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A New Way of Thinking and an Idea for Independent Publishers of All Sizes

A New Way of Thinking and an Idea for Independent Publishers of All Sizes

light-bulb-clip-art-Light-Bulb-Clip-ArtIn last week’s beat, I promised to share an idea regarding a way that indie small presses could potentially compete with Amazon. I will get there in today’s beat but let me first explain something else that I feel needs to happen in order for this idea to make sense. We need to rethink the way we visualize indie publishers (and for that matter all publishers/presses) within the world of literature.

Let’s use indie publishers for this example but this could just as easily be used to refer to publishers of all sizes — even the Big 5 if you take the word indie away from the following sentences. I propose that the dominant way that most of us think of the indie publisher is as an equivalent of an indie record label. The indie publisher/record label has its writers/musicians that it publishes/records. But that way of thinking about the situation is outdated in some ways. We need to start thinking of the indie publishers as being equivalent and on the same level as the musicians, not the labels. Questlove from the band The Roots gave an interview with Pitchfork magazine in 2011 that explains more clearly how we indie publishers need to start thinking:

The underground got a boost of adrenaline in ’97, which was when we started gathering all the artists we were associated with at MCA Records. The Roots realized that the only way for us to contextually make sense was that we had to have at least ten other acts who were like-minded. There’s no such thing as success on an isolated level. OutKast is associated with Goodie Mob and Organized Noise. There was the jiggy movement, the G-funk movement– everything from Sun Studios to the Motown sound had associated artists.

Like the musicians that Questlove is referencing in the quote, indie publishers must realize that “there is no such thing as success on an isolated level.” Sure you have a couple of titles from your press that have sold well, but what about all of your other titles? Even the Big 5 would do well to realize this. They can subsidize the publishing of poetry or “serious literature” with cookbooks or biographies or an occasional Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey but that model does not work very well for most small publishers.

Indie publishers especially would be wise to realize that “the only way for us to contextually make sense” is that “we need to have at least ten other acts who are like-minded.” If we start to think of indie publishers as the musicians, then an idea about what that means can start to form. So then what would be the equivalent of indie record labels in the publishing world if the indie publishers are the musicians? We’ll get there but first, let’s break it down…

The Problem:

Potentially, the most revenue for indie small presses comes from direct sales (hand to hand at a reading or in most cases now, a publisher’s website). Direct sales are based on publicity which in the case of most indie small presses takes time and money, and more time and money. In general, it is one of the hardest challenges that face any new or not yet reached peak popularity “brand,” which in this case is the small publisher.

However, books sold via third party distributor have the benefit of more publicity and the use of their resources, but a rather large percentage (45%+) is taken out for the distributor and other expenses (ex: Amazon, Small Press Distribution, etc…).

Question, is there a way for small presses to somehow work together to increase publicity/sell more books but without paying out a percentage to any place else or providing much more work/time spent for the small press? A way that would potentially enable small presses to compete with the distributors while keeping the highest percentage of a sale?

Answer, not currently but…


To make an online platform that is a presence on the web, that is the new indie record label equivalent, that sells/promotes only indie small press titles and acts as a:

  1. Marketplace- allows anyone to buy books from all indie small presses that participate. For instance, I could go and buy a book from Big Lucks and one from Publishing Genius and potentially even one from an international indie like El Gaviero Ediciones in Spain all at the same time, with only 1 order, with only 1 payment. The site would have a fully searchable database. The homepage could feature new books/writers from the participating indie small presses. Each book would have its own page. All orders would be through this website and then the individual publisher would be alerted to the sale.
  2. Resource- this could be the place for participating indie small presses to promote, sell, etc… and all details about the press could be controlled by each individual press.

This idea seems simple and there have been many similar ideas to this one but none have been implemented in this fashion (at least that I know of). I think the Lit Pub was originally supposed to do something similar to this when it started but for many reasons was not able to. But this is something that I have been working on/kicking around with a few indie publishers already (I have a domain name, some mock pages ready, etc…) and now I really want to focus on it.

Although this platform/website would be able to function as and do many things that a distributor does (ex: it could sell to bookstores, libraries, universities, etc…), this idea is not to start a new distributor. I don’t think it is necessary to have another warehouse with employees that ship out books. Those places already exist. I think this idea should take advantage of the fact that most all indie publishers already take orders and ship them out using their own website.

I also envision that this platform/website should allow the participating publishers to keep the same amount/percentage of their revenue that they now do through a direct sale on their website. There should be no difference revenue-wise between a direct sale on a publisher’s website and on this new platform/website. I think this sort of thing can work. That is the big picture. The smaller details are many and they are things that I have been pondering as well for the last year but most importantly, I think that this idea, this platform/website can serve as the indie record label and give all participating indie publishers their context. But this is not an easy thing to realize, this may take a lot of time, a lot of effort before it catches on. I am not claiming this to be an instant fix.

There is much more to discuss and think about and I welcome such a discussion in the comments section of this post (preferable so everyone could participate). So if you are interested in the books world, say you run/work at an independent press or as a web developer and want to participate in this then now is the time to share your thoughts. Feel free to tell me why you think it will/won’t work and to shred, question, otherwise tear it to pieces in the comments section below. I hope this is the start of something.

Jeremy Spencer

Jeremy edits The Scrambler (an e-zine) and Scrambler Books (an independent publisher of books) out of Sacramento, CA.

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About The Author

Jeremy Spencer

Jeremy edits The Scrambler (an e-zine) and Scrambler Books (an independent publisher of books) out of Sacramento, CA.

  • Won’t the primary issue be finding someone who wants to maintain the website & pay for hosting without compensation? Seems like that’d be the hardest issue–even if it’s open-sourced editing like a wiki, someone still has to be paying the bills. Otherwise i’m all for this.

    • Jeremy Spencer

      Yes that is an issue. I was planning on being that person for set up/maintenance. But you are right about the hosting fees, etc…was thinking of something like it is divided up between the publishers, if hosting/domain name was say $300 per year divided by 15 publishers wouldn’t be too bad —$20 per publisher per year.

      Or something like I can charge a $5 fee for adding a new title if the publisher doesn’t want to do it themselves and that can go to the hosting fees.

      • Why would hosting be that expensive? I’ll host it for free. If the site outgrew my meager Deluxe Hosting plan, well, that’d be a good problem.

        The site will require real technical knowhow and a manager (intern) to divvy up payments on a regular schedule.

        But what about sites like 0s & 1s, which seems to get at what you’re talking about in terms of the musician model? Are they seeing a lot of traction?

        How curated would this be? Could anyone just sign up?

        • Jeremy Spencer

          I was thinking of using something like Shopify which is where I got those figures. And that would be the absolute most. But you are right, makes more sense to host it with one of us.

          I think Os & 1s is good and all, but they still take a percentage (they are an outside company, a distributor) even if it is smaller than other distributors. I want to get away from that all together. We have the tech for this, we just have to do it.

          I think initially (so we can work out all the kinks, etc…) it needs to be curated to around 15-20 publishers, maybe no more than 25. I have a feeling there is a sweet spot regarding the number of publishers. But on the other hand, it has the potential to include any and all indie publishers.

        • Jeremy Spencer

          And regarding the divvy up of payments, we can use something like PayPal Adaptive Payments that does this automatically.

  • This *is* an idea that has popped up a few times, but that’s because it’s an appealing idea.

    You could incorporate the business as a nonprofit and then raise a small amount of money to cover the site’s costs (i.e. hosting, domains, intern store credit, corporation filings & taxes, or whatever). That said: nonprofit paperwork and upkeep is a pain in the ass.

    Here’s the thing: Amazon is great, and people want to buy shit on Amazon, because A) everything is cheaper on Amazon, B) free shipping (for the most part), and C) Amazon’s payment flow/setup is so incredibly accommodating and fast. I think that this project would have to feature at least B, and probably A. Simply: I think that one of the only way to sell more books is to make the books cheaper and to make paying for them very easy. The former—selling the books for cheap(er)—will require a lot of footwork, because so many small presses price their books so as to recoup costs. That said, anything’s better than the $150 yearly SPD fee and/or Amazon Advantage’s horrendous cut.

    Also: if the goal is to promote “increase publicity/sell more books”, then maybe this project should have an intern-run sales staff. Distributors have them—presumably, SPD does—but I get a sense that SPD’s sales staff does very little to, you know, actually pitch to bookstores. Perhaps this company could reach out directly to booksellers and bookshop owners via social media, get chummy, and then set up beneficial terms for those bookstores.

    Regardless, count me and Sator Press in for the experiment.

    • Jeremy Spencer

      Thanks Ken and I will definitely add Sator Press to the list. I guess the original “goal” for this idea was basically to get more “direct sales” and not have to deal with a 3rd party (be it a distributor, Amazon, etc…) And since a sale on this website would be equal to a direct sale for a publisher the books could be discounted more re: your example A (say like selling a book at a reading for $10 that is regular price $15)

      I also really like the idea of reaching out to bookstores, libraries, etc… and establishing relationships with them on behalf of all of the publishers that are taking part. Hopefully this site would/could be like you said a “sort of stamp of authority for Good Indie Books that booksellers could
      occasionally consult and order from to stock their however-robust indie

      I agree too that SEO is key.

  • Elizabeth Clark Wessel

    I love the idea of small presses working together in aggregate, but the part I’m confused about is how this website would reach more people than the press’s own website? Where do the new buyers come from? How does this increase the market for your books?

    • Jeremy Spencer

      Hi Elizabeth, Yes, I agree that publicity is always the hardest part. I guess I envision this as a place for someone that is looking to buy books from different indie publishers but instead of going to 3 different publisher websites, can just go to this one site. I think at the beginning, you are correct that it would be hard work to get people aware of the site but it may be easier if each publisher publicizes it as the place to buy their books at.

      So if a customer that already knew that they wanted a certain book and went to this site to buy it, they would then also see other books by like-minded publishers and writers that they might be interested in. I am working under the assumption that people that buy books from one of these publishers already, would at least be interested in buying books from other publishers that are similiar. At the beginning, this site would probably cater to people that especially wanted to support the publisher and writer directly, just as now when they buy a book directly from a publisher’s website.

      • Elizabeth Clark Wessel

        Jeremy, Thanks for explaining! I think that kind of website could definitely make a small impact if it was designed in the right way. Especially if it was integrated somehow into the shopping platforms of every presses website (as in when you go to ‘shop more’ it automatically takes you to this group website, or perhaps suggests books by other presses when you put something in your cart).

        Another angle to think about is a subscription system. I’ve always thought that Emily Books was really interesting as an experiment and well curated. I have no idea how successful it’s been as a business, but it’s still going, so that’s something.

        • Elizabeth Clark Wessel

          Or maybe it would make a big impact!!

        • Jeremy Spencer

          Yes, I think you are right about that. It could be as simple as having the presses link their Buy buttons directly to that same book page on this site (if that makes sense). So then you would actually be buying the presses books from this site but you could be entering from the presses site. Then once you put it in your cart from this site, it would have those other features such as suggested purchases, etc… And yes, I think the subscription model would be very interesting as well and could be used. There could either be already subscriptions of books by a variety of participating presses or the buyer could choose their own. That is a good idea.

          Also, I sent you an email to introduce myself and ask if you and Argos Books would be interested in participating but I may have sent it to the wrong email. Email me if you are interested:

        • Jeremy Spencer

          And actually, I was thinking of inviting Emily Books as well and thinking of how they could fit in. Although really with this site, publishers could sell books in any format – print, ebook, audio, etc…

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