The idea for the Independent Publishers Caucus first surfaced in 2016 at the ABA Winter Institute, but the important role the organization would play in the business lives of its members wasn’t fully apparent until March 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, which posed unprecedented challenges for publishers, and the appointment of Anna Thorn as IPC executive director. In a Zoom interview last week, several members of the IPC steering committee said Thorn’s ability to create new programs to help guide members through the Covid-19 crisis was a pivotal point in the organization’s evolution.
Early on after the lockdowns began, the IPC began hosting biweekly town halls, which regularly attracted 30–40 publishers. Those meetings were critical in helping Europa Editions navigate the pandemic, according to editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds. They served as a check-in for publishers, allowing them to compare notes on a range of issues, he said, adding, “It was never more important to have such an organization.”
The town halls covered such topics as working from home effectively, applying for PPP loans, new diversity efforts, and new marketing techniques, and they also provided a forum to help publishers get a sense of how independent bookstores were faring. Jacob Stevens, director of Verso Books, said that with so many different types of presses belonging to the IPC, the meetings have succeeded because of Thorn’s “diplomacy and organization.”
Seven Stories’ Dan Simon, one of the cofounders of the IPC, said it has taken some time for members to build up the trust needed to openly share information. Over the past year, however, the town halls were filled with “frank discussions” between publishers, while other meetings featured presentations from outside speakers that offered practical advice on such topics as foreign right sales (though discussions of pricing and terms are still off-limits).
For Soho Press’s Bronwen Hruska, the past 12 months have proved that, while IPC members sometimes compete with each other, they also share lots of common ground. The town halls and other forums have succeeded in meeting one of the first goals set by the organization: to raise the collective IQ of its members, she noted. “We’ve become a more powerful collective.”
In addition to the town halls, which are open to all indie presses, and regular membership meetings, Thorn started a bimonthly newsletter as a way to keep publishers informed about ongoing events and new resources. To acquire more industry intelligence, the organization expanded its advisory board to include two members from the printing world and an intellectual property lawyer. Giving more attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts was another significant undertaking and involved forging a relationship with We Need Diverse Books.
Also during 2020, the IPC deepened its ties with the ABA and with the regional bookselling associations. IPC members see independent booksellers as natural allies, but there is some frustration that many booksellers have a hard time distinguishing between books published by independent presses and books from big houses. With so many IPC member books distributed by the distribution arms of the major publishers or by large independent distributors, Europa’s Reynolds pointed out, booksellers don’t always know which houses published which titles. What indie publishers would like to impress on booksellers is how important they are to one another’s businesses, and to find ways to make it easier to work together.
To that end, the IPC has started a monthly Indie-to-Indie newsletter that includes a list of titles around a display theme, an available galley list, and invitations to book buzz sessions that are presented by IPC members every other month. The organization is also looking into ways to make it easier for booksellers to order from independent publishers.
To be sure, IPC members had many critical and commercial successes last year. White Fragility, published by Beacon Press, was one of the biggest-selling books of 2020. And The End of Policing, from Verso, drew lots of interest last year, as did the New Press’s The New Jim Crow.
Other initiatives planned for 2021, Thorn said, include forging stronger relationships with library groups and librarians, and looking for new ways to better support BIPOC-owned presses and bookstores. The organization is also seeking to expand its collective internship program, which allows interns to spend time at various IPC publishers.
Thorn said she is very encouraged by how much more engaged IPC members were at the end of 2020 compared to last spring. She noted that membership renewals are high, and the organization added 27 new publishers over the past year, bringing total membership to 69.
At the end of last week’s interview, members expressed optimism about the future of the organization and of indie publishing. An IPC survey of its membership found that many presses came through 2020 better than they assumed they would when the pandemic first hit, which they attributed to their ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions. Reynolds, for one, said quick market shifts favor agile, decentralized companies like independents, rather than larger publishers that continue to consolidate.