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An Interview with the Director of Small Press United

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Richard T. WilliamsCM:     I’m here with Richard T. Williams, who is in charge of IPG’s Small Press United distribution program. As I understand it, Richard, we’ve had a small press program for twenty-some years. What makes this one more pertinent to the industry today?

RTW:   A few years ago we realized the small press industry was really booming. Technology had advanced and was more affordable, granting people access to resources that could produce viable, trade-worthy books. Startup publishers from all over were sending us good-looking, finished books on timely topics with publicity plans ready to go, but we weren’t able to distribute them right away because of our traditional semi-annual catalog model. As a result we turned the program into a rolling submission model. We now publish a printed SPU catalog five or six times a year, and we add these titles to our weekly metadata feeds very quickly so that the books will appear in search engines and account databases throughout the industry as being available right away.

Our previous program was a partnership with IBPA (back then called PMA). We would meet twice a year with Jan Nathan and some PMA board members and select a few books for our catalog. Sales through the program rapidly hit more than one million dollars annually, but the needs of the industry outgrew that format.

CM:     I remember back when I had something to do with this program, the publisher would already have a skid of books in his garage, and he was very anxious to get them moving. So when I had to say, “We can help you out in 6 months,” it was not a happy conversation.

RTW:   Exactly. And this is another way new technology comes into play. POD and e-book options make it possible to do smaller test printings rather than the 5,000 copy runs that used to be necessary to achieve a reasonable unit cost.

CM:     Will you take on a publisher with a book that’s only in POD, or only available in an e-book edition?

RTW:   Absolutely. These formats are now completely valid in today’s marketplace. What we try to do is have all of our distributed titles available in both electronic and print formats, because we can cross-promote them. When publishers come to us with e-book editions only, we will try to convince them also to take part in our affordable POD program. Likewise, when publishers come to us with only a print book, we explain to them the advantages of having digital copies available, and we arrange to get the e-book conversion done for them at a very low price. IPG handles the production of many thousands of e-book and POD titles every year, which has allowed us to drive the cost to our publishers for both formats way down.

CM:     How do we choose titles for the program now?

RTW:   Our online application process allows publishers to complete a short form with a cover image and some basic book information. We use that information to investigate the subject category and to research how other titles in that category are performing. We discover quite quickly whether the publisher is truly aware of the market; whether the package can compete with the other books in that category; and whether the book is priced correctly, formatted correctly, and has a competitive cover. There was a time when you could almost pick the best small press books by the quality of their covers. Now, however, even the most amateurish titles can look very professional (new technology again), so we have to be very diligent.

CM:     So the program is quite selective: the books accepted really have to have a good chance of selling well. But do you sometimes take on a proposition where perhaps the book is not quite there but it looks like the publisher has the stuff to make a publishing company succeed; and where the next title, with the help of some good advice, might really fly?

RTW:   Absolutely. We are always looking for publishers with potential, and we will sometimes take on a title with minor problems that cannot be rectified because it is already in print. But what we prefer is to be involved in the publishing process early enough to be able to make suggestions that will optimize a title’s salability. Perhaps a different title or subtitle is necessary, or a minor adjustment in price that will make a title more competitive for its category, or a cover simply needs more “pop”—these are minor things we can work with, and suggesting changes is just part of our basic service.

CM:     Can you give me some examples of having done that sort of thing?

RTW:   I don’t want to name specific publishers, but there have been dozens of instances in recent years where our suggestions have resulted in stronger buyer response and therefore greater sales. For most publishers, this is simply a learning curve. Once it is overcome, some publishers who begin with just one or two titles will gain confidence in the market and eventually develop a list of ten or twenty books in print—real publishing companies under way.

CM:     So we accept a title or titles for distribution. What do we do to actually sell the books?

RTW:   As part of IPG, SPU uses the same sales force: a dozen in-house people who sell to major national retailers, wholesalers, and mass merchandisers; 35 or so commissioned reps who call upon the independent bookstores and major museum accounts throughout the U.S. and Canada; more than 100 gift reps for titles that are relevant to the specialty retail market; 15 reps who cover teacher supply stores and school districts; and a six-person in-house special sales team that reaches deeper into the education market and to accounts outside the book trade such as outdoors and public lands, sporting goods stores, and department stores. This is very active selling. We open the pipeline for all sales channels but then aggressively push the books through those channels. Some distribution services are content to simply make titles available. Usually they collect monthly fees that cover their overhead and have no incentive to sell. As we only make money when we sell a book, SPU is motivated.

CM:     Is there a fee to sign up for the program?

RTW:   There is no application fee, but there is a $200 setup fee when a publisher is accepted into the program. It doesn’t matter how many titles a publisher has or how long the publisher remains in the program. This one-time fee helps us cover the cost of setting up titles in our databases and catalogs and it aids our ability to stay on the cutting edge of the industry. It is not like the recurring monthly fees that other programs charge. We sustain our business by selling.

CM:     So the SPU program is able to use all the sales tools that IPG in general uses to sell books?

RTW:   Yes, and an important part of my job is to make sure that the SPU titles get their fair share of the sales and marketing staff’s attention.

CM:     How do we market e-books?

RTW:   E-book promotion and digital distribution is very new, and many people are trying to learn it on the fly. But we’re way ahead of the curve. We have relationships with more than 300 different e-book resellers—not just Amazon, Apple, and the other consumer-facing e-book stores–and we have a dedicated team in-house that works directly with our publishers to find promotional opportunities and to involve them in the e-book resellers’ various marketing packages and promotions.

CM:     What is a good sale of an SPU title?

RTW:   Well, that depends on the category. Traditionally for an indie publisher, if you can sell through 1,000 copies of a title in a year, you have published a pretty solid backlist book, and you can hope to sell more copies over time, perhaps many more. Some SPU titles sell several thousand copies in their first year, some sell only a few hundred. Much depends on the size of the category. In our view no market is too big or too small. The essential thing is that there is a clearly defined market, which means that a publisher knows how to target the customers who have something to gain from the title, usually a problem solved or a special interest met. Our job is to get the books out into the marketplace so this can happen.

CM:     Can you point to particular titles that have done especially well?

The Carnival at Bray

RTW:   Currently, we have a YA book entitled The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley and published by Elephant Rock Books. It has won numerous awards from the ALA and has been selected by prestigious organizations as one of the best of its kind right now. It was perhaps the fifth book that the publisher brought to us, and is a very good example of how an independent publisher can keep working and learning until they get everything right. The book has really taken off, and it is now one of the top-trending titles on the entire IPG list. Recently, we had two books of photographs taken by the newly-discovered genius photographer Vivian Maier. She was a nanny by profession, but after her death thousands of rolls of undeveloped film–which turned out to contain stunning images of people on the street—were found hidden in a storage locker. These books are gorgeously produced and stunning to behold. You would never guess that they were published by a small press. This community is just so exciting and vital right now.

CM:     Is the program still linked in an important way to IBPA and its mission?

RTW:   Yes. Along with IBPA, we recognize the viability and the cultural importance of the independent publishing community. Upon sign-up, we grant publishers a new IBPA membership or renewal because we value IPBA’s marketing and educational programs. They help SPU succeed.

CM:     What do you see on the horizon for indie publishing?

RTW:   More self-publishing. It used to be the case that “self-published” titles were considered second-rate and not worth bringing to the market because there was no established publisher involved in vetting these titles with editorial control. The real distinction we need to make now is whether or not, for any title, there has been a set of eyes other than the author’s to perfect and improve the final product. No author can edit his or her own work. Creating a marketable trade book requires some critical distance and special expertise. Fortunately, there are now ways to have solid self-published books edited and designed by professionals; and there are companies that can capably market such “self-published” books. Of course, SPU is one of them—and our selectivity doubles as curation and quality assurance for a skeptical market.

CM:      Can you speak about other author services out there?

RTW:    The landscape is crowded, but some editors, marketers, and other publishing consultants genuinely want to help deliver great products to the market. We recommend that authors looking to self-publish who need this kind of support do their research first. IBPA is a great place to start networking and gathering recommendations.

CM:      What is next for your program?

RTW:    I want the SPU program to be a leader in the shift away from the traditional expectations of the book industry. The idea that books have to be prepped for sales six months prior to their publication dates is an increasingly bizarre idea in a world that moves so much faster than it used to. We need to be able to bring on a title regardless of what other titles are happening at the same time. I want to be able to sign a book, prep it for the market, position it for our customers, and sell it right away. There are problems to be overcome; in fact many of the traditions of this very mature industry need to change, as they have not all kept up with the advances in technology. It really should be the interests of consumers, not the interests of industry professionals, that determine how we market books.

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