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Indie Bookseller as Indie Publisher

We've been discussing independent booksellers and independent publishers, but this week we'll explore a variation on the theme: an indie bookseller who has also become an indie publisher.

Susan Novotny owns the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., and Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y. She is also co-owner of POD service The Troy Book Makers and, earlier this year, launched Staff Picks Press (Shelf Awareness, May 24, 2010).

During the summer, Susan published the picture book Change: A Story for All Ages by Judith Barnes and Erick James, illustrated by Jeff Grader. She describes this project as her "weather balloon" for Staff Picks Press, noting that 450 copies were distributed through ABA's White Box in July. "Though  the book didn't bear the Staff Picks Press logo, I included a letter to my colleagues introducing the concept of independent booksellers doing their own publishing. I received only 10 orders, but each buyer articulated their conviction that Change was destined to become a classic and should be in hardcover; the perfect 'under-the-radar' kind of book independents know how to sell." This generated "enough enthusiasm to land Change on the December IndieNext list. When Change won the Creativity 40 award for Gold in Book Design and Platinum for Illustration, I turned the distribution over to the wholesalers."

Her goal for Staff Picks Press "is to bring excellent authors who are being overlooked by the New York agent/editing scene to the attention of booksellers and the reading public. Independent booksellers choose the manuscripts and carry out book design, cover art, copyright, ISBN and printing--digital or offset. No book is published without being fully vetted and heartily endorsed by an experienced and opinionated group of booksellers. You do not need the expensive overhead of a Manhattan address to publish truly beautiful and excellent books. All we need is the low-hanging fruit of talented writers."

This week Staff Picks Press released Peter Golden's novel Comeback Love, "a very well-written, intelligent love story set during the turbulent late '60s and early '70s," Susan observed. "It's for anyone over 50, man or woman, who has a love regret from this era. And who doesn't? This demographic is very big and they read. I feel lucky to have this as the first novel from Staff Picks Press." Author James Howard Kunstler praised the book as "a heartfelt and lyrical novel. A stylishly composed, moving tale of loss and redemption."

Golden, a journalist who has written five nonfiction books, said the decision to go with an indie press for Comeback Love was an easy one: "Susan and her friends in the indie world were particularly well positioned to market this book, since the target audience makes up a large percentage of their customer base. Susan had already read and liked the novel (I often seek a wide variety of views on my early drafts), so publishing with her was a no-brainer. We’ll sell everything she prints, probably collect some decent reviews, and my name, as a novelist, will get out there and my sales will not be held against me when it comes time to take my next novel to market. So far, she has been remarkably helpful--a result of her experience and her sterling reputation among her peers, and I’m learning a good deal about the needs of booksellers--something writers should pay attention to. Best of all, I’m having a wonderful time working with her."

An author's marketing responsibilities are substantial in this relationship, Golden acknowledges, though he calls them the "same as the author who publishes with a major press. The fact is unless you are extremely lucky--I mean winning a $300-million-lottery lucky--writers have to use all of the avenues available for marketing their books. I have been in bookstores and seen books from celebrated writers gathering dust on the shelves--books, I should add, that I’ve never heard of, and I read all the time. This means somebody--the writer, in my view--is falling down on the job.

"At BEA in May, I heard Esther Newberg discuss how a new writer--whose book she sold--was pushing her novel through social media, and added that this is an absolute must today. And that’s a novel from a major publisher, agented by one of the premier agents working today. Besides, what’s more fun than being in touch with people who love to read? I don’t see it as onerous. It’s one of the perks of publishing a book you believe in, for if you didn’t believe in it, why publish it at all?"

For Susan, the creation of Staff Picks Press is a logical response to the current state of the book trade: "The anatomy of publishing has changed and the navel of the publishing universe is no longer in Manhattan. The lifeline for authors is in a bookstore--bookseller to reader. I don't believe many authors are aware how compromised the relationship between some big publishers and most booksellers is at this moment in time. Credit departments cannot ask us to pay in 30/60 days for the pleasure of a crapshoot on their titles. The credit department bean pickers have written us off. Editors, sales and marketing all seem to grasp that the independents who have survived the past 15 years of big boxes and Amazon are a smart and tenacious lot, but to quote Roxanne Coady, 'We are not their pets.' Don't pat us on the head, ask us to do tricks then withhold the food, otherwise we are going to go out and catch it ourselves."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1324.

Note to booksellers: Orders for Change: A Story for All Ages ($14.95, 9781935534617) and Comeback Love ($16.95, 9781935680000) can be directed to Ingram or Bookazine.


Indie Publishing & 'Professionalism'

As our discussion series about independent publishers continues, I'm reluctant to abandon further exploration of that demon word "professionalism" as it defines--okay, "helps" define--"legitimate" indie publishers. So many quotation marks in play; so many innocent terms that might be considered fightin' words, but this week we'll share a few more definitions, all of which will be examined in more detail in upcoming columns. Consider these thoughts as conversation starters, or "re-starters." Ah, those quotations marks again.

Fred Ramey, co-publisher of Unbridled Books, made some intriguing observations last week. As promised, here are a few more: "Could it be that publishers are discussing 'professionalism' online and at the trade shows in order to counter the charge that we are 'gatekeepers'? That's such a facile and free-form accusation, I think, though it is based in a real frustration both with what is published and with how it is published.

"Most publishers, I imagine, are resistant to the accusation that we set ourselves the task of keeping people from being published--keeping the gates. Self-publishers publish their own works--which I think is laudable, even in some ways enviable: to have that good faith in the value of your work, to believe in it sufficiently to undertake the task of entering it to the artistic, cultural, conversational cloud.

"But, by contrast, the charge that publishers give themselves, is to bring the work of others into that indefinable reading world. We endorse that work--with our investment and our colophon; that is, we stand behind the work of others, as people who are outside of the creative literary process itself--not disinterested people, certainly more idiosyncratic than objective, but still, people who are not the creators of the work. Unfortunately, this effort seems, suddenly in these exchanges, no longer to be laudable. Sometimes it sounds as though the effort is no longer even quite fully respectable. Do we use the term 'professional' as a defense against that new (if long-welling) perception of what we're working toward? I fear that sometimes we do.

"We must admit that it’s possible—even likely—that publishers have earned their way into this situation. This seems to me to have been a two-phase development made unexpectedly significant by technologies. The first is that the industry has published such a great number of books for so long that it’s fair to say if we’ve been attempting to be gatekeepers we have been performing horribly.  The second phase has been that--as a result of that flood of books--the quality of what’s being published has fallen steadily to the point that the word 'masterpiece' can now be thrown around pretty easily and pretty early. That, too, may be a defensive term in this open-mic world."

Arielle Eckstut, an agent and the co-author of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It... Successfully! (Workman): "Professionalism--especially when it comes to self-publishing and independent publishing--relates directly to being entrepreneurial, authorpreneurial if you will. Granted, a book is not a hair-care product, but when you go to sell one, it is a product nonetheless. I've found that all successful self-published and independently published authors do a substantial amount of the following: research, networking, writing and persevering. And these are all things that any author can do. Plus, with all the new venues and platforms available to writers, your chances of actually getting a book out there are better than they have been at any time in history. And of course, the more professional you and your package are, the better your chances."

Nancy Mills, publisher of Pie in the Sky Publishing and president of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association: "The definition of professionalism shouldn't be any different in the publishing business than any other business. There are certain rules in the business world that apply straight across the board. Because there is so much competition, in virtually every aspect of the book business, professionalism is paramount. In my opinion, professionalism is made up of equal parts of consideration and expertise. For the same reason you wouldn't arrive up at your attorney's office without an appointment you should never assume that a bookseller is sitting around, waiting for an independent publisher, author or small press representative to arrive for a pitch. 'Why don't you carry my books?' is just below 'You suck!' on the list of the least professional opening lines with a bookseller. Respect for others' time and being mindful of all the obligations and responsibilities that booksellers have today must be uppermost in the process."

Teresa Funke, author and president of Teresa Funke & Co. (and one of the panelists on the recent MPIBA trade show panel "Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?"): "Indie authors need to be as professional as they can be. They need, first and foremost, to get their books professionally edited and designed. They need to produce good support materials and a solid marketing plan. They need at least a rudimentary website or online presence. They need business cards. And they need an established method for dealing with the various types of booksellers they will be working with. They need a good invoicing and shipping system, for example, or better yet, a distributor. And they need clear contact information on all of their materials. If an author does not provide these things, she needs to think of herself as a hobbyist, not a professional. There's nothing wrong, by the way, with being a hobbyist writer, just as there's nothing wrong with painting as a hobby or playing the piano. But if you want to take that next step into the 'real world' of selling and marketing your books, you need to be professional. And the more professionally an author behaves, the more professionally she'll be treated."

Can we finally release--or at least parole--"professionalism" from the harsh confines of its quotation marks? Stay tuned.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1317


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.