What Can Independent Presses Do to Survive These Uncertain Times?
An open letter sharing strategies and resources for the indie publishing community
Hello reader —
If you’re in any way a member of the independent publishing community (or a former member, or a recovering member, or an aspirational member), welcome. I hope you and yours are staying healthy and staying home, if able.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on the notion — oft-circulated these past few weeks — that the world we want to see at the end of this COVID-19 crisis is the world we need to forge, right now, together and on others’ behalves. As I rage and grieve, I also ask myself, “What kind of independent publishing industry do I want to see emerge from this exceptionally difficult time?”
And I ask the same of you: What sort of indie press community do you want to see survive — and thrive — in the years to come? What kind of independent publishing business model will best serve writers, artists, creators, and readers in the future? Which model will best serve the workers in our industry, from the warehouse floor to the production editor’s chair or the publicity assistant’s desk?
For my part, I want a more equitable industry. I want a more collaborative and cooperative one. And I believe partnerships, knowledge-sharing, equity, transparency, and resource-pooling might be independent publishing’s best tools to survive this unprecedented economic uncertainty. Selfishly, I’m also yearning to be useful to the colleagues and businesses and creators I adore. And I know many of us outside of the essential services sector are struggling with ways — beyond donating money or amplifying efforts or being kind — to be useful.
So together with my colleagues at ZG Communications, we’re bringing together a list of strategies, actionable steps, best practices, ideas, and resources that I hope will help independent presses navigate (and survive) the tough road ahead. Today and next week, we’ll share them here on Medium. These strategies are also available here in an easy-to-print-or-share Google doc (bit.ly/WhatCanIndiePressesDo).
Below, you’ll find part one of my recommendations for what strategic efforts independent presses can undertake during this terribly uncertain time. How publishers can support not only their own lists, authors, and staff, but also the bookselling industry at large. How we can balance the need to sell books in order to keep our lights on and our authors paid with a sensitivity to the dire economic crisis facing readers, booksellers, and our own staff.
Yes, some of these are strategies which I would usually offer through a traditional consulting model. But I want these ideas to be useful to all indie publishers now, when you need them, rather than in a few years, when a fraction of the surviving presses might want to hire the ZG team for a handful of hours. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, nor do I assume a one-size-fits-all approach. There are indie presses of every size and budget, and there are innumerable pressures facing each list. But I hope that among these many strategies, you and your colleagues might find a few that work for your publishing program, and for the books you’re publishing into the summer and fall of 2020 — and beyond.
Look for Part Two of these strategies here.
Don’t be afraid to reach out with questions. Follow ZG Communications on Medium. Let me know what you find useful! Feel free to send suggestions or links, and we’ll add to the strategies, crediting you as you prefer. These resources are intended to be dynamic and collaborative.
We’re in this together. I mean it.
Jenn Abel Kovitz
The Digital First Impression is Now the Only Impression
For the moment, book discovery is happening almost exclusively online. The reader’s first (and subsequent) impression of a book is a digital one. Your quarantined aunt recommends a new book on her Facebook page. Your local indie moves their staff picks to Instagram Stories. Cheryl Strayed recommends a writer’s memoir on her new podcast. Your group chat starts sharing lines of inspirational poetry. Your library starts a YouTube channel featuring children’s book readings. Your favorite cookbook author works her way through her own recipes on Zoom. Readers are encountering book recommendations and book culture entirely online.
And these same readers are distracted. They are distracted by endless scrolling on Instagram and Twitter, by the latest headline notifications on their smartphones, by their bone-deep anxieties and their bank account balances.
So how do independent publishers (sensitively, successfully) reach our readers and find new ones, now and into the weeks and months ahead? How do presses nurture the very industry we need in order to survive? Independent publishers must be agile, cooperative, community-focused, strategic, and creative. They must get serious about being digital-first consumer brands (meaning: you are a brand that sells things to consumers, yes?) and meeting their buyers and their readers online.
Begin To Pivot — Quickly
Strategic decision-making right now can feel overwhelming. But the presses that are best positioned to support their Fall 2020 titles are those who have made firm decisions about where to move pub dates, reallocate (or cut) resources to current frontlist titles, pivot to a digital marketing plan, or lean into backlist discovery. The sooner independent presses make these difficult decisions — and communicate said decisions clearly to staff, sales partners, authors, and agents — the sooner these presses will have a clear path to explore some of the ideas below, as well as set up Fall 2020 titles (and authors) for the new bookselling realities we will face.
Get Your (Metadata) House in Order
Metadata matters, and it’s one of the most cost-effective investments publishers can make in your list. Robust, dynamic (meaning consistently updated) metadata can drive backlist, digital, and frontlist book sales. And by “metadata”, I don’t just mean keywords or BISACs or comp titles (although those are essential too!). I mean title, subtitle, and descriptive copy. And the good news about these best practices is that they’re evergreen, meaning you could (read: should) be creating processes and habits to encourage robust metadata long after we have survived the COVID-19 crisis.
Here are a few strategies to optimize your metadata for discovery and clarity:
[Tip: use https://neilpatel.com/ubersuggest/ and Amazon/Google’s predictive search suggestions to understand the competition/search volume/interest/consumer awareness of your word choices]
- Have you searched for this title on Google, Amazon, CataList and/or Edelweiss to see whether it is already a heavily saturated title (which would impede discovery)?
- If you have a subtitle, is it optimized for clarity and discovery? Have you searched for the keywords in your title/subtitle using the tools above to ensure you’re using the most appropriate words/phrasing to ensure clarity and discovery?
Descriptive Copy: write for a digital buyer/browser
[Tip: the first ~25 words of your descriptive copy are the most important for digital search engine optimization and cataloging, as many vendors’ AI only scan the first 25 words. Amazon will only display the first 80–120 words — depending on line breaks and character count — suppressing the remainder of the descriptive copy with a “read more” button]
- Did you put your most important, #1 keyphrase (the entire phrase) in the first 80 characters of the descriptive copy?
- Are the most important things a reader needs to know in the first 80 words of your copy (this includes blurbs, review praise, bolded headers, etc)?
- Do you have at least a monthly recurring task scheduled to review/test/update descriptive copy so that it is optimized for digital discovery and conversion to sale?
- Do you have at least a monthly recurring task scheduled to update descriptive copy with any major media hits, news, award noms/wins, etc? For example, “NATIONAL BESTSELLER” or “LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD SHORTLIST,” etc.
[Tip: use https://neilpatel.com/ubersuggest/ or Google’s and Amazon’s predictive search to find appropriate keywords — keywords that demonstrate this is what readers/consumers are already searching for]
- This is an especially important project for supporting backlist and ebook sales
- What are your top 10 most important keywords? These are the keywords most likely to enable discovery around and provide context for your book. List these as your first 10 keywords.
- Have you entered keywords for all available editions of your book?
- What are any awards, holidays, gift opportunities, book club searches, media hits, bestseller lists, etc that someone might search for which this title would be an appropriate result or comp result? For example, “NYT bestseller, New York Times bestseller, book club books, gifts for moms, books for dads, Booker Prize winner, grad gifts” etc.
- Have you identified at least three comp titles published within three years of the book’s on-sale date, and ensured that you are not comparing fiction to nonfiction, poetry to nonfiction, etc?
- Have you examined your comp titles’ categories on Edelweiss and Amazon for BISAC ideas?
- Do you have a minimum of 3 BISAC Subject Codes for each title?
- Have you made every attempt to avoid any “General” BISAC subject codes
- Have you applied your BISACs to all editions (HC, pbk, audio, digital) of the title?
- Have you utilized at least one regional BISAC theme, as specifically as possible?
Be Cooperative & Community-Focused
Support Independent Booksellers
- If you want independent booksellers to support your list, you need to support the bookstores. Identify your top 50–100 indie accounts and read their COVID-related communications on their websites, understand how they’re handling online sales, and follow them on social media. Then reach out to key accounts directly and ask them — human to human, industry partner to industry partner — what do you need from us right now?
- Consider a giving campaign to BINC like the one Abrams recently ran (leveraging their most influential authors), or make a donation to individual stores’ GoFundMe efforts.
- Share the ABA’s “Action Items for Authors” resource with your authors and their agents
- Purchase gift cards from the stores and gift them to your employees and key partners.
- If a financial donation isn’t possible, amplify the stores’ fundraising efforts on your social media efforts, and ask all of your authors and agent partners to do the same
- Explore additional points of discount for indie bookstores with your distributor/field sales force. What if you incentivize with a Summer Backlist Bonus? Or create thematic collections that come with several additional points of discount or extended payment terms? What if you shipped directly from your printer to the stores? Or offered signed preorder exclusives with a store in the author’s hometown? Make any offer to bookstores as frictionless as possible. You don’t want to add to a store’s/staff’s labor.
- Advocate/agitate for extended payment terms and credit extensions for all stores with your distributor.
- Reach out to the regional bookselling associations to inquire about ways you can partner with them on specific titles that are appropriate for their region (for example, SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, has launched a successful “Reader Meet Writer” virtual event series where 50+ member stores simultaneously co-host an author’s event). The list of the regional bookselling associations lives here.
- If you don’t offer direct sales on your website, ensure every book’s landing page on your website includes a buy button/link to the title on Bookshop.org. Don’t forget to become a Bookshop affiliate and then update all of your links to earn a percentage of every sale directed from your site/social media shares. As a Bookshop affiliate, you’re supporting your own bottom line and that of Bookshop’s indie bookstore members.
Over-Communicate With Your Authors
Authors are understandably anxious during this time, especially those with books publishing in the spring and early summer of 2020. Communicate your new strategy to your authors and their agents as quickly as possible, as delays in this communication can lead to greater author anxiety (and in some cases, weeks of lost work, lost opportunities, or strained relations). Again, please share the ABA’s “Action Items for Authors” resource with your authors and their agents.
Advertise With The Outlets Whom You Want to See Through This Difficult Time
If you can afford it, advertise with the digital outlets, nonprofits, and partners who are most important to the coverage and conversation around your books. Reach out to ad reps at these outlets, as most of them are offering advertising discounts during this time. Advertising may not always drive sales, but it does serve as essential literary citizenship.
- Advertising might include Instagram grid giveaways, author social media takeovers, dedicated newsletters or newsletter ads, banner ads, podcast underwriting, paid social media ads on partners’ accounts, and much more.
- Make sure any campaign has a single, clear call-to-action.
- Ensure your ad’s landing page makes it very easy for readers to “convert” (make a purchase, join a mailing list, donate, etc).
- If you’re concerned/aware that your own website’s landing page might be deterring buyers (not converting well), your book’s page on Bookshop.org (in the US) or Indigo (in Canada) are good alternative landing pages for your ad campaigns.
- Ensure your ads are mobile-first/mobile-friendly/mobile-legible (expect readers to encounter ads on their phones).
- LitHub.com has affordable and comprehensive ad packages that include podcast underwriting for a rapidly growing platform of content. Email Justin Alvarez: email@example.com
Create and Join Coalitions and Community Networks of Support
- Call upon your authors, illustrators, and creators to help share the state of the book industry and the many ways readers can help. They are in a position to educate and activate readers on their own platforms. [Repeating this link: ABA’s “Action Items for Authors” resource.]
- Review and share this Resource for Writers list from Poets & Writers, with particular urgency around the funds available to BIPOC and other marginalized writer communities.
- Think beyond the book world. Can you bundle your books with a gift card/extra from another local business you want to support (for example, Massy Books are promoting their neighbor, a tea house, as an “extra” purchase)? Who are the artistic organizations who might benefit from co-hosting a virtual event? Join local small business or sustainability Slack networks to resource-share and brainstorm.
- Practice and share Rayo and Honey’s “Ways to lift up artists, creatives, & small business in the time of Covid-19”
“Look for the helpers,” as Mister Rogers would say.
What other independent presses are leading a new way forward in our industry? Whose efforts might you learn and draw inspiration from?
- Europa’s weekly virtual OUR BRILLIANT FRIENDS After Dinner Book Club & Watch Party to support #SaveIndieBookstores.
- Haymarket’s ebook program: “As well as offering discounted titles, US-based publisher Haymarket have made ten books available for free download — including key works by Angela Davis, Naomi Klein, and Grace Chang — all chosen for their relevance to the current moment.” (Red Pepper)
- The Loft Literary Center’s Wordplay book festival is now entirely virtual in 2020.
- Vancouver Writers Fest are offering a weekly “Books and Ideas” newsletter where they are sharing publisher, bookstore and community initiatives with thousands of subscribers.
- ECW is reaching out to book clubs across Canada to create intimate author/reader gatherings for Vivek Shraya’s new novel, The Subtweet.
- Write Bloody North is offering a “poetry phone”, a toll-free number where you can hear poetry, or share some of your own: 1–844-WBNORTH.
- Subscribe to Shelf Awareness and PW Daily for other examples of publishers innovating and giving back.
Experts and Further Resources
- In the US, the Independent Publishers Caucus has prepared a list of Coronavirus Resources and the ABA and BINC have created https://www.saveindiebookstores.com/
- The Independent Publishers Caucus hosts a Town Hall every other Friday at 1pm EST. Subscribe to their newsletter to receive links to register for these free events.
- In Canada, the Association of Canadian Publishers maintains a list of resources
- When in doubt, Google it! For so many of the strategies outlined above, there are countless blog entries, webinars, and YouTube tutorials available. Check the date on your sources. Digital marketing becomes outdated quickly, so you’ll want to make sure you’re reading or watching tutorials that are actually applicable to digital marketing in 2020.
- Reach out to the Book Industry Study Group (in the US) or BookNet (in Canada) to browse/request their extensive guidelines and best practices.
- Of course, we’re here for you! ZG Communications is a feminist, B-corp, full-service agency for publishers and arts organizations. We offer a wide range of publicity, marketing, and business strategy services, as well as best practice webinars and customizable training.
In the spirit of community, here are other agencies whose expertise and partnership we highly value and recommend:
- Nectar Literary
- Cursive Communications
- Deborah Sloan
- Emily Cook at Cursor Marketing Services
- Geode Literary
**Click Here for Part Two: “More Essential Digital Marketing Strategies for Independent Presses”.**