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An Interview with Our Publisher Development Manager

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Mary3IPG CEO Curt Matthews sits down with Publisher Development Manager Mary Rowles to discuss the characteristics that make for an ideal relationship between an independent publisher and a book distributor, the necessity of publicity plans and comprehensive metadata, and the role a Publisher Development Manager plays in the ultimate success of a book.

CM: This is an interview with Mary Rowles, whose official title at IPG is Publisher Development Manager. She has an incredibly rich background in the book business. So, Mary, give us a short description of a long career.

MR: Well, I came out of college with a major in English. I pictured myself in New York City as an editor. I wasn’t quite qualified for a publishing job yet, so I started working for a book wholesaler, The Bookman in Minneapolis. After that I was a house rep for a number of leading publishers, including St. Martin’s Press. Then I found myself working as a commission rep for a high-powered sales group in the Midwest. After that I did a stint as a retailer buying children’s books for a strong independent bookstore in the Chicago suburbs. So I have been on both sides of the table, buying and selling books for both large and small players in the book business. I’ve been with IPG for the past fourteen years.

CM: Let’s walk through what you do when we are in the very early stages of considering whether we should bring a publisher on for distribution.

MR: I look closely at the application the publisher gives us after the initial contact; this can tell me a lot about where they have been and where they could be going. Of course I take a hard look at their books in print and do research on their sales history, but mainly I want to judge what chance a publisher has to significantly grow its business. So I’m always looking for a publisher whose list has been undersold, or who hasn’t quite yet gotten its publishing program into focus but could do so with some solid advice from our team. If their business cannot grow, they don’t want us and we don’t want them.

CM: What are the typical questions that publishers have early on about working with us? Are there some typical misconceptions?

MR: Of course they want to know what we can do for them. What they may not ask is what we don’t do. There are parts of book marketing that we cover, and there are parts that are the publisher’s responsibility. For instance, author appearances are better coordinated by the publisher because the publisher has direct access to the author and the venue. And publicity and PR are usually handled by the publisher. We offer detailed advice on these matters, but in general our job is to get the books onto the bookstore shelves, while the publisher’s job is to inform the public that their titles are available.

CM: Once a publisher comes on board, what’s your role then?

MR: My role then is to determine and begin to fill in their knowledge gap, however wide or narrow it is. There’s a big difference in expertise between a publisher who has worked in the business for a long time and someone who is new to publishing. The book business is complicated and much of what you need to know is non-obvious. I quiz new publishers about what they know, what they’ve done, and what they’re looking for. Sometimes the conversation is as simple as how to select a BISAC Subject Code. Sometimes it’s about how they might want to refine their business model or change their whole marketing approach.

CM: At what stage do we get involved with a new title?

MR: As early as possible. In fact, if a publisher has a book they’re not quite sure is a good publishing venture, I’ll sometimes talk to them even before they make the acquisition decision. We want to make sure they know how much the book is going to cost to edit and print, how many readers they could expect to reach, and what the resources are that they would need to devote to the title to make it successful.

CM: Tell me about the meetings where publishers discuss such matters as covers, titles, price points, and marketing strategies with our marketing staff.

MR: I’m normally the person at IPG who starts these conversations with publishers, but of course I draw on the expertise of everyone in the company. The gift trade is very different from ordinary trade. The education market is quite unlike the library market. The independent bookstores do not much resemble the chain bookstores. And special is a thing unto itself. We have experts in all of these channels, and very often publishers spend most of a day at our office with our whole marketing staff refining both their individual titles in progress and their general marketing plans.

CM: What information do we need about new titles so that we can effectively create catalogs and metadata?

MR: For our many catalogs (both print and electronic) we need at a minimum good catalog copy, author biographies, marketing plans, and book specifications. For our metadata we need an amount of information for each title that surprises many publishers. A good example of this is our need to know the author’s hometown. Why? Buyers use this to determine regional interest in a title, and if we don’t provide it, our customers are really annoyed.

CM: Let’s go through the major information headings. What is in a really good author bio?

MR: How is this author qualified to write this book? Is he/she a professional in the book’s subject area, a recognized expert in the field, the author of related articles or books?

CM: I know we also ask publishers for comparable titles. What is that all about?

MR: Comparable titles are books that are similar enough to your new one to help predict its sales. From our buyers’ point of view, a comparable title is a book that is about the same price and the same format as yours. It has been recently published by a house that is comparable in size and reputation to yours. And while this comp title is perhaps not addressed to exactly the same topic as yours, it would seem to be attractive to a related or similar audience. A bestseller from a major house will probably not be a comp for your title. Obviously there is a lot of art to selecting the right comps to help your title on its way.

CM: How about publicity plans?

MR: Publicity plans are essential. The earlier we can have them, the better. The more specific, the better. Books don’t just sell themselves. Some of our client publishers have the resources to do extensive author tours and media blitzes. Most do not. But we need to have something to say about what will be done to support every title, even if that support is only a very modest publicity budget and a bare-bones approach to generating reviews. Some of our publishers have mounted novel PR efforts to draw the attention of readers, and fortunately social media is affordable and effective for almost every sort of book.

CM: And then there’s this magical phrase—“Why to Buy.” What is this idea and what is an example of one that would work?

MR: Well, the reality is that a sales rep sitting in a bookstore office has only a few seconds to engage the buyer in conversation about any one book. An effective “Why to Buy” is whatever can really catch the bookstore buyer’s attention— the hook. It’s a sort of elevator pitch for the reps to use in the limited time they have to make their case. For fiction it might be a quirky, interesting plot twist or character. For non-fiction it might be a new take on a trending subject. Saying a book is a “great read” does not get the job done.

CM: So when we ask publishers for good catalog copy, good author information, comparable titles, publicity plans, why to buys, and complicated metadata way ahead of pub date, I take it we do so because our customers insist that we supply it when they need it.

MR: They absolutely demand this information. The major accounts will not even consider stocking titles if essential metadata is not available in their systems well before our sales people arrive in their offices. Here are the rules to this demanding game: We have to send out metadata on new titles about four to six months in advance of publication. We send ONIX metadata feeds to over 300 major customers every week, and we make dozens of updates to this data every day. This is a very big deal now in the supply chain for books.

Many publishers find this need for so much information so far in advance of publication to be paradoxical in the extreme. It has become quicker and easier to edit, design, and manufacture a book, and in every other part of American life instant gratification is the name of the game. And It is a real challenge for indie publishers to work so far ahead.

CM: Why do the book industry gatekeepers continue to insist on long lead times?

MR: The reasons are many and complex, but in essence it is that there are so many books competing for shelf and mind space. Indie publishers need to understand that if they want to swim with the big fish, they will have to play by their rules. Of course we do “drop in” titles when we have too—a world series book, breaking news—but if we do not have a compelling reason to offer our customers as to why they should go to the extra trouble of handling a short lead time title, sales will suffer.

CM: What effect does a publisher’s reputation have on the success of a book rep getting titles stocked at a store?

MR: Once a publisher has been with IPG for a year or so, the booksellers really begin to know that publisher’s particular capabilities. Are a publisher’s books reliably well-designed? Is the pricing appropriate? Are the books well reviewed in the right places? Does this publisher have a reputation for hitting its pub dates? This last consideration is probably the most important one. A reputation for missing pub dates is very hard to overcome. Booksellers love publishers who deliver titles that somehow exceed their expectations, even if these expectations are quite modest in terms of sales. Booksellers want to be surprised on the up-side.

CM: Do you give publishers advice on the timing and quantity of reprints?

MR: A badly timed or unnecessary reprint can be a disaster for a publisher, but so can letting a book go out-of-stock for even a short time. Reprints used to be a nightmare—the new copies would arrive at the warehouse just as the returns start to flood back in! But we now have much better information to work with. In addition to Bookscan sales data, we have incredibly detailed sell-through information direct from our major retail accounts and also from the national wholesalers. We know what these customers have of every title in stock at each of their stores and distribution centers, how many copies have sold through in the current week and last week, and whether demand is increasing or decreasing. Our inventory specialists know how to interpret this information and offer informed reprint advice to our publishers, and all of the IPG publishers have direct access to this sell-through data themselves.

CM: So, finally, you’ve been working with publishers forever. Have you observed any habits of mind or attitudes that are characteristic of successful as opposed to unsuccessful publishers?

MR: Yes. Of course some publishers just get lucky, and that’s hard to replicate. But I think that two-way communication with real players in the book business is crucial for success. I’m astounded at how some publishers are crazy about focus groups—would never publish a teen title without getting a group of their 14-year-old daughter’s friends together to comment on the cover—but spend very little time in bookstores looking hard at the competition. Likewise, national and regional trade shows, whether you exhibit at them or not, are great places to make direct contact with frontline booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and school teachers. These professionals can give you really valuable insight into what they think is wrong with the books that are being presented to them; what subject areas are in demand but for some reason are being neglected; and how you could make it easier for them to match up your books with the readers who could really benefit from them.

Comments (2)

[…] bookstores and things of that nature. Then we sent them to IPG and you guys were very responsive. Mary Rowles was the first person we talked to there and everyone was just really, really supportive and […]

Mary Rowles feels like an assistant publisher to us at CCC Publishing. Her insightful advice, subtitle suggestions, and future title recommendations have all been spot-on over the years. Any IPG client publisher who is not consulting with Mary at least on a semi-annual basis is doing their business a major disservice.

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