With all of the negative news of late about the collapse of the publishing industry and the “death of print”, combined with the report that Captain America, Chesley Sullenberger, “scored a $3.2 million two-book deal with HarperCollins’ William Morrow imprint” for a memoir and a book of inspirational poetry, one might understandably think that jumping into the publishing game right now would be like investing in Ruth Alpern’s new hedge fund based on the advice of Jim Cramer, no?
Actually, no; not at all.
While the major publishing houses continue their suicidal death spiral, and being a mid-list author or aspiring newbie at one of them is less appealing than it’s ever been, this is arguably the proverbial moment of opportunity in a time of crisis for indie authors and publishers.
As I’ve noted previously, self-publishing is becoming an increasingly viable option for non-fiction writers and poets, as well as for ambitious genre fiction writers who understand that, no matter who their publisher is, they’re going to have to bust their ass to market their book and hand-sell it to as many people as possible, one copy at a time, in person and online. These savvy authors know that they have to build a platform for themselves over time — something almost every major publisher requires these days — and know how to use it, attracting a loyal tribe and continually nurturing it.
This exact same opportunity exists for indie publishers who can identify an under-served genre or topic of interest, carve themselves a niche and build a platform around it, and produce quality content that attracts a following that they can then nurture into a passionate community, or tribe.
Back in the late-90s, I founded a poetry reading series here in New York City called “a little bit louder” (now known as louderARTS) that you can read about in Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’ definitive history Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, published by Soft Skull Press last year, themselves about as interesting a case study in indie publishing as you could ask for. In the four years I ran the series — as curator, host, accountant, and occasionally even poet — I learned a lot about community organizing, and most of that experience is directly transferable to indie publishers looking to build their own community.
Here are four fundamental tips for curating a thriving community, or tribe, that every indie publisher (and author) needs to keep in mind:
1) It’s not about YOU, it’s about the tribe. Probably the most simple and straightforward point, and yet one that is completely missed more often than not. The strongest tribes share something in common, and it’s rarely the glorification of a specific individual, brand or distribution model. Barack Obama made his Presidential campaign about our hopes for America, while Hillary Clinton’s was all about her until it was too late. Avoid the vanity of a ReganBooks and choose a name that means something to the community you’re looking to become an integral part of.
2) Professionalism is important, but the tribe must have an equal voice. Social media and user-generated content are all the rage right now, and getting the balance right is tricky, but crucial. It’s what the major publishers have failed miserably at, positioning themselves as unfallible arbiters of taste and opening the doors to the indie revolution. Don’t stumble lazily through those doors; take the best of what they do (editing and design), jettison the worst (high advances, minimal marketing support, no interaction), embrace new distribution models, and add real value to the process by plugging in directly to the community you’re looking to serve and becoming a valued member.
3) “Location, location, location”…isn’t nearly as important as it used to be. Thanks to the internet and digital technology, New York City is no longer the home of the publishing industry, major industry events like BookExpo America are less important than ever, major retailers have less control over distribution, and elite reviewers have less authority than ever before. The only “location” that counts these days is your position within the tribe, and there is no middleman standing in the way of your positioning yourself properly and, more importantly, authentically.
4) Be authentic. Any community worth being a part of is one that is bound by a common interest, cause or goal. In the age of the internet, there are no hiding places and fakers will eventually be exposed. Seriously. A friend of mine, a young woman in her early 20s, recently tweeted the following instructive bit of advice: “to all you marketers on twitter trying to follow us 18-24 yr olds to see what is hip. Fuck you. You’re all blocked”.
While building and curating a community is incredibly important, the single most critical step comes at the beginning of the process: understanding the reason you’re doing it and managing your expectations on how it will play out.
In part 2 of this series, I’ll look at the community=revenue mindset that’s driving a lot of new initiatives in the publishing world these days, and explore the right way to go about turning a loyal community into paying customers.
NOTE: This article was simultaneously published at Publetariat.com.