes that independents are on the rise in the world of publishing for a couple reasons. For starters, she says, during the mid-'80s, computers became affordable, and more people who had only dreamt of writing a book began to do so. In addition, independents are meeting the demand of a world obsessed with specialization.
"Picking up Spin"
To help them get ahead in the game, independents are doing something referred to as "picking up spin." According to Nathan, independents aspire to having 80 percent to 100 percent of their titles strong enough to be able to go from front list to active backlist. "We want that book selling [for] two to 10 years, to have longevity," she says, "whereas major houses have the ability to put many titles into the hopper with just one or two hitting it big."
As a result, she says, independents chew over every manuscript in search of good material coupled with the author's ability to help the publisher move into another marketplace.
"We ask questions like, 'Can the author do television talk shows? Who does the author know … whom we can bring into the fold?' " says Nathan. "This is what we call the 'spin.' We look for books that can [lead to] other products and venues. Books that might even sell other products like T-shirts, hats, clubs, etc. To spin out more than the book element."
Success, for many, in this competitive market really comes down to trying some unorthodox ways to reach new markets.
Sharon Cole is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer serving the print industry.