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Hearing Voices About Indie Publishing

Asking a complex, perhaps unanswerable question (as I did last week with "What is an independent publisher now?") was admittedly a mischievous attempt to elicit observations rather than conclusions. It wasn't even scientific; more like asking, "What is a planet now?" (I'm looking at you, Pluto). But several brave souls accepted the challenge anyway and we'll be hearing their voices for the next few weeks.

Florrie Kichler, owner of Patria Press and president of the Independent Book Publishers Association, offered a straightforward answer: "What sets an independent publisher apart is his/her commitment to publishing as a business. Along with that comes the dedication to publishing excellence, which includes creating and delivering to the reader professionally designed and edited products--whether one or thousands of titles; whether via POD, offset or digital; whether on an e-reader, iPad or smartphone.

"The beauty of independent publishing is that in the end, size really doesn't matter--nor does the technology used to produce the content nor does who the author is. What matters is the independent publisher's focus on his or her publishing business--that blend of sales, marketing, editorial, production and promotion that serves as the launching pad for publishing success."

After a recent MPIBA trade show panel--"Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?"--that generated some heated conversation, Libby Cowles, community relations manager at Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo., came away thinking about self-published books in particular.

"As the gal who handles any and all requests from authors here at Maria's, I am very aware of the increase in requests to put self-published books on our shelves," said Libby, who also posted about this issue recently on the bookshop's blog. "Generally, we have carried local authors' work on a consignment basis when it's not available through distributors; this support of local authors feels like an important service to our community. However, as a store with limited shelf space, I'm beginning to wonder how we can say yes to each and every local, self-published author who comes in the door?"
Cowles cited indiereaderselects.com as "an interesting idea" and one that might help readers and bookstores "sift through independently published books," but she still wonders "how do 'legitimate' small presses play into this? I've always thought of 'independent publishers' as small presses--you know, not the 'big guys' in New York. But the game has changed so much that now any author who has a box of books and a website can call him- or herself an 'independent publisher'--or, actually, you don't even need the box of books anymore, since we can POD. So... does creating a company name and a website make you a publisher? And if so, can that be okay somehow? I think there's a feeling out there that it somehow delegitimizes 'real' publishers. Doesn't it also increase our access to a variety of voices, opinions and ideas? How can we, as indie booksellers, maintain and protect our core value of getting the unheard-of gem into readers' hands, offering an alternative to the big box sanctioned bestsellers, without getting overwhelmed by the numbers of books out there?"
More good questions.

Fred Ramey, co-publisher of Unbridled Books, called the term "professionalism," as I had used it last week to define legitimate independent publishers, "problematic":

"When used by established publishers in the skirmish between self-publishing and independent publishing, I think the word may imply a sad defensiveness. (The source of that sadness, I think, is that--as you point out--these battles are occurring when we are all trying to figure out whether we can, or will be allowed to, fit within a new publishing world.) I so much appreciate the courageous publishers who enter the fray without worrying that worry--publishers like Two Dollar Radio and Archipelago and OR Books, and many independents established long ago--so much that I would rather discuss content. I appreciate these efforts as I admire new local journals (like Denver's Il-literate) and the very concept of samizdat novels--all efforts to bring writing to readers separate from the quick murky stream of corporate publishing, reviewing and bookselling. And as I've said stubbornly for a couple of years, I believe that soon it will matter again what one publishes more than how one publishes it. Quality will out.
"So 'professionalism' seems to me a potentially defensive term. It's as though we use the quality of the artifact bearing our colophon as an assertion that we matter. I'm tremendously proud of the professionalism with which the extraordinary people at Unbridled address the world of publishing--from the sometimes perfect beauty of the design and production, to the brilliance of the marketing, the clear structuring of the sales efforts, and the respectfulness with which we try to address the rest of Bookworld. I'm proud of the people who work with me, proud to work with them. I believe them all to be professional. And I believe our efforts in the realm of American fiction over these past six years have been significant. But the professional aspects of the collective effort at Unbridled Books are not the source of whatever significance we may have."

We'll hear more from Fred, as well as other voices in the book trade, next week. Halloween is approaching, so maybe exploring this issue by hearing voices is not such a bad way to celebrate during scary times.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1311.


The Optimistic Stochastics of Indie Publishing

"My belief, as much as I have one, is in a certain optimistic stochastics as the main force in the universe," Sergei Prigarin, a professor of mathematics at Novosibirsk State University, told Ian Frazier, who recounts their meeting in his new book Travels in Siberia.

Yes, optimistic stochastics is my new favorite phrase, and I will happily butcher it now for my own purposes. Horrified lexicographers are invited to register their complaints here. The Bloomsbury Thesaurus offers a bouquet of synonyms for stochastics, including probabilities, aleatorics, statistics, doctrine of chance, actuarial calculation, insurance, assurance, underwriting, risk-taking, speculation.
All publishers, of course, focus daily upon probabilities, risk-taking and speculation. It's part of the job description. But lately I've been thinking about indie presses and the challenge inherent in producing quality, professional work on a limited budget. This has in turn led me to wonder what our precise definition of an "independent publisher" is now at a time when self-publishing, e-books, POD and an ever-increasing number of other options are available for almost anyone to publish--or at least print--books.

Last month, at the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Denver, a panel--Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?--ignited some verbal fireworks. The panelists may not have been looking specifically for a new definition of indie publishing, but as I recall the conversations I had during that show and since then, I realize that we may need to revise our industry's lexicon. With so many books in play from so many sources, maybe we, the word people, have run out of words to adequately define certain segments of the business? Maybe we need some new words.

During Saturday's MPIBA Writers & the Independent Marketplace conference, the opening panel--Getting Your Book into Print--wrestled with another pertinent question and more changing terminology: What does it mean to be a "published author" in the 21st century?

Having talked about all this with book people for nearly a month, I thought it was time to open up the discussion here. You have your own questions and opinions. You already know the subject is complex. You also know that for every rule there is an exception that will drive you nuts. How can we go wrong?

I don't have to tell you how many books are being published this year and the impact those numbers have. Whether or not you believe too many books are in play, it is hard to deny that sorting them out and panning for book gold without being overwhelmed is a challenge for all of us.

If you're a bookseller, you face a multitude of authors--self-published or independently published or traditionally published--approaching you in the store or by e-mail or post or phone and asking if you will stock their books or host an event. How do you handle that conversation?

If you're an author, someone--your publisher or yourself--has chosen to roll the dice and your manuscript is now a published book. How do you get your work out into this crowded world? When you approach indie booksellers, how do you handle that conversation?

If you're an independent publisher, how do you distinguish your list from the hundreds of other publishers and tens of thousands of books hitting the market annually?

If, by chance, you're a reader (those extraordinary human beings who regularly choose to spend money on new books without even knowing who published them), you may not care about any of this. We won't make you answer questions. Just keep doing what you're doing.

Earlier this week, I had dinner and a great conversation about indie publishing with Susan Novotny, owner of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany N.Y.; and Peter Golden, the author of five nonfiction books whose first novel, Comeback Love, will be released next month by Susan's new publishing venture, Staff Picks Press (Shelf Awareness, May 24, 2010).

Susan is also co-owner of the POD service Troy Book Makers, so she has thought about this issue from multiple perspectives, invested her time and money in the process and can legitimately stake a claim on my newly discovered field of optimistic stochastics. We'll hear more from her and Peter in the coming weeks.

I'm using a Russian mathematician's observation about the universe to open this discussion of publishing's Big Bang theory and our ever-expanding book firmament, which may well be infinite--just this week a new planet was discovered and named Amazon Kindle Singles--but still requires accurate charting. The exploration continues with a question for you: What is an independent publisher now?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1305.


'Sustaining Heartbeat of a Community' at MBA Show

What do the Midwest Booksellers Association trade show, marathon runners and the Dead Sea Scrolls have in common? If you answered St. Paul, Minn., you receive partial credit, but the correct response is a bit more complicated.

Certain themes inevitably emerge when you talk with booksellers and publishers over the course of a weekend. By the time the MBA show ended, two words seemed preeminent for me. While one--community--is familiar, the other is a concept we haven't talked about as much during recent, often perilous, times for our industry--longevity. I kept hearing about plans for the future, not just plans for survival, and this is a significant change.

Outgoing executive director Susan Walker said that although attendance was down slightly compared to last year, traffic in Saturday's exhibit hall "was interesting in that it stayed quite steady all day long. We had comments from both booksellers and vendors that it was a much more productive show. People were there to do business. It was an industrious show."

I'll write in more detail about some of the MBA panels in future columns, but one of them spoke directly to the potential breadth of a bookstore's reach and responsibility: "Beyond Customer Loyalty: Creating a Community of Customers."

"We realized there was a limit to what you could do with customer loyalty within the four walls of your store," said Geoffrey Jennings of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan. "The ultimate goal is to become the voice of books in your community. The more you knit the fabric of your community together, the stronger it gets."

"The essential part of my business plan is to have these partnerships with the community," added Lanora Hurley of Next Chapter Bookshop, Mequon, Wis.

Authors spoke of their connection to indie booksellers. At Friday's book and author breakfast, Laurie Hertzel (News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist) recalled her childhood affection for a local bookshop where she "learned the joys of a small, well-edited bookstore and that never went away."

Jonathan Evison, author West of Here, expressed his deep appreciation for independent bookstores ("You're the people who are feeding my kids!") and read his short essay, "A Booksellers Love Story," which ends "Now, ask yourself: where else are you gonna' get this kind of service but an indie bookstore?"

During the "Moveable Feast" author lunch, Joan Steffend (...and she sparkled) observed: "I know people come in for books, but I also know people are looking for connections."  

And at the Midwest Booksellers' Choice Awards reception, Ethan Rutherford, marketing/publicity manager for Milkweed Editions, accepted an award on behalf of the late Bill Holm for The Chain Letter of the Soul: New and Selected Poems. "Bill received a number of awards over the course of his life," Rutherford said, "but he would have found this one particularly satisfying for just this reason. Bill knew better than most writers that we're all in this together: writers and readers, publishers and booksellers. And in this case, we have a writer, a publisher, and booksellers who are all fiercely independent."

Kathy-jo Wargin, author of the MBCA Honor Book Moose on the Loose (illustrated by John Bendall-Brunello), agreed: "The indie bookseller is, without a doubt, the sustaining heartbeat of a community."

The acceptance speeches were still resonating when Chris Livingston, MBA president and owner of the Book Shelf, Winona, Minn., paid tribute to Susan Walker by invoking the heart again: "Susan has been the heart and blood of this organization."

After the show, Susan and I talked about her time with MBA since her first day in the autumn of 1987. "Over the years of running the association, I think we've been able to create something that's been genuinely useful to the members," she said. "I'm really proud of what we've accomplished as an association. I think the MBA has a lot of integrity. They work well together."

Independence and community; heart and the long haul.

At MBA: Susan Walker, flanked by authors Suzanne Collins and Tony DiTerlizzi.

The answer to my original question is that St. Paul also hosted the Twin Cities Marathon last weekend, and the streets and hotel lobbies were filled with a community of runners preparing for Sunday's race. Meanwhile, just across the street from the RiverCentre at the Science Museum of Minnesota, an exhibition featuring fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls also included a new Saint John's Bible, "the first complete, handwritten and illuminated Bible to be commissioned in 500 years."

Spending the weekend surrounded by book people, long distance runners, the Dead Sea Scrolls and a new illuminated Bible, I couldn't resist considering the implications in terms of history and longevity. Booksellers and publishers, like the marathon runners who kept leaving me in the dust as I walked to the RiverCentre, are in this for the long haul.

Longevity is the result of imagination and hard work. I keep thinking of the Saint John's Bible, which Fr. Eric Hollas--in a short film accompanying the exhibition--called "the one thing that we'll probably be remembered for 500 years from now. The buildings will go... and oddly enough this one piece of artistic achievement will probably still be here." Books defy time and foster community.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1301.


MPIBA Show Takes the Cake

Last Friday, for the second year in a row, the exhibit hall at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Denver opened from 5-7 p.m. for a preview/cocktail hour combo platter. There were snacks and a cash bar; there were casual conversations among friends and networking opportunities for exhibitors and booksellers.

It's a great idea. "Adding in some alcoholic beverages and food really helps," said MPIBA's executive director Lisa Knudsen, who was supervising her final show before retirement. "I'm just a great believer in people eating and drinking together."

And then, quite suddenly, there was a cake.
Before--and after--the cake, however, the conversations at this show were all about the business of books. I talked to many booksellers in Denver, and left impressed by their generally positive outlook about the current state of the book trade. Business is, well, not bad, which is a quantum leap from where we were just a couple of years ago.

One of the buzz themes at the MPIBA show turned out to be independent publishing. An early panel--"Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?"--created some serious heat that carried over into conversations I subsequently had with booksellers, authors and publishers--independent as well as traditional. There were some questions raised here that are being asked worldwide and probably won't yield clear answers any time soon--What is a publisher? What is a book? Can we talk about all that?


On the final day of the show, I moderated a panel during MPIBA's first-ever Writers & the Independent Marketplace conference, which was held in tandem with the bookseller show. That discussion convinced me we can talk... and will... soon. I'll be revisiting those Denver conversations later this month.

As often happens at these shows, visiting authors took the time to thank indies for their support. At the regional awards breakfast, adult fiction winner C.J. Box (for Below Zero) said that when his first book came out, he was sent on a one-city tour to L.A., where his escort offered some advice that he's followed through 11 subsequent titles: Books are sold one at a time from a bookseller recommending them to a reader. "I know how that works," Box told the assembled booksellers. "It comes from you saying to a potential reader, 'You might like this.' "

During the author luncheon on Saturday, Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, also expressed his gratitude, saying, "You're in the right business," and offering special thanks to Colorado booksellers Maria's Bookshop, Durango, and Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, as well as Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan., for their early handselling passion for his novel.

There were many other highlights at this year's show that will be noted in coming weeks, but the primary emotional undercurrent here was a bittersweet awareness that this would be the final MPIBA event for Lisa, whose well-earned retirement comes after more than 22 years as executive director and 30 years total in the book business.

In her letter to members last month announcing her intentions, Lisa wrote she was "looking forward to spending lots more time in my sadly neglected garden, to re-acquainting myself with the contents of my bookshelves, and especially to volunteering in the schools helping children learn to read."

On Friday night at the exhibit hall cocktail hour, we were called together near a podium and MPIBA president Meghan Goel of BookPeople, Austin, Tex., started things off by acknowledging sadness regarding Lisa's departure, but also noting this night was "really a celebration" for someone who has been "the real backbone of what we've done."

Three subsequent speakers offered personal, heartfelt, sometimes tearful recollections. "I was a board member when Lisa was hired in 1987. She was the perfect choice," said Nancy Rutland, as of today the former owner of Bookworks, Albuquerque, N.M. (Shelf Awareness, September 27, 2010).

"What Lisa does, has done and will always do is she connects us," Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands, Tempe, Ariz., observed. "I have made some of my very best friends through Nancy and this association. What Lisa has enabled us to do is become friends as well as colleagues."

"A few minutes ago I was saying, 'Where's Lisa?' " said Tattered Cover's Cathy Langer, "and I realized that's been the mantra for 22 years."

FInally, Lisa came to the podium and the crowd erupted with applause. "For 22½ years, MPIBA has been my home, and in addition to my daughter, it has been my family. I have a real clear conscience because all of us have been doing the good work," she said before concluding: "When you're a bookseller, you're a bookseller for life."

There were more tears and then, at last, there was that cake.

Earlier this week, Lisa reflected that she'd been, as you might expect, particularly moved by the celebration on Friday: "It was just huge for me. It was one of the loveliest times of my life. To have women who are goddesses speak that way; to have the opportunity to know these women and that they have thought enough of me to say such great things about me was wonderful. They are friends for life.... And now I can just toddle off into my sunlit gardens."--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1295.

Note: Photos courtesy of Drew Goodman, University Campus Store at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.


The Present Is Prologue & Dialogue

Where are the flying cars? Okay, the future hasn't turned out quite the way we imagined it might during the middle of the 20th century. In the book trade, it is the present that sometimes feels like it is "beyond our wildest dreams" (the false promise of any future).

But we bookish folk have always toiled in the future, reading ARCs of books that won't be published for months and trying to keep pace with news of the feverish daily changes that engulf us in the form of the latest e-reading devices (no, wait, there's an even better version just out now! And another! And another!) or the biblio-flying car wonders of an Espresso Book Machine soaring through Google's tome cloud. Future. Present. What's the difference?

This week I'm in Denver, Colo., for the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Trade Show. It's the third MPIBA show I've covered during my four-plus years as an editor at Shelf Awareness. In preparation, I glanced through my notes from the prior two shows and found that certain themes emerged, the most intriguing one being the gradual shift from a future-focus in 2006 to a present-focus in 2010.

In 2006, what might happen next was on everyone's agenda.

"I don't know what's going to happen. The changes in the next 15 years will make the changes in the last 10 look like nothing," said Dave Weich, who was then at Powell's Books, Portland Ore. At the time, I called it the wisest statement of the weekend. He also noted that Powell's had "sold e-books for six years or so for Adobe Reader, Microsoft Reader, Palm Reader. They account for about 1% of our sales." He projected notable gains in those numbers when the long-anticipated--but then still unrealized--development of a first-rate reading device occurred. "People are committed to their device, not to their desktop computer. Eventually there is going to be an iPod for books; that's when e-books will explode."

Technology was the prevailing theme of MPIBA's 2006 panels, which featured titles like "Essential Technologies: An Overview," "Digital Media Formats and the Independent Bookstore" and "Capturing the I and My Generation (iPods, IMs and MySpace)." During the Digital Media Formats seminar, a panelist used the term "fiber-based books" to describe print editions and the audience laughed... uneasily.

The ever-prescient Carl Lennertz of HarperCollins stressed the need for every bookstore to have a high-speed Internet connection in order to acquire information from and communicate with publishers. "Catalogues may go online in the next five years," he said, adding that publishers were already offering an array of digital POP materials. He stressed the importance of ongoing communication with customers, citing Constant Contact as "the best invention since Above the Treeline." 

"Interactivity" was mentioned a lot in 2006, along with MySpace and Constant Contact. Our vocabulary wasn't ready for words like Facebook, Twitter, Kindle or iPad. Four years ago, the challenge for panelists was to convince 75% of the people in the room that it mattered to be technologically aware and proficient. Now, such a brief time later, good indie booksellers have adapted to technology and the percentages have changed dramatically in those seminar rooms.

At this week's MPIBA trade show, the panels seem to reflect something of a time and attitude shift. Sharing--well, "stealing," to be precise--ideas is an often heard phrase. The future we envisioned four years ago is now; any future envisioned today may just be a car that never flies, so we're concentrating on doing business in the present and sharing ideas.

We're going to work.

Many of this year's MPIBA panel titles reflect this practical approach:

Charge it! How to Get the Best Credit Card Rates for Your Store
Using Telereps Effectively
Independent Publishers and Booksellers, Can We Talk?
Linked By Passion: Growing Sales Through Local Retail Partnerships
Beyond a Love of Books: How to Transform Booksellers into Industry Advocates


The future is not being ignored by indie booksellers here. It is thoroughly embedded in how they do business and the conversation has branched out. The future, quite literally, is now. The present is prologue. Maybe what we need is a new concept of time. And sorry, still no flying cars. More on MPIBA next week.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1289.