The annual PubWest conference opened February 2 and will run through tomorrow. The annual event typically takes place in February, with several days of live-in-person events, but this year moved online due to the pandemic.
The event opened with remarks from PubWest president Colleen Dunn Bates and Leah Hernandez of Young Authors Publishing. This was followed by a conversation with Jelani Memory, CEO and cofounder of Portland, Ore-based publishing house A Kids Book About, which offers direct-to-consumer children's books on challenging concepts such as racism, feminism and divorce. The books caught the attention of Oprah, who put them on her influential list of "favorite things" for 2020.
As is traditional, the conference focuses on fostering practical solutions for publishers through education sessions and panel discussions.
In a Tuesday session, independent book publicists Sarah Christensen Fu and Sabrina Dax and C&T Publishing digital marketing and PR manager Lynn Ford joined moderator Helena Brantley, of Red Pencil Publicity + Marketing, for a conversation on strategies for promoting authors and books in a digital age. The trio offered up a number of tools and resources they find useful. Christensen Fu recommended Google Trends, marketer Neil Patel’s Ubersuggests tool, and PublisherRocket, a tool for increasing visibility on Amazon. Dax said she regularly reads Hasty Book List and the Book Club Cookbook to stay current on trends, as well as Deborah Kalb’s blog and the Independent Publishing Magazine Ford said she swears by Social Media Today, Marketing Dive, and blogs by Patel and Seth Godin.
Both Christensen Fu and Ford, focused on how to revive a backlist with digital publicity and marketing. Christensen Fu described a recent campaign for the 2011 book Grandpa’s Tractor by Michael Garland, noting that, when she saw that the book had a surprising bump in sales in 2018, she updated the book’s description online to capture trending keywords; the book sold 6,100 copies in 2019 and, after spending half a year out of stock, another 4,100 sold in 2020. She recommended using memes and other trends in popular culture to add some zip to campaigns (for instance, inserting the meme of Senator Bernie Sanders wearing mittens at the inauguration of President Joe Biden into the book cover on social media) and thinking outside the box when it comes to publicity and outreach—in her case, promoting the book to agricultural associations that have children’s programs and schools with agriculture classes.
Ford stressed the importance of cross-posting promotional content across multiple platforms, noting that video is big for converting readers to C&T’s craft books, and that Pinterest is also important for their brand awareness and for book sales. She also advocated for recycling social media posts—for instance, putting up the same Tweet, with a slightly altered text, once every month—calling it an “efficient and effective way of getting eyes on your content” and a good way to “see what people are responding to.”
Dax’s presentation focused on working with bookfluencers and book bloggers to breakout a book. Using Emily Carpenter's novel Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters (Lake Union) as an example, she noted that book bloggers, unlike traditional media outlets, are “nimble,” and don’t need to pre-plan coverage or publish it on any particular publication timetable. That, Dax said, is useful even in a normal year, and especially so during a year like 2020, which forced Dax and Carpenter to cancel a big planned book tour. Dax added that book bloggers tend to recommend other bloggers and influencers to work with as well as crosspost on platforms including Amazon, Goodreads, and Instagram, helping publicists amplify coverage. Another bonus: the majority of bloggers are free publicity, although some charge a fee for coverage. “I feel like there is a place for that, if there is a good fit,” Dax said. “I think you need to evaluate if the community is right for you.”
Therapy for Booksellers and Publishers
A concurrent session featured Brad Farmer, CEO of Utah-based publishing house Gibbs Smith and Nicole Sullivan, owner of the BookBar in Denver, in conversation with PubWest interim executive director Michele Cobb.
Cobb framed the Zoom talk as a faux therapy session, pitting the two panelists in false opposition to each other. Asked what they need to know about each other's businesses to get along better, Farmer responded, "We often hear from booksellers that books are priced too high, so I would really like them to know more about all the costs that go into producing a book." Sullivan responded that she agreed, noting that, "it would be great if we could find a way to communicate the real expense of producing a book to customers," who have come to think of them as commodities that are cheaply bought online. The need, Sullivan emphasized, is to find a way to communicate, "books are valuable and are worthy of what we are paying for them. Rather than, 'I can find that cheaper elsewhere.'"
Asked about how publishers and booksellers can work together to be more supportive of each other's businesses, Sullivan recommended publishers organize more "reps-picks nights," in which sales reps come to stores and recommend books to customers. "Those events worked very well for us, when we were able to have events. Customers love the feeling of having a little inside information," said Sullivan. She added that though her event program is all virtual for the time being, there's no reason reps-picks nights couldn't work online as well.
Both Farmer and Sullivan reflected on the ways that they were able to adapt to the pandemic. Farmer said Gibbs Smith was able to quickly produce the Prepared-Not-Scared Cookbook by Laura Robins, which published in March 2020. "It is a cookbook that shows you what to stock in your pantry for several weeks of meals," said Farmer. Otherwise," he said, it was challenging for publishers to pivot quickly because development times are so long for books. "Sidelines are a little easier." Farmer said, noting it was their core line of books that "carried the year" for us.
Sullivan said her bookstore was forced to shift to online bookselling for much of the past year and the biggest challenge has been keeping her staff synchronized and motivated. "Business has been very accordion-like," she said, with some months of very poor sales and then fantastic months, like this past December. "But," Sullivan noted, "Most bookstores are one bestseller away from closing their doors. It is that razor thin. That is not new information, but I wanted to reiterate it."
Both Farmer and Sullivan agreed that the pandemic has likely changed the way the industry works for the foreseeable future. "I think some of the trappings of our industry are very diminished," said Farmer. "Trade shows and business travel are gone forever, and work from home will have become permanent." The result is that as a publisher, Gibbs Smith will have a smaller and more distributed workforce. The challenge, he said, is when it comes to working with bookstores, the lack of travel "makes it harder to get to understand the local culture" of a given bookstore.
Sullivan said that she sees virtual events becoming more routine, even after the pandemic. "Now we see the benefit of reaching customers all across the world and being able to host authors on the other side of the world," she said.
Both Farmer and Sullivan are optimistic that the post-pandemic period, when it comes, will bring good fortune. "I feel there will be pent up hunger that will be released over time," said Farmer. Sullivan concurred. "The pandemic, as hard as it has been, has opened some opportunities for booksellers. We have seen people reading and buying more books than ever, so I hope that continues."