Deciding What Books to Publish
This an excerpt from my talk on spiritual book publishing at a recent Book Expo America. This is the third of four parts, starting with Book Sales and Marketing For Spiritual and Mission Driven Publishers (Part 1) .
Given that you have established your goal, what do you publish? Because we are here talking about sales and marketing, the truth is that sales and marketing starts at the level of product development, sitting around the acquisitions table making decisions. So, the core is your publishing plan.
The purpose of your plan is to define your niche. As a small press the path to survival is to find your niche and dig in. I can’t stress that enough. You find 15 different ways to deepen your niche and find people all of who which belong in that niche. Everything you publish wants to reinforce your niche, try not to spread away from that but be very specialized. You want to be in business 20 or 30 years from now and selling backlist and the key to that is publishing quality. What ever you do publish quality. Go for the best teachers, the best and the purest information.
So I am going to digress for a moment on the topic of the publishing plan because I have found that many people don’t have a clear concept of it. Map out your subjects across the years in terms of A, B and C titles, i.e. by rates. Allocate out how much you want to spend on marketing and the cost of running your operation and come up with a profit forecast. This is the big picture of your program. In the end while snazzy publicity and promotion is all very well it is this sheet (the publishing plan) that determines whether you succeed or fail at what you are doing. This is the top down approach and it is crucial to have this big picture.
The other side is the bottom up perspective. Your plan is also built one title at a time. Sitting around the acquisitions table and asking yourself, “Do I or don’t I publish this?” What have we got here. I urge you to write down for a particular book what it is going to cost. What is your pre pub, what is the printing cost, how much are you going to spend on publicity. Add up all your costs and estimate how many you going to sell for the year and the likely revenues. Work out from this your profit and loss. Are you going to make a buck on it for the year or for two years.
Incidentally you are not going to know how it is going to do until it is out in the marketplace for a year. It takes that long and that is a very good rule of thumb.
The best time to launch is at the BEA for the fall season. Because the fall is the biggest season. It is an excellent time to do a launch. So at that time sitting at the acquisition table that’s the time to look at your positioning, your hook, your promotional plan, and making your decision if the book has meat in it. Whether it’s going to set the world on fire. If it’s not strong it’s important not to publish marginal books. You only create problems for yourself. However, now as events are moving quickly, there are two new ways of publishing books on the edge which are low cost and get them out there. These are e-books which I will talk about later. There are some very exciting developments that I will tell you about. And, secondly print on demand which is a minimum of 25 books. It will cost you about 50% more to print a book that way. If you price by a multiple of 5 to 8 times your printing cost you are going to increase the cover price of that book by 50% or so. But, it is a way of making it available where otherwise it might not be available. So these are the decisions you make at the foundation level.
Let’s now look at the issue of profitability. You may be non-profit organization that operates by grants and other sources of funds. For them publishing is a loss-leader for the organization. The way they make their money is they get the word out about who they are and then they receive donations and legacies. So they make their money by going to the post office box and receiving a large number of donation checks. The publishing program feeds that cycle of keeping the checks coming in. They don’t make their money from books sales per se. And it means that they have a bit of an unfair advantage in the marketplace because they are not concerned about profits. So they will spend extra money on marketing and promotion doing things that the for-profit publisher just can’t afford to do. I will come back to how the for-profit publisher can handle that.
So when you have to do your “C” titles, I urge you to be very tight about those: modest budget, focused marketing plans and small print run.
For books that your organization mandates that they have to sell, if you are a small press either look at getting subsidies for them or don’t publish them. The easiest money to raise is for publishing a specific book. It’s often not too hard to find a patron out there who will write a check to underwrite the cost of getting it out there. Incidentally, 90% of all funds raised in the whole non-profit world come from individuals.
Again around profitability, it is possible to do promotion minimally. I will give you an example. Pomegranate in California publishes among other things spiritual art and coffee table books that sell for $65 each. They do zero promotion: no review mailings, no author events. All they do is get the book in the store at $65 each. And that is a viable strategy for them and for that type of book. That way you can really keep your costs down.
The idea in selecting what you publish is to have a fountain of opportunities so you can pick and choose. You are waiting for that opportunity to come along that gives you the edge in the marketplace. Now to create that fund of opportunities you need a flood of manuscripts coming through. The way you bring that about is to have a newsletter that describes what you are looking for and put it out there. You have a database of your authors and wannabe authors, friends of the press and anyone who is a possible candidate. Run an ad in the writer’s magazines describing what you do and that you are looking for potential writers. When they get in touch add them to the database. The acquisition editor creates the newsletter, gets it out there and manages the relationships so you have that torrent of manuscripts coming in.
When you are choosing what to publish you want to be aware of where your sales will happen. I am going to give you the profile of a typical medium size press. For them 30% of their sales go to in house groups, special sales, book clubs and so forth. 20% are direct mail to the in-house list. So a full half of their sales go to their established market that they just sell to fairly routinely. The other 50% go to the trade and of that only 8% is sold to independent bookstores. That is really a shockingly low figure because you want to be careful when you are looking at your numbers that you are not putting a disproportionate amount of dollars or effort in that direction if it is not being reflected in your revenues. I am sympathetic to bookstores, I used to own one. You need to be a realist when you are making your choices. Then of the balance half of what is left is sold to the chains and the other half goes to on-line bookstores predominately amazon.com.
This is the other extraordinary thing that on-line stores, mainly amazon.com are matching all the sales of the national accounts Barnes and Noble, Borders and so forth. What is extraordinary about this too is that the rate at which on-line stores are growing you have to put your attention there. One of the things you can take away from here is that you really need to master the on-line promotion. I’ll give you a simple example, when someone buys from amazon.com and they log on, they are prompted about a couple of books immediately. So you need to work it with amazon, that anyone who has bought a book of yours that when they log on again it is your books they are presented with. There are all sorts of intricacies in dealing with companies like amazon.com. It is an incredible bureaucracy.
As a mission driven publisher editorial is the greatest challenge, setting the right framework. Your sales and marketing is driven by the content. I am saying the same thing sixteen different ways. Publish to deepen your niche, publish quality, go for content. What this means then as a small press your sales rep turns up to Barnes and Noble and the buyer says let’s talk end caps, let’s talk co-op. Your sales rep says, “no I am here to talk books. We don’t have money to spend on that. We’ve got good books, we’ve got quality, we want you to stock our books.” That’s how you take your position in the market place is by having quality. Be aware of the number of books out there related to what you do. So in choosing how to get your edge in the marketplace the question is what’s hot, how do you find out what’s hot. You look at the bestseller lists, the trends, talk to your sales reps, ask them where they see opportunities in the marketplace. Talk to your buyers, pass the word to them, talk to bookstores staff. Also, when you are traveling look at magazine covers, they will tell you very clearly what the trends are.
The Promise Keepers heralded a great surge in the Christian market. It was all over Newsweek. So be aware as a small press of your advantages in the marketplace. Incidentally the emphasis has shifted over the last few years. it used to be that seven out of ten of all books sold came out of New York houses. That is now completely reversed. It is down to about three out of ten. Small and medium size presses are getting a much larger share of the market than ever before. It is also related to the fact that there is a deluge of books. And the core problem in publishing is that there are too many books out there.
The highest function for you editorially is for you to anticipate trends, create them, develop markets, publish what people haven’t thought of yet. Be bold, thoughtful, turn people on to new ideas. That way the demand for books will always be there and the need for hand selling by independent stores will also be there because they understand how to do this the best. You have people hungry for this going into independent stores because that is where they have been nurtured and fed. The goal is original quality paperbacks in original quality stores. That is the way to the marketplace. Another way of saying this is, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” So in going for quality: hone in and publish the essence of your message.
Within all of this there is a trap. You build a devoted constituency of direct mail sales then they expect your product to be a certain way. However, you have been here today listened to me. Now you want to go back and make your list sexy for the trade, jazz things up a bit, reach new markets. The risk is that you will alienate your core people. How do you do cutting edge stuff without risking alienating your core readers or buyers.
Paul Cohen at Anthroposophic Press held a series of revisioning meetings where they arrived at how Rudolph Steiner is the leading edge intellectual paradigm of today. That was the conclusion that they reached. And in that way they found that they could be focused and get in more deeply with Rudolph Steiner’s ideas but also how they could be expansive and be on the fringe and reach these other markets waiting to be tapped. They got the buy in of the organization and the following about this reinventing of themselves. This is the solution of how to be at the edges. Reinvent yourself and do the soul searching of what you are about going deeper in and being able to spread out.
The truth is that any teaching worth its salt can position itself as the intellectual paradigm. A good friend of mine Tim Campbell points out that in the pictures of the ancient Pharaoh’s the pharaoh is followed by an ape. The ape would mimic and mock the pharaoh. This is where the phrase to ape comes from. Because the pharaoh had absolute power the ape would keep him humble by mimicking and mocking every step of the way. Similarly if you in pursuing your spiritual path and ramming it down people’s throats whether they want to hear it or not you become a parody of yourself. So you need to be pure about what you are about and the key is to be intimate with everyone you do business with. The way you convey your teaching is through your beingness. So you are open and intimate with your reps, buyers and vendors. This is what we are about, what you see is what you get. And in a way it can be refreshing compared to the way some of the larger publishers do business and the whole corporate thing. This is an edge for you in the marketplace. You would be surprised at the impact you have on people you do business with by coming from a deep place within yourself. People recognize it immediately
I want to touch on this quality aspect of marketing. How do you hone in on what you are about, how you describe yourself? The key in the marketing world is to go to your heavy hitters, i.e. go to the people who are the core followers, the strongest disciples, the strongest students and ask them what are the key concepts that do it for them. That is what you want to put in your promo material, your back cover, your introductions etc. That is what will trigger people.
Another way is to use bounceback cards in your books to invite people to respond. Ask them anything you want. (As an aside I want to stress using author photos whenever you can. People lock into the picture of the person who wrote the book. One of the things that is underrated in selling books is the role of the author. You want to expand on that wherever you can. Get as personal as you can about the author as well as their credentials. It is a point of leverage.)
See if you can offer a complete spiritual package. The British Buddhist publisher Tharpa offer a series of books from the beginning Buddhist practitioner through to enlightenment. You can buy something like eighteen books and put them on your book shelf and you have your work cut out for you right there. Interestingly of all those books that they publish, their bestselling title as is the case for many publishers is the title on meditation. So if you want a book that is going to have core book sales this is almost a sure bet.
Try to go after your primary niche in non-traditional ways. Look at how they eat sleep and breath. What do they read, what do they think, where do they hang out, who do they talk to and try to reach them that way. You won’t get a real good response from somewhere like Publishers Weekly because they are traditional and very New York house.
Once you have got into the market that you have identified, when you have that down begin building one market at a time. Don’t try tackling them all them at once.
Now with the warehouses–we are talking Sam’s, Target, Costco etc.–you can get a mock up to the buyer and say to them if you will take 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 I will go ahead and produce it. With that kind of guaranteed sale under your belt factor in an average of 50% returns and come up with your price. Once you have made that arrangement with the buyer you have 60 days to deliver.
So as you are selecting what to publish think about end use. “End-use” is a key phrase. The teacher Gurdjieff used to say to his students “Don’t ask me a question unless an answer is going to change how you live your life.” I urge you to publish books in that vein. When looking at a book ask yourself how is this going to change the reader’s life. Good publishing is governed by two maxims uttered by the Oracle of Delphi several thousand years ago. The oracle said “Know thy self” and “To thine own self be true”. That is what we are about: Know your teaching and don’t settle for any weak expression of it. Be true to that because you are the Holy Grail of your teaching. You are the cup for all the people who want to find out about it.