As e-books sales soften at the large trade houses, some independent digital (or mostly digital) publishers continue to see their e-book sales grow. Interviews with five independent publishers show a range of publishing practices with the e-books they publish and highlight the ways in which they promote and market their lists. The publishers PW contacted include startup ventures Brown Girls Books and Polis Books, more mature ventures such as Open Road Integrated Media and Diversion Books, as well as Start Media, the acquisitions-driven media content firm, and its Start Publishing division.

These publishers represent widely diverging business models. Open Road focuses almost entirely on digital backlist reissues. Polis Books and Diversion Books, which began as digital-first publishers, now feature a substantial number of print frontlist releases as they move closer to a traditional publishing model. Start Publishing, part of a privately held media company with interests in publishing, film, and other media, and the far smaller Brown Girls Books both focus primarily on e-book releases.

All the publishers interviewed said they continue to see growth in e-book sales overall. These companies also share a number of promotional and marketing strategies—including the use of social media of all kinds and promotional newsletters, the creation of genre-focused online communities, and the building up of backlists.

In an interview at the Open Road offices, CEO Jane Friedman and president Paul Slavin said its e-books sales in the first quarter of 2016 were “doing fine.” Friedman, the former CEO of HarperCollins, emphasized that the Open Road business model—which is focused on backlist titles and occasional original releases—“makes a big difference” in how it sells e-books when compared with larger traditional houses, which are focused primarily on frontlist publishing. “We spend a lot of time marketing backlist, and that’s not what happens at the Big Five,” she said. She also pointed out that consumer “price sensitivity” over the costs of e-books is an issue.

Open Road releases about 200 e-books per month, focusing on the backlists of more than 2,000 authors, including such notable writers as Roger Angell, Thomas Berger, Pearl Buck, Pat Conroy, John Jakes, and Joyce Johnson. The company, Friedman said, now offers more than 10,000 titles, and although it has slowed down its pace of acquisitions, it will release about 1,000 titles in 2016.

Slavin said the Open Road model is centered on title selection, and the house uses sales data and “gut reactions” to pick and promote books. Slavin also pointed to the importance of mobile devices, including larger phones and tablets, pointing to the likelihood of a “uptick in e-book sales” as more people read on phones. “We’re looking to make older books appeal to today’s audiences,” Friedman said, outlining a marketing strategy that focuses on “verticals and milestones” to promote its titles. Milestones, she explained, are “opportunistic” events such as anniversaries of deaths and births, Black History Month, and Women’s History Month, which are useful for promoting titles.

Selling e-books “isn’t magic,” Friedman said. “It’s focus and being aware of anything new that happens even if you have to create the event yourself.” Slavin said that Open Road uses Facebook and social media as well as launching its own online promotions. Those include Early Bird Books, a daily newsletter with discounted e-book offers (with 375,000 subscribers), and the Lineup, a true-crime community site (with books from all publishers) that attracts 2.5 million page views and 1.3 million unique visitors per month. Friedman said Open Road plans to add two more online communities (she declined to specify the verticals), one in late 2016 and another in early 2017.

Launched in 2010 by literary agent Scott Waxman as a digital-first publisher, Diversion Books has grown into a “more traditional publishing model with a greater print focus,” according to Mary Cummings, v-p, director of business development. The house now offers frontlist releases (about 50 titles a year published in print and digital) as well as backlist (the house has published about 1,200 titles since its launch). Diversion print releases are distributed and marketed through Ingram Publisher Services, and it uses POD services provided by Lightning Source.

Diversion will release about 200 backlist titles in 2016, all as e-books. But print, Cummings said, is a key part of the company’s strategy: “It’s easy to do print on demand; it increases discoverability and gives us an opportunity to experiment with different price points and market segments.” Cummings compared parts of Diversion’s operations to Open Road, describing the Diversion list as “commercial genre fiction by high-quality authors, though maybe not as well-known as Open Road authors.”

Cummings said there’s been “no slowdown” in e-book sales at Diversion. Cummings said the company uses dynamic pricing (a flexible pricing strategy generally governed by data on customer preferences and the competition) and frequently tests price points for all its books. She emphasized that pricing depends on a combination of factors related to the book, author, genre, and format, but that $2.99 remains a “ trigger point” for e-book sales, though e-books priced to $4.99 can work—and “some categories are less affected by higher prices.” True crime, she said, “sells like crazy” when priced from $7.95 to $9.99, joking that “it’s the romance category of the nonfiction world.”

Marketing, she said, “depends on the book.” She pointed to tying book promotions to news reports, using backlist tie-ins, targeting genre-focused blogs, and creating special sales offers, as well as the importance of social media, metadata, and author blogs. Cummings joked that even National Puppy Day can be used to boost the sales of the right book.

Polis Books publisher Jason Pinter said the house, which he launched in 2013, “is doing well and growing steadily,” and e-book sales in the first quarter of 2016 are up 500% over sales in the same period in 2015. Pinter noted that this is due primarily to having a much larger catalogue this year and the overall growth of Polis in nearly every area. Pinter is working to expand his backlist and, much like Diversion Books, is adding simultaneous print/digital releases to his budding frontlist. Pinter is looking to add writers with extensive backlists that he can then release as e-books, as a platform to publish the authors’ next books. “We’re aggressive in talking to authors who have a new novel and a backlist,” he said. He cited authors such as D.W. Buffa, whose nine-title backlist has been added to the Polis list, and Pinter plans to release his new thriller, Hillary, in October in hardcover and e-book formats.

Polis plans 45–50 releases in 2016, including 30 simultaneous print/digital releases and 15–20 digital-only releases. Its promotion and marketing involves Goodreads reviews, “spreading the word” on backlists, being active on social media, working with services like BookBub, and using giveaways and daily deals.

Pinter said authors at big houses are attracted to Polis because “there are more opportunities with a small curated list to promote their backlist.” He described digital publishing as “more of a meritocracy than print; we don’t have to fight for shelf space for e-books.”

Start Publishing is an e-book-only publisher composed of nine imprints—among them erotica publisher Cleis Press, thriller house Salvo Press, and science fiction publisher Nightshade Books—many acquired by Start Media over the last two years. Start Publishing specializes in niches including erotica, crime, and other commercial genres, said Jarred Weisfeld, president of Start Publishing. Weisfeld noted that e-books sales at Start “are up significantly” in early 2016 over 2015, and he is also bullish on digital audiobooks, seeing them as another growing market. Weisfeld credits the Start Publishing business model for its growth. The firm looks to acquire small publishers to add to its title list. “We’re out looking for publishers,” Weisfeld said.

Start Publishing currently offers about 7,000 titles and publishes 200 frontlist books each year. It releases e-books primarily, though it has a “very small” POD component. Start Publishing pays advances, and Weisfeld said “our earn-outs for advances are higher than anyone.” He added: “We know what we can sell and what we can’t. We’re profitable and we’re having fun.” Weisfeld cited the usual promotional platforms such as social media and email newsletters. “We’re very active wherever we think our readers are,” he said.

Brown Girls Books was founded as a mostly digital publishing house in early 2014 by two bestselling authors, Victoria Christopher Murray and ReShonda Tate Billingsley, whose books target African-American readers. Both continue to be published by Simon & Schuster, and they are the authors of more than 30 books between them. Last year BGB appointed Jaquelin Thomas as COO. The house has also added four imprints, which include Brown Girls Faith (Christian fiction), Jacquelin Thomas Presents (mentoring), Enchantment (romance), and Brown Girls Kids/Teens (YA titles written by young people).

BGB has published 39 books and plans to release 22 titles in 2016.

Billingsley said e-book sales grew quickly at first but plateaued about five months after BGB’s launch date. Indeed, e-book sales at the house were slow going into 2015, she said, before it returned to a variety of grassroots promotional tactics focused on readers. Billingsley said, “We had an uptick in sales beginning in October 2015,” and BGB e-book sales in early 2016 have continued to rise.

The BGB list features women’s fiction, targeting the African-American market and working to get word-of-mouth promotion by targeting readers in black communities. “We use street teams [to go out and meet people]; we go to community events and hand out Brown Girls T-shirts,” Billingsley said. “We spread the word. Sales are not soaring, but they’re up from the same time last year.”