Talking Small Press with Joe Pan
The following is what I have so far (hopefully there will be more) of an interview/conversation via email that I am currently having with Joe Pan, managing editor/publisher of Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP). In case you haven’t heard, recently BAP did a “pay as you go” promotion for Noah Eli Gordan’s latest book, published about a month ago. That’s the setup.
JS: In the Flavorwire interview that you gave earlier this month, you said “Plateauing poetry sales kicked my ass into a higher gear, but I’m always attempting to figure out new ways to expand our readership.” What exactly do you mean by the plateauing part? That you were noticing that for all of your books (regardless of author?) that the pre-orders were plateauing or the total number of books sold was hitting a plateau?
JP: Well, first of all, poetry book sales vary widely, for all sorts of reasons. Just over a third of our poetry books have gone into second printings, which means two thirds did not. We try similar things for each book: we take them to conferences, we send copies to teachers in hopes that they’ll teach them, we send review copies to reviewers. Over the past few years we even began experimenting with online & print advertising, but it seemed that no matter where we targeted our marketing, how many reading copies we sent out, reviews we received, or money we sunk into advertising space, the life of the book followed a certain timeframe—we sold a small number of books in presale & some more around the pub date, then sales died out, reinvigorated here & there by conferences. That is, there is the initial escape velocity followed by a plateau & steep descent. (I come from the Space Coast of Florida, so if I don’t get a rocket metaphor in there somewhere, I’m not doing my people service.) Now, that said, some books fare very well at conferences, & these books are often the ones that require second printings. We also tend to do very well with poets who shore up a lot of readings. These are authors who sell their author copies at readings & then purchase copies from us at a reduced rate; this cycle continues, basically, until they have a new full-length collection or chapbook out with another press. We have seen slight bumps from people buying their older books (ours), but nothing major. & it didn’t matter whose book it was, a relatively well known author or a debut collection, they’ve all followed the same arc.
The plateau & inevitable plummet makes absolute sense, mind you—there’s tons of new books being published each year, three hundred thousand in the US alone—& each publisher is trying to find a way to push their heads up above the fray, waving our titles around. Big houses have historically battled this issue with paperback releases—first you send out the hardback edition, & if the numbers warrant it, you release a cheaper paperback down the road. Then you remainder items for super cheap, & pulp the rest to get it off your inventory, for tax & storage reasons. We only print paperbacks, so there isn’t going to be a second release. That is, there is no second launch, no built-in reminder to our audience that a book is out there. But it is important to me that our titles remain “in print,” even if that means print-on-demand or ebooks. I believe our authors will be around a while, so if some reader really digs their sixth book, I want that reader to be able to find & read their first.
My focus in now on two things: ramping up the presale numbers, & extending a book’s shelf life. We’re trying to build a larger readership, via author friendships or buzz or what have you. Basically I’m looking at who buys what when. Libraries buy our books from our distributor. How can I get the attention of more libraries? Teachers buy from us. How can I get more book copies into the hands of teachers? (Well, for one, PDFs.) Presale orders are purchased, in my experience, by friends & family. To expand that base, I made it my goal to reach friends of friends. How do you reach friends of friends? I had several ideas, but the one that seemed best was a “pay what you want” promotion, which is inherently buzz-worthy, so that any mention of the book also contains mention of the price, which is very affordable. On the internet side of things, Facebook allows us to market to friends-of-friends, specifically. I figured we’d get some press, so I boosted each linked Facebook post regarding our “Radiohead-style technique” coverage (which included mentions by Poets & Writers, the Poetry Foundation, Publishers Weekly & international newspapers like The Independent) to reach out to those friends, hoping they would catch a glimpse of the book promotion several times over in overlapping ways: via friend’s posts, via BAP posts, or via ads. If they saw it twice or more times, it might be cause for further investigation. & then we had a good price point—anything you want to pay plus $5 s/h.
You might think Noah Eli Gordon’s book (The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom) may not be the best barometer to gauge the effectiveness of this kind of promotion, as he’s already a well-known poet. I would agree with that sentiment, but I’m also cautious, because I’ve seen poets without a single literary journal publication to their name outsell poets with established readerships. It may be that poetry buyers are simply fickle customers, or are more constrained by economic forces, or more likely to chase new voices than invest in folks they’ve already read, wanting a bit of newness to spark their own work. To explicate the reasons why certain books sell well & others don’t would be me relying on small data sets & hunches, at this point, so it’s in my best interest to try everything I can think of in an affordable & interesting manner & do the math later this year, after I’ve had a few poetry books sold in this fashion to compare.
JS: In that same interview, you said that the average amount that people are paying is around $10. Did that hold true now that the promotion is over? Also, what was the least/highest amount someone paid?
JP: Ten bucks was an early figure. For this promotion, people paid around $13 on average, including shipping & handling. About five or six people paid a penny, lots of people paid the retail price of $18, & a few paid $20 or $25. Most people paid either $10 or $5, plus shipping.
JS: I am also interested to know how many books you sold during this promotion (don’t have to give me the actual number if you don’t want) but also how that number stacks up in relation to the plateauing sales in question 1.
JP: I don’t talk exact numbers, mostly because I think it puts authors in a weird position, but I will say that we surpassed what would normally be our first print run during the presale stage, which has never happened before. What we saw was a series of pops. Each time a new article came out about the promotion, in a newspaper or online journal or blog, we sold more books. The most books were sold during the first & third week of what became a four-week presale. During the third week, Noah sent out a personal email notifying friends of the sale, & that put us over the top. It was a big boost. So it’s not just one thing, the promo, it’s everything combined. Next up came the pub date, April 1st, along with two festivals: Mission Creek in Iowa & AWP in Minnesota. Noah’s book outsold all the others at both. A lot of people came up to our booths, & many, thirty or so, asked “So how did the promotion go?” They’d heard about it. Some had even purchased the book in presale; some purchased the book at our table. But they’d heard about it, & that was special. If we didn’t make sales, we at least made fans. It was a great marketing success, either way.
My goal is to now promote poetry in five stages: the advanced stage (reviewer copies), the presale friends & family stage (with “pay what you want” promos & other campaigns), the presale libraries stage (making contact with more libraries, somehow, without email blasts or expensive postcards, neither of which work; this is my next focus), the pub date stage (newsletter blast, Facebook promotion), & the long sunset/revivals (fairs, conferences, author readings & self-promotion, some fucking thing I can dream up to give books a second life). Right now we’re in the sunset stage of Noah’s book (HOW can this be, only sixteen days after the pub date? Well, we had two festivals stacked on top of each other & coinciding with his pub date…it’s messy). Given that it’s only been a week following AWP, I can’t rightly say if sales have plateaued, though I can say online sales have dipped, but then again online sales are really part of the presale stage. More people will be buying from Amazon & SPD than from BAP, now. That’s been the case with every book. There are more reviews coming & Noah will certainly be reading from the book in the future, so there’s still opportunities for sales on both our ends, writer & publisher. I’ll try to keep you up to date.
JS: I find your 5 stages of promoting poetry a great idea and all of those stages make perfect sense. I am going to steal that and use it. I am also curious to hear about your ideas for the “presale libraries stage” because I have been concentrating on that as well with our books. What I have been doing is twofold, research and outreach to libraries. The research part has been compiling a spreadsheet of libraries that have our previous titles (a good place to start is the WorldCat database by OCLC) and then checking to see if they have a strong poetry collection for instance, or if it is a university library, checking to see if they have a poetry MFA program, etc… If one of the libraries on my list has more than one of our titles, then I automatically contact their acquisitions librarian or acquisitions specialist either by phone or email and ask if they are interested in setting up a standing order for our other poetry titles as they come or a standing order alert when a new title is published. If they only have one of our titles then I still contact them. How do you feel about standing orders or standing order alerts (via email, phone, etc…) for libraries? And I don’t mean a blast email, I mean something more personalized…
JP: I’ve read about standing orders before, but only identified them as relating to a series of published works, like journal or magazine orders. If you’re having success with libraries considering standing orders for all poetry books published by your press, count me as someone who will begin implementing this regimen ASAP.
I check WorldCat at least twice a month, to see if various reviews or campaigns, specifically postcards, direct mail, or targeted email blasts, have translated into library sales. I bought an ebook about marketing to libraries by Nancy Humphreys, a librarian, & have been reading through that. Her suggestions range from practical to aesthetic tips. She says librarians distrust print-on-demand books, but this was 2011, before large commercial publishers began using POD for their paperbacks. She claims the top two places most librarians often look when researching books is the Book Review Digest & the Book Review Index. To get in either, you need a major review or two in a well-established venue. I am only beginning to dive into these resources, so I can’t be of much help now in letting you know how easy or difficult it is to utilize them in an effort to be seen by librarians. Librarians! Who knew I’d one day be groveling for their attention! BAP loves you librarians! Let us know how best to approach you!
On a separate note, I just received an email from SPD this morning saying they’re going to be upping the royalty percentage for everyone:
“SPD’s more generous royalty tiers will take effect July 1, 2015, and will work in the following way. Publishers who earn more than $5,000 in royalties for themselves in a given 12-month fiscal year (July 1 to June 30) will be paid 55% of net, instead of 50% of net, for all sales on all their books in the following year. Publishers who earn more than $10,000 in royalties will be paid 60% of net.”
I am not in any of those brackets yet, so this does not affect me, though I hope to be in that next tier soon. I’m not sure if this means they’ll be withholding payment for a year (I can’t imagine that would be the case) or if they’ll pay the publisher the difference once the threshold is crossed, but those are nicer numbers. It’s an obvious play to attract larger small publishers, but I’m not sure if they’ll bite…I mean, do you go with SPD’s juicier royalty payments or find a distributor who knocks on doors but takes a much bigger cut? It’s not so obvious a choice. Bookselling relies on small margins, if you’re trying to turn a profit. Most small presses, & I’m including university presses here, do not turn profits. In fact they lose a lot of money. A lot of money. It’s one of the reasons I’m seriously considering going non-profit. Last year BAP made a small profit, mainly because I pay attention to the numbers & don’t pay myself. Imagine what I could do if I had grant funding!
This is venturing beyond the topic, so getting back, my question to you is, do you have a system for getting your books into bookstores? How do you approach them?
JS: For bookstores, I have a list of stores that I have a contact at and send them an email with details on the new title, press release, etc… and then I also have a list of other bookstores that I send out an email blast for. I think the more personalized email works much better than the blast. As for the libraries, I am just really starting to compile my list so I think this next book that comes out I will be able to really test this theory of standing order(s) out. I think though a lot of it will depend on the book since this next one is an Argentinian writer translated from the Spanish so that may affect what libraries want it as well. Like you said previously, so many factors in all of this.
Also, in my “real job” I am a librarian in a smaller specialized university library and we look to all places to get ideas for new books. We get slips/announcements in the snail mail, emails and phone calls directly from publishers and vendors, we see what other similar libraries have been adding lately, we look at publications like Publisher’s Weekly, Chronicle of Higher Education and many others but really so much of it depends on who the acquisitions person is and what they decide to purchase or what they decide to funnel to the purchaser. In my experience, that person has a lot of potential influence about what a library decides to purchase.