The Shelving Game

In some of our marketing blog posts, you would have heard Brendan or I talk about the need for small publishers to look at alternative ways of selling and advertising books, other than bookstores. What you small press aficionados may have already noticed in your search for the perfect indie novel is that you will rarely find a small press book on the gleaming shelves of a shiny bookstore, particularly if that bookstore is a chain.

You may have bemoaned this fact as you drag your feet away from the rows and rows of choices, back to Book Depository, Amazon, or even the publisher or author’s own website to find what you’re looking for. It’s definitely a pain, but many people don’t generally question why. What is it about the organisation of bookstores that prevent small press from getting a real foothold?

Start by thinking about your favourite bookstore. Picture it in your mind. Whoa! There’s SO MANY BOOKS. I always find it a bit overwhelming when I walk into a bookstore. There’s a multitude of choices, and that’s the reason very few people are still brave enough to venture into one with me.

But step back for a moment. That choice that we’re all confronted with, those who own the bookstore are confronted with that decision on a far larger scale when they are considering how to stock their store. Those seemingly endless shelves hold only a small fraction of all the possible books a store could stock. There is so much choice; bookstores need to find a way of cutting through them all.

Obviously, part of what they decide to stock is based on demand. If five customers a day come in and want a particular book, then it makes sense to start getting a few on the shelves. Customers are notoriously impatient people, and will be far more satisfied with their experience if they don’t have to wait a couple of days for their book to be ordered in.

But another key part of the decision making process are distributors. These are companies that act like sales executives for books, and liaise with bookstores to get books on shelves. They often provide promotional material for bookstores, and have large selections that sellers can choose from.

Like everything else in this world, they cost money. Often a lot of it. Therefore, those with the most books to sell, and who usually publish books in high demand, have the most to gain from a distributor. If you’ve only published one book, or even only ten, the cost of a distributor will be far more prohibitive. So once again, we have a means for accessing consumers dominated by the large publishing houses.

If you aren’t with a distributor, your chances of getting on the shelves are much lower. Distributors are respected companies, and the fact that they accept a book, author, or publisher into their repertoire is a vote of confidence. A distributor with a nice shiny catalogue will always be considered more respectable than an author who can’t afford such resources off the bat, but is still passionate about what they have produced.

Unfortunately, getting your book into a bookstore isn’t as simple as just sending them a bunch of copies. It involves a complex mix of ordering, permission, returns policies and sales figures. Distributors can smooth this process, which is why they are an important part of getting a book on the shelves. But small press are often left out as big companies and bestsellers take the place of lesser-known books. The fact that small publishers have such difficulty getting into bookstores is often something that prevents their growth, as you can’t make sales if no one sees your product. It’s unfortunate that, although it seems like we have so much choice in a bookstore, the decision on whether to read small press books or not has already been made for us.

if you’re keen to explore what small press has to offer, think about exploring the websites of small publishing houses. Odyssey conducts sales through its own website, as well as on Amazon and Book Depository, as do most other small presses.

Little Books, not a Little Book Council

As an intern beginning my career in publishing, I’m worried about the recent announcement for the Book Council of Australia. I think the idea of a book council is great. We should have a unified group that represents every facet of this industry and that is dedicated to achieving great things for literature in our culture. An organisation that can function as an independent champion for publishers (and the various professions involved in the back end), booksellers, writers and readers.

Unfortunately, it would seem that’s not what the Book Council will be. It will be an advisory board to the Arts Ministry instead, aimed at fostering a culture of reading (because that doesn’t exist apparently). In other words, it will be rather toothless. It also won’t represent large swathes of the industry and it won’t make up for the huge cuts to funding for literary projects which have occurred over the past two years.

This concerns me because I love the little books. The books that may go unmade due to a lack of funding. Books that aren’t commercial enough, or won’t get taken on because no one has ever heard of their debut author. These are the people, and the books, that I worry about. It’s already exceedingly difficult for these books to emerge, and these changes to the way literature is funded, and the way literature is championed, in this country won’t make it any easier. If the Book Council were an independent body, it would have more scope to fight for funding for the literary arts and hence for the little books.

At a time where debut and midlist authors are doing it especially tough, this is not the path I want to see taken.

When I say little books, I’m not intending that in a way that is diminishing of those books. It’s simply a fact, in a broader context, that these books are little in terms of their footprint in a commercial, or marketable, sense. That doesn’t make them less important, simply less known.

And here is the problem. There are so many wonderful books out there that may never get the attention they deserve, and reducing the opportunities for those books to come into existence is not the solution. Perhaps if the Book Council of Australia’s mission was to build more diversity into our reading culture, than it might represent something more worthwhile. In its current form, though, it seems to simply be there to advise the Arts Minister on how we can continue without change. This is a shame.

A good story is a good story, and it should not be limited by the fiscal position of its writer, or editor, or cover designer, or publisher. In fact, the most interesting and unique stories are often those that come from nothing. But they should not be left to return to nothing.

I would like a Book Council of Australia with a vision that is more than this. Represents more than this, and achieves more than this.

 

Fostering Beginner’s Luck: Branding Debut and Midlist Authors

As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, one of biggest problems ahead for the publishing industry is the closing of opportunities for debut and midlist authors. There is an unfortunate reduction in paths to publication through a traditional publishing house for both debut authors and for those who are steady but not spectacular on the midlist. There are a variety of factors contributing to this reduction including digital disruption, margin-squeezing and cultural homogenisation, but I won’t go into them in this blog. There are also some fantastic and brave people out there actively working to boost the opportunities for debut and midlist authors. This blog isn’t about them either. Today I want to cover how that shrinking window of opportunity can be combatted at a small press, by both the publisher and the authors.

In my opinion, I think a small press is probably best suited to work with debut and some midlist authors. It might not be the dream scenario for many authors, but it’s the most workable. Small presses, by neccessity, have to help grow new talent or nurture midlist talent as it’s the bread-and-butter of the small press industry. Small presses have both the ability and the motive to get out there and find new voices and take risks on them. Further, many small presses are less constrained by structures which can limit the bigger houses and hence can be more nimble and diverse in their publishing efforts.

One of the most important things a small press can contribute to helping debut and midlist authors to succeed is help with development of the author brand (as well as their writing craft). An author’s brand is an essential tool in the digital world, potentially more so than before Amazon and ebooks. An online presence is a necessity for community engagement. While this may not lead to direct sales, if an author’s brand is properly managed it will lead to a broadening of the base to which authors can hawk their books. It means reaching more new readers more often.

In 2013, bestselling author Neil Gaiman teamed up with a smartphone company to unleash a campaign where he could collaborate with his fans on a series of short stories. The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive and highly engaging. Fans submitted story ideas corresponding to themes that Gaiman then turned into short stories. Fans then submitted artworks inspired by the stories. This was a modern, technology-enabled creative conversation between an author and his audience. It worked brilliantly.

Here, Gaiman used his author brand to create momentum for a campaign that wasn’t aimed directly at selling books. Instead, he engaged his readers in a venture that allowed them inside his creative process. The cynical benefits were that Gaiman’s brand and the smartphone company’s brand both got a boost from this campaign. The more idealistic benefit is that Gaiman expanded on an excellent connection with his readers and further developed their passion for him as an author.

The take away for debut and midlist authors is not they can do exactly what Gaiman has done, but that they could replicate it, in part, to create bigger brand awareness and engagement for themselves and their audience. This isn’t a strategy for hard sales of books but more about increasing online presence. The purpose of this is to indirectly or eventually increase sales, but that’s not the direct outcome or immediately tangible reward for the exercise. For authors this is a no-brainer as building a strong brand helps your marketability with publishers and makes them more willing to take a risk on publishing your book.

Another brilliant example of author branding, that is in the physical space rather than digital is Odyssey author Rachel Drummond. This year, Drummond appeared at Supanova with a stall marketing her book The South Forsaken. With distinctive yellow signage and an open and engaging personality for readers, she was a huge success.

These two examples show approaches to branding that should be informative for how authors can push forward both online and at events:

  1. Be Distinctive/Interesting.
  2. Be Open and Engaging.

These seem to be rather generic ideas, but they are fundamentally important for authors when designing and implementing an online presence for their readers to engage with. I haven’t put forth an argument as to whether authors need to do this, because they absolutely do. It’s really non-negotiable unless you’re a bestseller. To get ahead as an author today you need to get out there and engage in whatever way possible.

Starting Small

You there! Want to crack the oldest game in town? The Book Trade, I say!

Step right up! Publishing is not an easy industry to get a start in. Sometimes it seems like there’s either a feast or famine in the job market, and for entry level positions it’s a particularly ravenous existence. This is where internships help. Often people perceive the best internships or the most desirable internships to be those with the big five or other suitably large publishing operations. I disagree with that and would argue an alternative view: the best experience for an internship you can get is at a small press.

Why intern at a small press? Comparatively you might meet less famous authors, work on less high-profile books and have a less stylish office to frequent. But you will also meet local authors, most of whom are incredibly friendly and happy to talk shop and share their advice from their perspective of the industry. You will probably get to do a more diverse range of tasks because frankly, many small presses need more hands on deck than they can afford. You will be assigned projects that are important to the press as opposed to tasks that no-one in the office has time for or is particularly keen on doing. Essentially, you become part of the team.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved interning at a big publisher. It was a wonderful experience and I did learn a lot. For example, how to use Adobe Bridge, the ins-and-outs of the restaurant scenes in both Melbourne and Sydney and what it’s like behind the scenes at a cookbook photoshoot. It was brilliant and the team I worked for were a fantastic bunch of people who I couldn’t be more grateful to.

But my time at this small press has been really different (but equally as brilliant). I’ve been everywhere, and I’ve learned so much. The internship here has been one of the most versatile experiences I’ve had so far in my life. And one of the most flexible.

Work from home? Mandatory. Pyjamas? Hey, it’s your house. You can only work 8-10pm? That’s fine.

In a big press, from my own experience and the experience of those I’ve spoken to, interns tend to be placed in one area and work exclusively on a set of tasks within that area for their whole internship. This is not true of all big publishers of course, but in many there are set lines which interns, like the staff they are attached to, do not cross.

At a small press, there are no such lines because there are often not more than a handful of employees. This is great! You get to do a whole lot of things, sometimes all at once. Look! Two hands! I’m typing with two hands! Marvellous. Due to the significantly smaller size of presses, you will often find yourself in direct contact with the publisher, if not interning directly for them. This is also great. You get the full experience of what it means to be a publisher by working so closely with them. The stress, the victories, the excitement at finding a good book to publish.

Anyone looking to start out in publishing will probably find themselves doing more than one internship. Or should, because really, where do you get that competitive edge? So why not do the big press internship that everyone seems to drool over, and ALSO do a small press internship. My own small press internship has been an absolute blast and has skilled me up for the publishing industry unlike any other internship. It’s inspired me to continue in publishing, even when it seems I’m going against the odds.

Doing it for the Little Guys

Small Publishers – What are they and where do they fit in the publishing industry?
by Jenna O’Connell

So, one of the first questions I inevitably get asked after mentioning this internship is something I dread: oh, cool! How small is the publishing house? Because, how do you describe something like that? Do I measure in square feet of office space? In the weight of all the books Odyssey has ever published? The number of people who are employed in the company? All these are different measures of people’s perceptions of small and large, but none of them really sum up the difference between small publishers and large publishers. As I’ve progressed through this internship, I’ve realised that very few people, and almost no one outside the publishing industry, can adequately define what exactly small press is. So, with my limited experience and the searing overconfidence of youth, I’m going to attempt to give it a go.

The Small Press Underground Networking Community (now Small Press Network) examined this problem in a report commissioned back in 2007, designed to figure out exactly what small press is, and why it is important to Australia’s publishing and literary industries. One of the clearest distinctions between the two was that small press are mostly separate from large corporations. Another is in their engagement with alternative modes of bookselling, rather than just a reliance on bookstores. From there, most of the criteria is far less definitive, as the nature of small, growing companies is that they can flow within and over these categories as things change. But the most common factors that appeared were a release of less than 12 books a year, and a print run for each book no larger than 5,000, and usually far less than that, somewhere around 1000-2000 copies. But all these numbers are pretty arbitrary. What I find to be the defining feature of small press is the personalised attention they are able to provide. Michelle, our publisher, is involved in every stage of the process for the books she publishes, from submission, to cover, to promotion. She also interacts personally with all of her authors, something that blew me away when I first started working here. Wait, I get to meet HOW many real life authors? Sometimes, it’s almost too exciting to believe. This kind of interconnectedness is something that would be impossible in a larger operation. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it highlights that both small and large publishers have their place, and provide vastly different services.

Small publishing houses are admirable for their ability to take risks where large publishing houses will not. Indeed, many larger publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning it’s a lot harder for new authors to grab their attention, especially if they’re doing it completely on their own. Usually, an author will get their start with a smaller publisher, and move to a larger one as their fan base and sales grow. I can’t speak for other small presses, obviously, but a lot of our focus here at Odyssey is on trying to find the stories that are clamouring to be told, rather than the ones that fit a generic model that may be guaranteed to sell, but lack that something special. And often those are in mediums that have faded from the public consciousness. Small press publishers overwhelmingly represent short fiction and poetry production. Many of us are a bit blah about these modes of storytelling nowadays. When was the last time any of us read a short story that wasn’t written by someone who has been famous for at least 50 years? I know I’m certainly guilty of it, but I would be devastated if suddenly these ways of writing were phased out. Small publishing houses are the cornerstones of targeting niche and speciality markets that may not attract the attention of larger publishers, but still have their devoted audiences. For example, Odyssey is about to release a book about the journey of whiskey! Talk about a niche market there! How many books really cater to the whiskey lovers out there?

Large publishers like Penguin or Harper Collins are ones that, inevitably, the mind strays to when I mention I’m interning in publishing. They are undoubtedly the biggest kids on the block, and their contributions to the publishing industry have been enormous. But learning how publishing works from a small press perspective has been infinitely more enriching, as I’ve been exposed to so many different facets of the industry, in a way that I could never have done in a larger company. More details of those experiences to come in later posts!