March 1, 2004

Jan Nathan: Independent Publishers Forge Ahead

By In Interviews

Jan Nathan, who devoted much of her professional life to helping small publishers, sadly passed away in 2007 after a one year battle with cancer and three years after this interview was conducted. She was instrumental in the founding of the Publishers Marketing Association (PMA), today known as the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). She touched the lives of many and her work, such as the IBPA and Small Press Month, outlives her. We remember her fondly. 

Once regarded as inconsequential or vanity-driven, independent book publishers in the United States and Canada have come into their own in recent years. In fact, thanks to computer technology, the Internet, and the relatively low cost of printing on demand, small press book publishers are not only able to compete with large publishing houses, they have actually forged ahead of them in gross sales.

According to a recent survey by the Publishers Marketing Association, “Independent and smaller publishers in the aggregate have annual sales of between $29.4 billion and $34.3 billion- approximately 15% to 27% greater than the reported base for the entire publishing industry.”

In addition, the report states there are over 73,000 small companies and independent publishers in America today with between one and ten active titles in print. What this means is that independent book publishers are flourishing and readers are buying their books in large enough numbers in a variety of niche categories to give corporate conglomerates that control the major publishing houses a run for their money.

This is not surprising, however, since major publishing houses today are more concerned with optimizing profits than promoting a diverse range of ideas or discovering new talent. And the best way for them to achieve higher profits is to use marketing strategies that promote the following categories: best-selling authors with successful track records, celebrity authors with large followings, and formula books that fall into genres that produce high sales figures.

Of course, one could make the argument that large publishers have always followed this strategy. True enough, but not to the extent that they do today. In the past, when major companies like Simon & Schuster or Little Brown were independently owned, they made more of an effort to discover new

talent, take more chances on innovative or unique material, and publish books that did not necessarily fit into a specific marketing niche. In today’s environment, independent publishers are the ones who are filling this need. They are the ones who are taking the industry in a more populist direction, creating new markets, and offering a broader range of subject matter.

Of course it is not all clear sailing for independent publishers, and there are many obstacles they must overcome on the road to profitability, most notably, promotion. How do small companies or self-publishers promote and publicize their books without spending a fortune on marketing and advertising? Not an easy task to be sure, but not an impossible one either. It requires a lot of time and hard work, clever marketing ideas and ingenuity, and most of all, good word of mouth about the book itself. This is where organizations like the Publishers Marketing Association can play a part. PMA is the largest nonprofit organization in the country designed to help independent publishers promote their books. Its executive director is Jan Nathan, who has been with the organization since its beginning in 1983. The Online Review was able to get in touch with the busy executive director this past month and discuss Small Press Month with her as well as the state of independent publishing in the United States today.

OR: Where do you see small press books and independent publishing headed in the next few years?

JN: Continued growth, in some areas more than others. Technology is a key to our industry, and the technology that was developed five or six years ago, known as print on demand (POD), has been both a boon and a bane to our industry. It is a wonderful technology in that it allows publishers to keep books in print year after year. They may only be selling 200-300 books a year, but they are still selling, and in that regard the technology is spectacular. It is also being misused, telling people that it is an inexpensive and quick way to enter the traditional world of publishing, which it is not. A publisher just can’t go to print with ten books and expect to get picked up by Barnes and Noble. Another downfall of this technology is that it is allowing too many people to produce something that has the shape of a book, but it is not a book. It hasn’t been well thought out, or properly written or designed.

OR: It seems there is a wide disparity with independently published books. Some are very good and should be picked up by large publishers whereas others are not very good and need a lot of work.

JN: Yes, unfortunately what happens when self-published books are bad, some people believe that they are reflective of the whole industry. Which isn’t fair to those people who have been developing independent publishing for 20 some years and doing everything right- and competing head to head with Simon and Schuster and HPJ.

OR: How are you going to be involved in Small Press Month?

JN: We’re always involved with that. We work jointly with the Small Press Center in New York, and it is a way of bringing recognition to an industry that shows that independent book titles are wonderful titles. We have the niche titles, the titles that people are looking for. We can’t promote a mainstream novel the way a major publishing house can, but we can promote the heck out of a niche title.

OR: What methods do you use?

JN: Every publisher is very, very independent (laughs) and very different in his or her approach. What generally happens is when an independent publisher comes into being the author knows a certain aspect of an industry. As an example, an eating disorder book came into being because a woman had an eating disorder. Then she removed herself from it and came up with a whole line of books about overcoming the disorder. And what she did was connect to all the therapists, all the clubs, and all the newsletters that dealt with eating disorders. Since she knew the address or location of anyone who had an eating disorder or who treats eating disorders, she could market directly to these groups by using standard mail, email, sending books to therapists, etc. I mean she’ll sell 20-30,000 books a year using these methods, and she’ll continue to sell her book year after year. And so, the independent is the master of the backlist whereas a major publishing house is the master of the front list and sells most of its books over the first year when the title first comes out. As a result, the independent company may end up with sales of 250,000 books, but it may take ten years to arrive at that number.

OR: Are nonfiction books generally easier to market than fiction?

JN: Yes, with the exception of specialty fiction. Mainstream fiction is much harder to market and more difficult when attempting to compete with major companies.

OR: Several years ago Rocket books and electronic books were becoming the hot new trend. Whatever happened to them?

JN: They died on the vine. First of all, they were too expensive. It didn’t make sense to download a book on an electronic product that cost $300 when you could buy the same book for $19.95. Secondly, there’s more to reading than just getting words on a screen. Reading is a tremendously sensual experience- the feel of the paper, the smell of the paper, the design of the book. These things are absent from electronic books.

OR: Have independent bookstores been helpful in buying small press books?

JN:Some yes, some no. Independent bookstores are trying to survive. So what do you do when you are trying to survive? You try to get good deals on John Grisham books and those that you know are going to sell. But some of them are very good at taking care of certain target markets. For example, if you had a bookstore in a place where there were a lot of runners, then you would want to keep up to date on all the latest books about running and romance the independent publishers who deal with running books. Even big stores like B&N and Borders are buying independent books that deal with specialty subjects. After all, they have a lot of shell space to fill up, and they are filling it up with a lot of small press books.

OR: How about libraries? Are they buying small press books?

JN: Librarians love to buy small press books. They love to find unique titles and buy them.

OR: What about books by self-publishers?

JN: What is the difference between a self-published book and an independent book? Many authors began as self-publishers and then became small press companies. The problem is self-published books have a negative connotation attached to them because sometimes self-publishers don’t take the proper steps to edit or design their books. In fact, we just put together a list of ten steps you need to follow to be a legitimate book publisher. And if you are not willing to follow these steps, then you are not a publisher.

OR: How valuable is it for small publishers to get reviews for their books?

JN: A review is extremely helpful to anyone who publishes a book, but it may not be a review in Publisher’s Weekly or Library Journal. It may be a review in a running magazine if the author did a book on running, or it may be a review in a newsletter, or another type of publication.

OR: So what are your best tips for publishing a book?

JN: The first one is to really study the marketplace before you write a book and decide what differentiates your book from what is already out there. Authors often make that mistake. They think their books are unique when they really aren’t. Secondly, you should give yourself every chance in the world by getting your book both professionally edited and professionally designed. Some people feel that the tools they have on the computer are enough to properly edit and design their books, but they are not enough. You cannot be the writer, the editor, and the designer of a book. After that, you need to sit down and use a reverse pyramid, to see who is the potential buyer of your book and how do I reach that person. Then you also need to look at which buyers parallel your target buyers and try to reach them. Sometimes you reach them through libraries, sometimes you reach them through direct mail, and sometimes you reach them from speaking in the back of the room. But each book is unique and each book needs a marketing plan.

OR: What independently published book comes to mind when you think of one that went on to become a big hit?

JN: DOS for Dummies (laughs). What bigger hit could there be than that! I mean the author started by driving up and down the highway selling his book from his pop-up van. And initially, everyone told him that his book wouldn’t sell because no one wants to be called a dummy.

OR: What about in the fiction department?

JN: One of the great stories is Tom Clancy, who went to a company that just published nonfiction military history books, and he convinced them to publish his book The Hunt for Red October. It was just the right timing, and eventually Putnam bought the book from his original publisher. And once the author becomes big, he usually stays with a big publisher because a small publisher does not have the money to do the promotion and publicity that a large one does.

OR:Finally, what is your overall impression of the small press business?

JN:It’s an exciting world! I love the people. They are all entrepreneurs and you cannot be in a room with these people and not be excited.

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