PubWest and the Book Manufacturers’ Institute got a glimpse into one another’s sometimes separate worlds at a “Collaboration” meeting in Seattle from Feb. 1-3. The organizations found common interests in workplace topics like in-house mentorship, remote-office camaraderie, and transparency around financials. They also hosted keynote talks on navigating controversies: National Coalition Against Censorship executive director Chris Finan spoke on First Amendment principles (“Kids are up at arms about their rights being violated—it’s looking grim, but my feeling is we’re going to win this fight,” he said). Crisis Ready Institute founder Melissa Agnes gave advice on meeting challenges with courage. “Mindset shapes actions; actions shape impact,” said Agnes.
Publishers, manufacturers, and suppliers shared tables and breakout sessions, sparking conversations about how to stick together in a changing industry and how to assess the futures of conventional print runs, print-on-demand, and e-books. “From the PubWest perspective, this [partnership with BMI] was a big win,” said PubWest executive director Michele Cobb. “Having the opportunity to hear from printers about their trials and get recommendations from them directly was a huge plus.”
Varied perspectives—on Amazon, on supply-chain uncertainty, on the real and abstract value of print versus e-books—were on display in “How to Read Your Market.” Independent Publishers Group v-p of business development Richard T. Williams acknowledged that “for a lot of publishers, we [distributors] are an optional part of their business,” and this influences IPG’s bottom line. “Amazon remains our biggest customer,” he said, and “if they aren’t buying from us, it hurts us; if we aren’t getting the sales, it hurts us.”
In response, Microcosm Publishing founder and CEO Joe Biel mused about “the vulnerability of our industry” to disruption and the risk to any publisher with 60% of its market share at Amazon’s mercy. “To me, the underground is so much bigger than the mainstream,” Biel said, encouraging publishers to build genuine fandoms and cultivate direct orders (his messaging: “the author gets twice the royalties when you buy their book on our website”). Audience members offered cautionary tales about the direct route; if Amazon reduces ordering, said publisher Amy Barrett-Daffin of C&T Publishing, “you can go to a distributor and ask for some of your margin back, or you can reduce overhead, which usually means cutting staff.” University of Nebraska Press director Jane Ferreyra supported “proactive account building. I don’t want to be reliant on the behemoth to be my number one customer.”
Bob Durgy, v-p of business development at BR Printing, reported strong growth. He estimated BR grew four times bigger over the past three years: “Scholastic flooded us [with orders]—it was great.” He expressed reservations about the future, however, due to scarce materials, rising costs of ink, paper, and shipping, and consolidation; there are “fewer than half the printers there were 15 years ago.”
Durgy’s observations about the cost of doing business (“Is the print price of a book going to hurt us all?” he asked) prompted Third Place Books founder Robert Sindelar to address the print book and the bricks-and-mortar bookstore. “My gut says it’s still a value,” Sindelar said, referring to the bookstore as community space and the book itself. “We lost the price-sensitive customer a long time ago,” at least in affluent neighborhoods. (Sticker shock remains; “that Prince Harry book is $36?” someone gasped.) Biel sees a generational shift, suggesting that Gen Z is of a mind that “if you want this stuff to exist you have to pay for it.” Publishers, printers, and distributors are counting on that attitude.
Diverse Perspectives at PubWest-BMI
In one of two sessions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Terri Mack, a member of the Da'naxda'xw Awaetlala Nation and the former founder/CEO of Strong Nations Publishing, spoke with Tess Olympia of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and moderator Doug Symington of Friesens in a conversation about Indigenous voices.
Olympia explained that Sealaska Heritage publishes picture books as part of Baby Raven Reads, an educational program promoting literacy among Southeast Alaska Native families. Since 2016, Baby Raven Reads has published 25 books, all celebrating authentic Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian identities and storytelling. In the program, kindergarteners “engage with meaningful content that reflects themselves and their culture,” Olympia said. “We have a moral imperative to teach children to read. It affects all of us.”
Of interest to picture book aficionados, the Baby Raven Reads selections tell traditional stories in Indigenous languages and English, accompanied by imagery by the likes of Haida artist Janinne Gibbons and Kelsey Mata Foote, who is Raven of the Taakw.aaneidí clan. Four Baby Raven Reads titles have been illustrated by Tlingit artist and Caldecott Medal-winner Michaela Goade (We Are Water Protectors), whose 2022 Berry Song is a newly anointed Caldecott Honoree. Although Olympia “would love to see them distributed,” and has spoken to Ingram about that possibility, the books are sold only through Sealaska Heritage’s store and available at libraries.
Mack reinforced Sealaska Heritage’s ethical approach to Indigenous storytelling, referencing the lessons she put into practice with Strong Nations Publishing and its sister bookstore. She explained that the Baby Raven Reads titles pair authors and illustrators of the same cultures—two Tlingit creators, for instance—and vet all content with elders. “There are some things we never talk about that are off limits—it’s sacred knowledge that can’t be published,” Mack said. Any publisher has an obligation to ask an author, “do you have permission to write about this? Do you have permission from the elders in your territory to write about this?” She praised the reclamation of languages and cultural heritage.
For PubWest executive director Cobb, the “positive energy” generated by the PubWest-BMI sessions suggests a collaborative approach strengthens all involved. “The possibilities are endless, as we all have common goals,” Cobb said. She looks forward to “a publishers’ roundtable in April with the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia, an Indie Publishers Pavilion at ALA with the Independent Publishers Caucus, and more programming around Indigenous Voices with the Indigenous Editors Association.”