During a brief but entertaining presentation kicking off the Independent Book Publishers Association annual conference in Chicago April 5-6, IBPA CEO Angela Bole set the tone for this year’s “IBPA University,” a collegial mix of panels, presentations, networking events, and one-on-one consultations with experts. Riffing on the 36-year-old organization’s motto of “helping each other achieve and succeed,” Bole urged the 325 attendees, about evenly divided between author-publishers and indie publishers as well as first-timers and veteran attendees, to “be excellent to each other.” IBPA, Bole explained, “is a community that gives as much as it takes.”
“Let us remember the big picture, why we do what we do,” she said, asking the introverts in attendance to talk to each other, and that extroverts “do some listening and see what happens.”
While a number of authors and publishers took to the podium to tell their war stories, it was Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah, the conference’s opening keynote speaker and perhaps the IBPA membership’s greatest success story, who created the biggest buzz. A number of attendees told PW throughout the weekend how inspiring her talk was to them, particularly because she started out exactly as so many of them are doing—from their home offices and utilizing IBPA's resources.
“I started with a Mac [computer] in a bedroom in my house in Naperville—no shit,” Raccah said of the company that she launched in 1987 from her home in Illinois. Today, Sourcebooks is the 10th largest indie publisher in the country, and the largest woman-owned publisher. Twelve weeks into the first quarter of this year, Bookscan reveals that the industry is down 5%, while Raccah says that Sourcebooks is up 15%. And for the past 23 consecutive weeks, there have been between two and five Sourcebooks releases on the New York Times bestsellers lists.
“I had the extreme pleasure and divine grace to be helped” by the organization and its founder, the late Jan Nathan, Raccah recalled of the early days of Sourcebooks. “I had no money, no business plan, no staff, and no knowledge base. But I did have a great deal of passion and a willingness to learn.” Disclosing some of the mistakes she initially made—such as putting an ugly cover on her debut publication—Raccah credited Nathan with giving her frank advice (including a critique of that flawed cover) about the marketplace.
“The moment that someone is willing to pay for [your] book, you become a publisher. That moment is magic,” Raccah said, explaining that the secret to Sourcebooks’ success is that it is a mission-driven organization, with all employees believing in the company’s motto: “Books change lives.”
“If you don’t have a mission statement that inspires you, this is a lot of work,” she pointed out.
Raccah emphasized that, to succeed, indie publishers have to employ a publishing model that works for them, explaining that the model used by traditional publishers does not work for indies. Sourcebooks, she said, “publishes authors, not books.” The responsibility of a publisher she said is to make an author successful. “I work to serve the authors I represent,” she said, “I’m always asking, what more can we be doing for this author?”
Describing herself and her 130+ employees as “data junkies,” Raccah explained that publishers must answer “more than 100 questions” in order to create a book that will succeed in the marketplace. “We need data to make every one of these decisions,” she said. “The more data the better off we are.”
It is essential, Raccah noted, to make the right decisions regarding key components of the book: positioning it to answer the question of who the book is for; titling it to ensure that the title communicates in a way that resonates with its targeted market; ensuring the cover art immediately communicates content and makes its target audience obvious; and keeping back cover copy snappy and succinct, pulling readers in and leaving them with wanting more.
Raccah also ascribed Sourcebooks’ success to certain business practices, especially fostering a work culture that encourages collaboration and communication, such as a quarterly retreat offsite for the management team, where company executives discuss Sourcebooks’ past, present, and future. “People don’t spend enough time thinking about what they are actually doing,” she said, “Stop: look at what’s working, what’s not working.” Sourcebooks also holds a company-wide organizational meeting in which employees share with each other “the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s a report card on how [we’re] doing.”
Winding up her talk, Raccah drew the audience to its feet in a standing ovation after wishing them success, reiterating that she felt “blessed” to have obtained the help she received 30+ years ago “from this community and from others.”
W. Nikola-Lisa of Gyroscope Books, an author-publisher in Chicago, praised Raccah’s talk afterwards, describing her as “a visionary from day one who understood that she needed a niche and understood from the beginning that she had to stand out.” Citing her “energy and passion for what she does,” Nikola-Lisa noted, “It’s passion that inspires people. I may not remember all of her points, but I will always remember her passion. That’s fuel for me. After all, the function of this conference is to rekindle the fire.”
IBPA University 2020 will take place in Redondo Beach, Calif., near IBPA’s Manhattan Beach headquarters, April 3-4, 2020.