She Writes Press is already over a year old. Last time this year we were just signing new authors. My book was our first release in September; Lone Morch was second with Seeing Red in October 2012; and a whole slew of authors came after us in the spring of this year to total 30 published books in Year 1.
I’ve been too caught up with our new distribution deal to sit down and really think about what this year has taught me, so I figured it was about time to do a post on what straddling this hybrid publishing space has taught me.
Lesson #1: Metadata Is a Bitch
Once you decide that you’re not going to publish traditionally—either because you can’t or you don’t want to—this whole other space of indie, partnership, self, assisted, artisanal, and more opens up to you. We started out calling ourselves a hybrid press (and we still are), but we now believe “partnership publishing” is a better term for what we’re doing. As publisher, I quickly discovered was how difficult it is to make very simple changes (including formatting) on sites like Amazon, B&N, and elsewhere. This is why publishers (and some authors) are so obsessed with metadata, it turns out. And without a direct relationship with Amazon, which most traditional publishers have through their distributors, we were pretty much locked out. Authors could make changes to their own data, but we couldn’t do it on their behalf, as their publisher. Talk about having your hands tied. A friend and ex-colleague told me over lunch one day, “Amazon is author-friendly; they're not publisher-friendly.” It dawned on me for the first time that day (duh) that Amazon actually has an incentive to bar new publishing models from having easy ways to make changes to their metadata. After all, CreateSpace is a direct competitor for those authors who might otherwise seek out alternative models. And Amazon is king, no doubt about it. Love ’em or hate ’em, you need them, and yet it’s not a two-way street. Amazon, in no way, shape, or form needs me, or She Writes Press. And so the #1 lesson of Year 1. Collaborating with a partner who has a direct relationship with Amazon—and a data feed—is essential (and one of the many reasons we signed with IPS).
Lesson #2: Distribution Is Key
After the metadata meltdown I experienced this year came the problem of distribution. You can get extended distribution as a self-published author through Ingram (different than IPS), or CreateSpace. And you should ALWAYS opt into these programs, even when it means you’re going to make less than a dollar per sale of your book. Why? Because you want the possibility of being in bookstores, and this is specifically what it offers. But even though this extended distribution is great for authors in a lot of ways, it’s not traditional distribution. And our own distribution solution with a small distributor based out of Washington state was not traditional distribution. Having traditional distribution comes with a handful of cons: less flexibility and more cost being the top two. But the pros are pretty amazing. You have a sales force going out and pitching your books to major accounts; you gain legitimacy, which is key in an industry that is not super keen on the New World Order. Take note: Although LOTS of new publishing models are cropping up, there are not LOTS of new distribution models that are actually working, and with Amazon intent on being more friendly to individual authors than new publishers, I don’t see us making a whole lot of headway into changing the way books make it to the marketplace. In the past year our books were listed as out of stock on Amazon more times than I’d like to share. This is a distribution problem, because the third parties that feed Amazon (mostly Ingram) generally keep on hand very little inventory per title. When there’s sudden demand (as happened a few times with some of our authors this year), Amazon orders more. Great. But Ingram doesn’t have the quantity. Which means, when you’re dealing with a book that’s been printed offset and not print-on-demand (POD), that they then have to order books from the publisher. And there begins the delay, and the book showing as out of stock, sometimes for up to a week or more. Not good. Because Ingram is such a multi-tiered company, our new distribution arrangement pretty much ensures that we won’t run out of stock with Ingram, because it’s fed by its sister company, IPS. And since our POD is also with a division of Ingram, it’s a pretty streamlined deal. This is one situation where having all your eggs in one basket makes sense. And traditional publishers know this. The big guys do it all in-house, and the mid- to small-range publishers have relationships with the likes of IPS (Perseus and IPG being the main competitors). And here you have lesson #2. Having good distribution makes a huge difference, and I’m excited for She Writes Press to be stepping out of the darkness and into the light starting next month!
Lesson #3: Start Your Publicity Campaign Early
When I launched my own book last September, I decided to go for what I was then calling the “ripple effect” approach. This meant that I didn’t do any long-lead publicity. I just published the book and then when it came out I hired a publicist to do some pretty nuts-and-bolts outreach for me. She landed me some radio interviews. I got on local TV. I had some pretty good reviews from some outlets that already knew who I was because of Seal Press. I bugged a handful of people for Amazon reviews and that was worth it. Then in January I did a free giveaway on Amazon, opting into Kindle Select, which resulted in 2000 downloads of my book, and gave me a tiny boost in sales. What did I learn from all of this? The “ripple effect” approach is bullshit. It doesn’t work. If you want to sell books, you have to do a traditional publicity campaign, and that needs to start three months prior to your book coming out. You need to think like a traditional publisher. Surprise, the entire industry is set up to handle media and review requests in the same way it’s been doing for decades—by getting advanced copies of books and lining up their programming around the ideas, stories, and pitches they like. So lesson #3 is that doing publicity the right way does make a difference. With IPS, we will be required to create sales kits for representatives who will go out and try to sell our books to major accounts. And I will be encouraging authors to hire publicists, or at least to do a little bit of long-lead publicity (even if they do this on their own). That means getting advanced copies of the book, which is pretty easy to do thanks to POD, and sending them out with what’s called a galley letter. Not every book needs a traditional publicity campaign to be sure. If you have modest hopes for your book, or if you are using your book as a calling card for new business, meaning that sales are not as important as the legitimacy being a published author gives you, then honestly, mounting a big publicity campaign is not necessary. But if you’re using your self-published (indie) book to leverage your career, to be noticed by agents and traditional publishers, and/or to set yourself up for book #2, then you want to do a traditional campaign and start early.
I spent 13 years in traditional publishing before She Writes Press. In early 2012, if you’d asked me how traditional SWP was going to be, I’d have said not very. I thought we were entering into the throngs of the self-publishing revolutionaries who were forging new ground and creating new rules as we went. Well, it turns out that SWP has some innovative ideas (our three-track system and our vetting of manuscripts), but it also turns out that there’s a way things are done and have always been done. And as fast as publishing is changing, there are certain fundamental systems in place that are not going down because of the new guard. Review outlets like PW and Kirkus have moved past tolerating self-published authors and into accommodating them, but there are still two separate camps: traditional and everything else. My hope is that us inching our way toward traditional while still maintaining our indie status lets us have the best of both worlds. This is not about having our cake and eating it too. It’s about challenging the gatekeepers who say this book doesn’t get published even though the writing is superb, or, this book isn’t good enough for our list because no one wants to buy a book about grief, or trauma, or whatever the latest don’t-touch topic might be.
I’m excited about the future of SWP. And I have a bone to pick that comes in the form of challenging those critics out there who say that we are only vetting our projects “to a certain extent,” which I’ve read lately. This simply isn’t true. We put the vast majority of our books on Tracks 2 and 3, and the authors who want to work with us are ready to dig in and make their projects the best they can be. The most amazing thing about this year has been our inaugural group of authors, who took the risk to publish with a new company and who helped me each and every step of the way with their insights, flexibility, enthusiasm, and support. It’s because of them that we are gaining momentum and visibility as we enter into Year 2. Thank you all. You are an awesome bunch!
Pile of Books image from BigStockPhoto.com