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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 But that way of thinking about the situation is outdated in some ways.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…

The IDEA:

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.

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