Too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing...
Last Wednesday I visited The London Book Fair for the first time ever. It was an inspiring, affirming and overwhelming day. I made some great contacts, am several steps closer to having my books more freely available in the United States (I went primarily to find a wholesaler/ distributor) and got a great perspective on the way the 'industry' works as a whole. And whilst it was a great day and a great show, I am so glad I didn't visit three years ago. I can pretty much say for certain that had I attended before the success of How to Style your Brand, I would probably never have released the book. The publishing industry is a gargantuan beast. It's traditional. There are big barriers to entry. And there aren't many opportunities for people to do things a different way.
Sure, the industry is making allowances for self-published authors but the model is very much centred around print-on-demand, which is fine if you are printing a black and white novel or business book. Not so fine if you have a vision for a beautiful, coffee-table style book that's as useful as it is visually inspirational. I've come to realise over the years that printing, storing and distributing my books is only part of the story. Wholesalers have minimum sales levels before they'll speak to you. You need to be able to manage and anticipate stock levels and demand. Running out isn't good, nor is over-ordering. There's a fine balance to be struck.
To truly achieve a book's potential you need to put a lot of energy into sales. You need to have the right contacts with the right buyers and get your book into the right shops. And you need to be prepared to take risks. Terrifying stories floated around on Wednesday of books being over-sold into large retailers only to have an 80% return rate (when the store realises they aren't going to sell them) a couple of months later. Worse still, the publisher pays a 'restocking' fee for stock that really shouldn't have been sold in the first place. Added to that you've got to put more investment into printing more books to keep up with the demand and all the while, you're crossing your fingers that they are actually going to sell. It's too much for a small, one-girl-band publisher to cope with, on top of everything else that comes with running a business and a family.
Self-publishing the 'traditional' way
Self-publishing has, I'm afraid, rightly got a lot of bad press within the industry. Amateur covers leak credibility from the get-go. Poor edits, hard-to-follow structures and books riddled with typos abound. It's hardly surprising that industry stalwarts scathingly describe the companies that help create these books as Vanity Publishers. There are people doing it well, but there are more people doing it less well. And I don't know about you, but that's neither reassuring nor inspiring to me.
So you can see how I might have been a little despondent about my 'exciting new project' had I visited the London Book Fair a couple of years ago.
One of the first stands I approached was a small distribution company. I said 'I have two books...' and the teeth sucking began. 'Before you dismiss me' I continued, 'I've sold 15,000 copies of this one (How to Style your Brand) and this one (Brand Brilliance) will be released in May and has already reached number 4 in the bestseller-lists'. 'Have a seat' they said.
It helped to have a bag with two beautiful books to show the teeth suckers. It helped to have the sales figures, the perspective and the knowledge to back up why I was worth talking to. Most of all, it helped to have the confidence to talk to these guys as an equal. To not be fobbed off by their initial (unfounded) perceptions of another annoying vanity publisher wasting their time.
Carving your own path requires vision
A little knowledge can be a truly dangerous thing. Later that day I met with my lovely printer, Nicky. 'The thing I really like about you' she said 'Is that you don't accept the status quo. You see how things can be done better rather than doing them the way they've always been done'. I don't do this because I want to become a 'challenger brand' or a 'disruptor' but because as an entrepreneur who understands what her readers want and need, to me, I want to take the simplest, most efficient approach.
It's only now I fully understand why behind the scenes, distributing and wholesaling How to Style your Brand has been such a challenge. My books just don't fit into either traditional or the print-on-demand self-publishing route. That doesn't mean it hasn't all been totally worth it, but it has thrown a lot of perspective on the whole thing.
One of my last meetings of the day was with a truly lovely and generous man from a major US book distributor. I spent a very lovely fifteen minutes basking in compliments from Gonzalo and his colleagues. They couldn't believe that the books were self-published and we talked lots about opportunities and he opened some more doors for me, which I'm very excited about. Over the next few months, once Brand Brilliance is safely launched I plan to offer a consultancy and book packaging service for other authors who would like to create a gorgeous, useful and beautiful book like I have done with How to Style your Brand. I'm excited about how the next book is going to do and I can't wait to see what happens with both books once I have the US distribution/ wholesale properly nailed. If I've sold as many copies as I have without really tapping into the US/ Canadian market, imagine what could happen when I get this right! It's thrilling.
Your focus is what makes your idea unique: hold on to that
If you're at the point of doing something different, in whatever industry, I would suggest that you do two things. One: hold on to your vision, it's a truly precious thing. People will tell you 'No. It can't be done.' That's ok. It shows you are doing something different and game-changing. If you know there's a market and a need for what you're creating, if you believe in what you're doing, hold on to that. No one knows your market like you do. No one can execute your vision like you can. Don't be bedazzled by industry giants, follow your own path. It's only then that you will reach your true potential.
Secondly, don't think too hard. Don't research too much. A little naivety can be a wonderful thing! The more you look into how something 'should' be done, the more you'll lose your focus and water down what made your idea so wonderful in the first place. Be brave, be bold and be strong.