When PW convened a roundtable discussion with several prominent players in the independent publishing scene last month, a lot of industry chatter was about the recent launch of Authors Equity, a publishing house founded by former high-ranking Big Five executives that would operate along a largely hybrid model. Then, shortly after, the indie press world was shocked by the announcement that Small Press Distribution was abruptly closing. The news sent some 400 publishers scrambling to find new distribution under stressful conditions.

Those two events were real-world examples of what our panelists—Andrea Fleck-Nisbet, CEO of the Independent Book Publishers Association; Daniel O’Brien, executive director of the Independent Publishers Caucus; and Michele Cobb, executive director of PubWest—see as pressing issues of the day: the need for publishing models that are not tied to an advance, and the crucial (and often frustrating) role distribution plays in the success of publishers of all sizes.

The discussion touched on myriad other topics, including artificial intelligence, tapping new markets, and what the future holds. Below are edited and condensed remarks from the roundtable.

Moving beyond traditional publishing models

AFN: The reality is, traditional publishing models are not broken for corporate publishing—they’re broken for everybody else. And that starts at the acquisition point, where you’re talking about a traditional model of an advance against a royalty, which in and of itself is very antiquated, because an advance against a royalty was meant to be an opportunity for the author to sustain themselves financially while they were toiling away on their book. And that’s not the reality of how publishing works anymore. So when you’re asking a publisher to take on all of the risk and up-front cost of creating and producing that book, and then putting it into the marketplace—when we know that eight out of 10 books are not actually profitable—that model can’t sustain a small business.

What we have to look at is legitimizing different types of models like hybrid publishing. We need to find ways to recognize the fact that when you’re a small business owner, you need to be able to share in some up-front costs. It’s interesting to see that [former Macmillan CEO] Don Weisberg and [former Random House US CEO] Madeline Macintosh have now created Authors Equity. It means that the models are starting to evolve. Publishers like Brooke Warner and Jonathan Merkh have been championing hybrid publishing for years, but I think we’re still a long way from legitimacy in the marketplace. And I think that’s something we really need to look at.

The distribution conundrum

AFN: Challenges related to working with distributors range from fees to managing returns. The cost of goods is so high for many publishers that it becomes really challenging for them to remain profitable. We have to find ways to fix the supply chain so that indie publishers aren’t always so reliant on a distributor who’s taking a large percentage of their net income per sale.

MC: If you’re going through one of the corporate publishers to sell your titles into bookstores, how much attention can they give each book, given the many, many titles that they have? There has to be a better way to reach the people that make the decisions about what books to carry, and also better ways to reach consumers directly.

Collective action

AFN: I know there’s been conversation in various quarters about some kind of cooperative that could be created among independent publishers who share a similar vision and have similar types of programs, where it’s not about generating revenue from distribution, but rather about helping to solve these problems of getting the books into the market. I don’t think we can expect distributors to change their business model, but I do think there are opportunities for independent publishers to potentially come together and create a solution through economies of scale.

DOB: In your vision is this a series of smaller cooperatives, made up of like-minded publishers who are working together? Or is it one where a bunch of independent publishers are working together?

AFN: I think it has to be the former. There has to be shared interest and editorial direction in order to feel like you’re properly representing the titles. And I think that’s really the challenge with corporate publishers doing distribution—it’s very generic, right? There’s no specialty, and we were talking about how the value of independent publishing is the specificity of the program. So I think in order to create interest, you would really need to have it be much more focused. And so it might be four or five of these cooperatives.

AI and tech

MC: A pain point for many publishers is, how are we going to use AI? How is that going to impact creativity? How is that going to impact revenue and opportunity? And how can we use the tools without harming the art—not just in cover design but the artistry of writing? We don’t really know what the next steps are, but we’re gathering information. We’re in a time of learning, so we need to be nimble and educate ourselves.

DOB: It is important to talk about AI, but as soon as we figure out what to do about it, there’s going to be something else for us to figure out. It’s not just AI, it’s whatever is going to come after. It’s not just what’s right in front of us at the moment but also the step after that. We’re all small and doing the best we can with the resources that we have, and we’re going to have to continue to figure out how to deal with new developments.

MC: There’s a lot of opportunity with the AI tools that are being developed, and that’s just going to continue to grow over time. But ultimately, will it be affordable? And can we, as independent publishers, adapt fast enough to stay on board with those tools?

AFN: I was going to say the same thing—that AI can really benefit publishers; it comes alongside of the work that they’re doing, because it creates efficiencies and economies of scale while also helping them to more effectively reach consumers. And so one of our jobs as associations is to help our members reduce the fear that comes alongside of new technologies.

Looking beyond the trade

DOB: We have to discuss and be honest about direct-to-consumer marketing and sales. It is an avenue that independent publishers must be thinking about, and must be expanding on, without that somehow turning into a belief that they’re turning away from the relationships they have with independent booksellers.

Something that I’m focusing on right now is the library market, which I think has been historically underrepresented and underutilized by the independent channel. I know it seems a little obvious, but there is not a lot of dialogue between indie publishers and libraries. Michele and I are working on getting our members to library shows and building conversations.

AFN: We have members who are killing it outside of the trade, and they’re sort of perplexed by this conversation, because they found a way to create a small business reaching readers and making it profitable. And they’re doing it outside of the trade space.

Creating a wish list

DOB: Changing the returns policy is at the top of my wish list. Other industries don’t return products in the same way we do, and that has had a huge impact on the industry historically. When Borders failed, that dragged everybody down, because they were holding all of that inventory, and they could just return it whenever they wanted. If you sell pants, that same thing doesn’t happen.

MC: I think standardization, for me, is at the top of the wish list. Printers are talking to publishers about the fact that having some standard sizes would help reduce costs. Similarly, if there is a way to do some standardization in metadata, in distribution, and in communicating with retail and library outlets, all of those things would help the independent publishers, because there would be a bit more of a road map about how you do things.

Drawing on new ideas

MC: I think the new generation of people coming into publishing is very important. PubWest has great relationships with the Denver Publishing Institute and Portland State University. When you have conversations with those students, they’re not coming at publishing in the same way those in the industry do. The question is, are there enough spaces within independent publishing to take these students who are coming out, get them working in the independent publishing side, and start making change?

When we have conversations with students in the classroom, it’s like, “You’re right. I don’t know why we’re not doing that, other than we’ve always done it this way.” How can we capture that energy and those ideas? And how can we diversify publishing enough to get those voices in the mix? Independent publishing has a great history of “Let’s try something new,” but because each entity is small on its own, it struggles to make the wave of change that we all want.

Final thoughts

DOB: I feel optimistic about the future. I think the market share from Amazon is falling and independent bookstores are doing well, and I think that bodes well for us too. I’m keen to continue to have conversations on how we can build sustainable and robust healthy businesses—different channels, different avenues, different ways to grow. We need to keep the conversation flowing, and we really, really have to tackle the technology component.

AFN: Similar to Daniel, I feel publishing is at an inflection point. There’s a lot of discussion in the industry about indie publishing and the value of it both as a way to support small businesses and also to preserve presses that will take on culturally relevant and important topics that corporate trade publishers may not. So it is a moment for us as associations, and for the industry, to come together to figure out a way to take action. I challenge all of us on this call, and anyone who’s reading this, to figure out a way to take the conversations and elevate them to meaningful action to improve the supply chain, and make our books more visible and more available to readers.

MC: I’ll echo what both Andrea and Daniel said, in that indie publishing has an opportunity, especially in a world of technology, to get more people involved in publishing than ever before. It’s not centric to one city anymore. It’s not centric to one gender or one race. It is a place where people can come together, have these conversations, and participate in a way that has never existed before. And that leads us to a path of potentially being globally successful. So I’m excited for the future.

To read more from our Independents Issue, click here.