Jacqueline Church Simonds is the president of Beagle Bay Books, an independent book publisher and distributor. She offers wisdom and guidance from the trenches of independent publishing.
1. What is the most difficult part of being an independent press?
Being small. Especially if you are a one or two book (micro) press, getting taken seriously by big-time review sources, wholesalers and bookstores is a fierce, uphill struggle. It takes determination and a strong marketing plan.
The big reviewers (Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal/School Library Journal and Booklist) get approximately 1500 books a day for review, so they are really looking for a reason to toss out your book. They are automatically suspicious of micro presses. They expect micros to have sloppy typesetting, crummy fact-checking, ugly covers and no marketing plan. That means we have to work harder to produce a perfect galley with great, impressive blurbs and strong marketing plans that will make them think twice. And still it doesn't always work.
Wholesalers are a big problem. It seems easy enough to get into Baker & Taylor, especially if you're a member of SPAN or PMA. But in point of fact, they will not stock micro publishers (you will be in their database, but as a Special Order Only). They have a terrible fear of owing you money (from returns), so they will return books within two weeks after ordering them. That is, until you have created demand.
Ingram doesn't want to know micro presses. They insist on a publisher signing with 10 titles, and that those 10 generate at least $25,000 in sales per year with Ingram. They also have a certain amount of advertising you have to do with them. We got into Ingram when they opened their doors for three months to micro presses about four years ago. Before we had 10 books, it was a struggle to stay with them.
Booksellers are a real problem, too. Of course, it's tough to get into Barnes & Noble or Borders. They're big corporations (although B&N is not terribly hard to crack if you have a title you can prove works for them). But the independents -- who one would have thought might want to differentiate themselves by carrying more diverse titles -- are very averse to small press products. The problem for them is 2-fold. With so much pressure from the big-box stores, they can't afford to take too many chances. If a book doesn't sell, they don't want it taking up valuable shelf space. And let's face it, it's hard to afford a big, splashy marketing campaign -- like the big publishers -- that will drive customers into the bookstores. So booksellers know a small press title is automatically going to be a slow seller. From an accounting standpoint, they don't want to write a gazillion checks to all those little publishers. They'd prefer to aggregate orders to the big wholesalers. That's why often a small press will approach a bookstore and the first question is: "Are you in Ingram?" If the answer is no, they'll be less likely to say yes.
One last hurdle for dealing with indy booksellers: if you do get your book in stock, you'll have to check back with them monthly to make sure they are keeping it in stock. Even if it sells, they won't re-order. I have no idea why.
2. What rewards do you take from being a publisher?
I love taking an idea, working with it and then seeing it come out as a physical book. Even better is when I have a customer come back to us with: "Oh, I loved this story!" or "This book changed my life!" It doesn't get any better than that!
3. Beagle Bay Books is also a book distributor. Can you describe that process?
For a lengthier discussion on what distributors are and what they do, as opposed to wholesalers and what they do, please see my article on Shel Horowitz's Frugal Marketing web page.
Book distributors pick, pack, ship, invoice and pay out for each title they have. They are the go-between for the publisher to get their titles into wholesalers (B&T, Ingram and a host of others) and bookstores. The advantage of having a distributor is that they give you the leverage to stop looking like a micro publisher. You are one of many books in a distributor's catalog. The pre-press reviewers like to have books submitted by distributors. One of the biggest hits against micro presses is lack of national distribution. With that assured, a review is more likely (though not guaranteed). We like to see books 4-6 months before their street date to help them get a good launch.
Like every other manufacturing process, publishing involves middlemen. While you can do all the work of a distributor -- thus cutting out at least one intermediate (and monetary) step -- it is more work and more of your time. As we often say on the Self-Publishing List, it all depends on your business model, what will work for you.
4. How about a little information on Beagle Bay Books?
Beagle Bay Books -- named after my barking dog, and yes, our logo is actually a portrait of him (and if you like beagles, click on his picture to see his scrap book) -- started when I wanted to publish my book, Captain Mary, Buccaneer, an adult pirate tale. I did so many things wrong, I can't begin to enumerate them. The most damning of all was when the books were delivered and I stood before the cartons -- containing 3000 books -- and I burst into tears. I had NO IDEA how I was going to sell them. And I was pretty sure, "If you print it, they will come," wasn't going to happen.
Since then, we've learned and put to use that knowledge. We've published four other novels -- of which, Gudrun's Tapestry won an IPPY and a ForeWord Book of the Year award. We've published five non-fiction, which have also won awards. We specialize in women's historical adventure, travel, and women's personal development titles. We say that we publish books that empower and inform.
We got into the distributing business when a friend of a friend lost her distributor. Then more people came on board. We currently have 22 books that we handle. We only handle non-fiction.
For the titles that aren't quite "on message," we developed an imprint, Creative Minds Press. These projects each have a niche both inside and outside the trade.