At the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Publishing University 2024 in Denver, whose theme was “Rise and Disrupt!,” an April 27 roundtable addressed alternatives—or creative tweaks—to traditional publishing models. Introducing the panel, IBPA CEO Andrea Fleck-Nisbet questioned conventional measures of success. “Corporate publishers can operate on a model that allows for eight out of 10 books to be unprofitable,” she said, noting that indies cannot afford the massive advances or high returns and make this model possible. “This traditional model is broken. It’s bad for publishers, it’s bad for authors, and it’s bad for readers. But it doesn't have to be that way.”

Panel moderator Brooke Warner, publisher of the hybrid She Writes Press, told the IBPA audience that indie publishers have myriad variations. “The most disruptive thing we’re doing [at She Writes] this year is changing distributors, and we’re going to the most traditional place possible, which is Simon and Schuster,” as a way of pursuing commercial goals, she said. “There’s room for all of our different ways of doing things.”

Joe Biel, CEO of Microcosm Publishing, prefers to keep operations in-house. He touted Microcosm’s cloud-based WorkingLit software—which tracks subscribers’ fulfillment, inventory, title data, and royalties—and talked about being a nonconformist in an industry that often perceives a correct path to success. “You never want to take the ‘right way’ to get there, because that street is clogged and you’re going to have to fight every inch of the way,” he said. “For us, it was not about disruption. We looked at what we paid Amazon and [asked], ‘Why are we paying them to sell our books?’ By putting that same effort everywhere else, we doubled our sales within the year and quintupled our sales within four years. I don’t think of that as a moral stance,” he added, but as a rational business decision.

Biel also spoke to distribution, reminding the audience that “a distributor is not one-size-fits-all.” In the wake of Small Press Distribution’s closure and the consequent scramble for reliable distributors, Biel floated the idea of cooperatives. “I've been pushing this seriously since 2008, and I think I'm finally having my year,” he ventured. Like-minded small publishers could be “best off building their own distribution networks, owning the means of production, and not relying upon another company who can't fully appreciate their brilliance.”

Dhonielle Clayton, president and founder of Cake Creative and Electric Postcard, innovates as a book packager rather than a publisher, and her focus is on diverse representation. Clayton called herself “an outside agitator of publishing” in the IP space—someone who starts with her own intellectual property, shares it with a writer-for-hire, and packages the result. A former educator, she spent “seven years to get my first yes” as a children’s author, which made her wonder, “How long is it taking for other people from marginalized backgrounds to get in? How can I shorten that runway?” She dreams up “ideas that don't press down on the bruises of the collective backgrounds of marginalized people, in order to create highly commercial products that all publishers can get excited about.”

When Warner asked her about labor and compensation, Clayton replied that she doesn’t ask writers to work on spec. “All of my writers are marginalized, and I believe to be able to write on spec is a privilege,” she said. “I’m a writer as well, so I don’t give a deal I wouldn't sign.” She relies on other ways “to make the math work,” including “upfront, one-time payments” and royalty packages. As a Black creator, “being here in the body that I exist in is disruptive to publishing,” Clayton said, and her goal is “creating new opportunities for writers that have been in the margins forever and haven't gotten the same opportunities as others.” While she’s primarily packaged books for children, she’s now developing general titles that can be adapted in other media.

Oriana Leckert, head of publishing for Kickstarter, contributed her perspective to the roundtable too. “I think Kickstarter is fundamentally disruptive because it flips the traditional P&L [profit and loss] on its head,” Leckert said. An entrepreneur could empty their bank account to start an indie press and “desperately hope that everything works out. Or you could just get the money first.” She spoke to “a persistent misapprehension” that crowdfunding “is begging for charity. It’s exactly not. You’re just saying, ‘Support the creative work I’m doing and get things in exchange.’” She encouraged the audience to think less about the funding and more about the crowd: “Where are they? What do they want? What offers can be compelling enough? The reward structure is I think the most exciting part” of a Kickstarter campaign.

Leckert’s examples included YA fantasy novelist Cassandra Clare (for investments of $300, she’d “write longhand a quote from one of her books that you could get tattooed on your body”), horror novelist Matt Dinniman (“for $666, he’ll kill you off in this next book, and for $777, he’ll bring you back to life”), and graphic novelist Kwanza Osajyefo (who defied mainstream opinions that his Black superheroes were too “niche”). She’s seen “a huge influx in our special editions right now, particularly in romance”; author Willow Winters crowdfunded for pink gilt edges on her debut. Kickstarter’s “highest-funded nonfiction book last year was called Shift Happens, by first time author Marcin Wichary,” Leckert added. “It was an 800-page oversized coffee table book on the history of keyboards. This man raised $700,000.”

Not everyone is a six-figure fundraiser, though, so Leckert reminded IBPA members to think about goals besides cash: “Kickstarter is in the business of giving you your audience,” and even a small-scale fundraiser supplies a mailing list. “You can find your audience on Kickstarter, whether it's Black people or people who love typewriters or people who want to read smut—we’re all there,” Leckert said.

Warner expressed the idea “that disruption really is innovation” and that by the “very fact of being independent publishers, we are being disruptors. I want to give a round of applause to everyone in this room for disrupting every single day with your work.”