What book publishers can teach us about the indie content biz

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The other week I went along to a Byte the Book event entitled How Are Independent Publishers Shaking Up The Book Industry? It featured four independent publishers talking about how they survive in a crowded marketplace.

There are a great many similarities for us as independents in the content business. The major question for these people is the same for us: how do we stand out from the clutter and be profitable?

There are the majors that dominate the publishing industry: HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and Hachette Book Group – like the large studios. And of course the biggest disruptor: Amazon.

It was a surprise to learn that, in the UK, a book of literary fiction is considered a success if it sells 254 copies!

Like many of us in the independent sector, a passion and love of storytelling was the motivation for getting into the business. Some had moved from big corporations and were tired of hearing “We tried that once and it didn’t work.” They wanted to use their enthusiasm to experiment with their own vision.

Here are some of the learnings I gleaned from the panel.

Pick a niche

Publisher Nicolas Cheetham from Head of Zeus said his company began in a very specific niche so they could focus their efforts. He had an idea about 10 years ago to feature Chinese sci-fi. It took some research, work and relationship building. He is now publishing four titles.

Knights Of, a small children’s publishing house, got its start about a month ago. Founders Aimée Felone and David Stevens, both veterans of the kids publishing industry, identified a lack of diversity for middle school kids. They’re looking to reflect the society we live in with known and unknown writers who bring characters to life for that audience.

Technology disruptor

There was a great deal of controversy about whether Amazon was a force for good or evil. For Head of Zeus, Amazon has been instrumental in its growth in allowing it to go global at a very reasonable cost.

Nicolas Cheetham’s view was that it freed them from being beholden to bookstores. As in our business, technology has allowed us to get closer to our audience and, in many cases, cut out the middle person.

For another publisher, Sam Jordison from Galley Beggar Press, technology like Amazon has moved him to be personally closer to his audience. He sees his business like a craft brewery for select audiences appealing to those who have a fear of missing out (or FOMO).

Galley Beggar Press had a break-out novel with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing adding to its appeal as a nurturer of new talent. Sam has created groups – Manuscript Buddies – to read the books prior to publication for a monthly fee.

Risks

Like us in development, each publishing project has its own potential failures. Some see the independent publishing scene as providing research and development for the corporate sector – of finding and grooming unknown writers or taking a chance on a new form of book.

In the UK they all expressed concern about the effects of Brexit on their businesses. Certainly they thought prices will increase. The uncertainty has reinforced the move to be much more global in their outlook for survival: a valuable reminder for us all.

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