MANDATORY READ: The Susan Driscoll Interview
She is now the CEO of iUniverse.
Susan was gracious enough to answer my fairly pointed questions about the state of POD, a sort of industry-level encirclement to our Agent & Editor Q&A series. Like me, you will not only find her answers cogent and honest, but advisory.
Please note the text in this interview that has been bolded. Please read it twice, three times if you haven't yet had your coffee.
Without further adieu . . .
Girl: You've got quite the publishing pedigree. You've played a serious role with everyone from Holt to HarperCollins. What made you decide to move to iUniverse? I mean, c'mon, was it the money? A deep-seated love for those Lincoln, Nebraska winters?
Susan: Publishing, like many cultural institutions, is slow to change. I, on the other hand, am the kind of person who revels in change. So, throughout my publishing career I’ve always gravitated to the new and the different. In the early 90’s I was very involved with CD-ROM development. Later, I became involved with e-books. Through those experiences, I came to the conclusion that print books are reliable, comfortable and in most cases, preferable—but that POD has the potential to profoundly change the industry. Plus, as a Director of Operations I spent quite a bit of time in my company’s returns warehouse. Seeing all those unsold books—in a special warehouse built for the singular purpose of dealing with them—I came to believe that there had to be a better way. Change agent that I am, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run iUniverse.
Girl: Most people know from my blog that I feel POD technology will save the publishing universe, specifically with the eventual elimination of returns. How will companies like iUniverse play a role?
Susan: Traditional publishers follow what I call a “Distribution, then Demand” model. Publishers do a great job of pushing books into the retail channel, and then try to ensure “sell through” through marketing and publicity. (The latter, by the way, is the biggest reason that a publisher looks for an author with a “platform”. The more customers that an author can bring to the party, the more attractive that author is to the publisher—and the less marketing and publicity the publisher will be required to do.) If the sell-through doesn’t occur (that is, if demand isn’t generated) then books are returned. Returns are a big problem for every publisher, large and small.
iUniverse published Amy Fisher’s memoir to test a “Demand First” publishing model. Amy was scheduled to appear on Oprah and all the big talk shows, so we knew there would be some demand, but we didn’t know how much. We did do advance distribution for that title but were very careful not to push too many copies into stores. Beginning with the Oprah appearance, we tracked sales every day to determine whether we had enough inventory or whether we needed to reprint. Because we were utilizing POD at that point, we could print just enough copies each day to fill new orders and didn’t have to make a big reprint decision. (We’d also made arrangements with offset printers just in case book sales had a big spike.)
Because offset reprints take several weeks, publishers have to guess how many copies to print and gamble that there will still be demand when the reprint actually ships. Actually, it’s that “curse of the final printing” that really plagues publishers; too often the book stops selling before the reprint is complete. We will have returns of Amy’s book, but through POD we avoided printing too many copies in anticipation of customer demand.
Publishing houses have highly efficient operations and procedures and aren’t likely to test new models. If companies like iUniverse can develop and test new distribution models that work then other houses may, over time, adopt them.
Girl: Help me understand this: why do books go out of print with the existence of POD? Is it that expensive to set-up a book via POD that it is not worthwhile to the traditional publisher?
Susan: With POD there is no reason that a book should go out of print, and many publishers are now using POD for their backlist or slower selling titles. However, switching from warehousing books to POD distribution requires changes to a publisher’s warehousing and inventory systems. Plus, printing a book POD is more expensive than offset printing, and publisher’s list prices are based on an offset model. Publishers who aren’t utilizing POD have likely decided that the return in book sales isn’t worth the required investment or the lower profit potential.
Girl: Not to harp, but seriously--how can you possibly stand the winters in Nebraska?
Susan: Are you kidding? I was raised in Michigan (think lake effect snow) and I spent many a winter in New York braving the wind-chill while walking to and from work. Now, think drive-through Starbucks on a below-zero winter morning and you’ll begin to understand the advantages of living in Nebraska.
Girl: The Star program, in my opinion, is one of the great ideas in the world of POD and, frankly, I'm surprised the other POD biggies have not tried to mimic the idea. Finding a way to cull through the massive list of titles for the best releases and promote them is a super idea. However--I have visited four B&N's in my area (Washington DC) and only one carries any Star titles; the other three had no idea what I was talking about. What's the deal?
Susan: Barnes & Noble (and all the big chains) have national buyers who receive and review the Star titles. Those buyers have sophisticated store data—a buyer knows exactly which stores and which regions of the country are likely to sell a certain type of book. So, when we published a Star title on the Boston Red Sox, that book was stocked in the Boston area and in stores around the country with strong “baseball book” sales. If the books are stocked in stores where there isn’t likely to be customer demand, the books will just sit on the shelves…and ultimately contribute to that pesky returns problem. The Star titles are stocked in bookstores where they’re likely to sell through.
I think it’s important to understand that just getting a book on a store shelf doesn’t mean that the book will sell. In the end, it’s all about generating customer demand for the title. The Star program is great because it shows that authors who work hard and who have quality books can achieve success outside the bookstore. And yes, we do invest to help the author take the book to the next level.
Girl: I think a lot of folks are motivated to use iUniverse because they feel they will see their books in Barnes & Noble (the same way some folks thought Random House would snatch up their book if they went through Xlibris.) Just how much interplay is there with B&N?
Susan: We have a great relationship with B&N. Steve Riggio is an active board member and Barnes & Noble recently decided to take a stocking position on every new iUniverse title (in the Distribution Center, not the stores—but having books in the Distribution Center makes it faster for stores to get the books and allows for 24 hour turnaround on bn.com.)
Here, though, are the sobering statistics that all authors need to understand: the average new B&N store stocks 100,000 titles. About 75% of those titles are backlist. That means that only 25,000 frontlist titles are stocked in the store at a given time. There were 170,000 new titles published in 2003 and 23,000 of those were published by the five largest companies. The big publishers have enormous distribution muscle (by “distribution” I mean the ability to push books into bookstores and to garner reviews.) One has to assume that the big publishers get their books stocked in stores, which means there are only 2,000 spots left for the other 150,000 titles published. If an author isn’t traditionally published then his/her title is not likely to get stocked nationally on bookstore shelves. Anyone who tells an author otherwise isn’t telling the truth.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that authors who are willing and able to market (to generate customer demand) are much more likely to be of interest to bookstore managers and to traditional publishers. That’s what the all-important “author platform” is all about. iUniverse gives authors a way to quickly and affordably publish a book so that the author can test market the book and can determine whether he/she likes doing the marketing. Those that succeed will get picked up by bookstores and perhaps by traditional publishers.
Girl: So, what’s an author to do?
Susan: First authors need to change their thinking a bit. Getting a book into bookstores doesn’t sell books for the author; rather, the author who shows he/she can sell books is much more likely to get into the bookstore. Second—and this is my greatest wish—authors can and should support each other. You’ve featured a number of really good books on your web site, but I wonder how many POD authors have actually gone out to purchase even one of those books. If 170,000 new authors each year start buying more books it could, over time, have a pretty significant effect on the industry.
Girl: Amy Fisher. We all know she could have landed a traditional book deal. Just the mention of getting on Oprah is enough to get a call straight through to Jonathan Karp or those goofballs at William Morris. So how did iUniverse end up publishing her? Do you see this as a possible trend, for established authors/icons to self-publish this way?
Susan: Amy wanted complete control over every publishing decision and no traditional publisher would have given her that. She and her co-author, Robbie Woliver, chose iUniverse because we have in-house publishing expertise. We were able to advise them all along the way but still give them ultimate control. Is this a trend? I’d be happy to publish other works by established authors but my guess is that most authors are happy with and well cared-for by their traditional publishers.
Girl: Do people ever call you Suzie Q around the office? That seems like a Lincoln, Nebraska kind of thing to do.
Susan: My theory is that people get nicer as one moves from the coasts to the center of the country. Lincoln, Nebraska is literally right in the center and there just can’t be a nicer group of people. And because they’re so nice, they wouldn’t dream of calling me Suzie Q.
Girl: How many people does it take to keep iUniverse running? Do the folks that work there ever bring a book to you and say, "hey, I just read/edited/pdf'd this book and it really is outstanding"?
Susan: We have a staff of about 85 people. We do employ freelancers (from traditional publishing) for our editorial services and we have a pretty impressive technology infrastructure that allows us to produce and publish books so quickly. And yes—we really love books and authors. My associates often come to me to tell me about a book or an author, and I watch weekly sales reports and often order and read the books that are selling. After all, we’re a publisher, not just a POD printer.
Girl: Is there ever a case where you would not publish a book?
Susan: Yes. We have a content review board and don’t publish books with content that violates ethical standards.
Girl: Here is the $64,000 question: Since authors can break out and sell their POD title(s) to New York, how do you guys make any prolonged money since your bestsellers all leave?
Susan: There are six million manuscripts written every year. The more books we place with traditional publishers, the more attractive we’ll be as an alternative for those six million authors. So, we make money from the bestsellers before they move on, and we’ll continue to make money by attracting more quality authors who want to use iUniverse services as a stepping-stone to traditional publishing.
Girl: Speaking of . . . what is considered a bestseller at iUniverse? How many copies have your top five titles sold?
Susan: Our best selling titles sell between 10,000-20,000 copies. Any book that sells at that level is very, very attractive to a traditional publisher and those authors almost always land bigger, better deals.
Girl: The biggest complaint that I hear about POD is, surprisingly, not the cost of getting a book published, but rather the price at which the book must sell. Is there any hope for bringing the prices back in line with traditional publishing?
Susan: The book prices are a reflection of the print technology. Printing a book one copy at a time costs significantly more than printing 2000 copies at a time, and big books (over 400 pages) can be quite expensive. The print technology is constantly evolving and I’m a sure book prices will decrease over time. However, POD will never be as cost-effective as offset printing. The technology is great for “early market” publishing (building a platform); for “late market” publishing (back in print) and for niche market publishing.
Girl: What's next for iUniverse? How are you guys going to take over the POD world?
Susan: We know more about publishing in all its different forms than any other company. Our goal is to help authors understand the publishing landscape so that they can make intelligent choices. I hope that authors will come to iUniverse because they can trust the information and education we provide. Once they find us, we’re committed to providing realistic advice and high-quality, affordable services that mirror the services offered by traditional publishers. And, every author has a chance to reach Star status-we offer a fully democratic approach to publishing success.
We hope to take over the POD world one happy, successful author at a time.
Thanks, Susan--first for this generous interview, and second for delivering some great texts to the world, including many listed on this blog.
Of course, readers, you can find more information on iUniverse and research the company for yourself. And stay tuned as always for more treasure and further insight into this changing, frustrating industry of book publishing.