Interview w/ Debra Dixon — Pt. 1

by Mike Duran · 8 comments

I’m thrilled to have publishing industry veteran Debra Dixon with us. Debra sports quite a resume! She’s written ten books and contributed to twelve anthologies.  Her popular Goal, Motivation, and Conflict workshop spawned a book that is now in its ninth printing. She’s also President/Publisher of Belle Books and its recent imprint Bell Bridge Books, which covers SF/F, young adult and horror.  Debra kindly agreed to answer some questions about the state of the publishing industry, small presses, and how writers can navigate their ways in these tumultuous publishing times. I think you’ll find Debra’s perspective insightful and instructive. I’ll be posting part 2 of our conversation on Tuesday, so make sure to check back in!

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MIKE: Debra, thanks so much for spending time with us! There’s so much debate about the state of the industry and the future of books and publishers. Is it safe to say that indie presses are booming? And if so, are the factors that have contributed to this a good or bad thing?

DEBRA: The answers depend on whether we’re talking booming opportunities or booming sales.  And if we’re talking what that means for authors.  So. . . here are my thoughts about some of these issues.

What we’re seeing in the industry is a sharp contraction in the amount of shelf space available.  We’re seeing unprecedented declines in print sales due to the rise of digital sales.  The end is not in sight.  That means print runs will continue to drop, unit costs will go up.  Even so, most publishers will continue to publish books in print formats.  Especially established publishers.  We want the book available in every format the reader wants to buy, but the reality is that the market driver is the ebook, which radically changes the marketing and delivery system for books.

It is safe to say that the industry has seen a surge in independent publishing outlets over the last few years as publishing became less investment intensive (i.e. using a just-in-time inventory model or no inventory as opposed to large print runs of books-in-warehouse model).  Whether those new outlets are putting up strong sales numbers for individual authors is less certain.  There is such a range of small press houses out there.  We don’t know how many of the new publishers will still be operating in five years.  Anyone can hang out a shingle and say, “I’m open for business.”  The trick is in building a strong list, developing authors and creating real sales in a marketplace filled with visual clutter and noise.

The number of small presses has certainly gone up, but the jury is out on how many of these are quality presses and how many will survive.  A start-up, regardless of opportunity, is still a start-up filled with unknowns.  At the five year mark probably less than half of new businesses are still operating.  Other studies have shown that only 40% of new businesses are actually profitable. Capitalization is important. . .except in the new world order of publishing.  I feel like I’m in a poker tournament these days.  Anyone with a “chip and a chair” can pull a viable seat to the table!  One other analogy I love is that this is the Wild West and a land grab of epic proportions.

Some newbie publishers might think they can jump into publishing ebooks because they know how to format digital text and slap words on a photo in Photoshop.  I’d posit that publishing is more complicated than that and successful publishers not only see the opportunity but invest in the opportunity.  By investing, I mean critical investments in editorial staff, advertising, review programs, broad distribution, piracy monitoring, subrights management, quality covers, and the list goes on.

I do think that the established small-to-medium publishers are very happy with the state of the industry.  As readers increasingly abandon store browsing as a way to find their books, independent presses have had the opportunity to grow sales in an unprecedented and significant way. Instead of scrapping for those last few shelf slots at Barnes & Noble and other booksellers to achieve “push” marketing, the small press can focus on “pull” marketing. We can deploy strategies to reach the motivated reader to pull them to our books.  Small press is ideally suited to take advantage of the reader who is comfortable with the new reality of books, the reader who will search for books, buy from reviews, seeks recommendations, checks rankings/ratings and enjoys price promotions.

How readers buy books is no longer heavily weighted to the experience that begins with going to the bookstore to “see what is there.”  Our buying methods and habits will change.  They’ll have to.  They already are.  We’re going to lose a lot of bookstores in this bloodbath as the print reading public converts to an e-reading public.  Bookstore shelves will be repurposed to other merchandise that works well with a small mix of titles.  We’ve seen implosion before. It happened in wholesalers when market conditions forced consolidation.  This sort of change happens quickly.  I believe this will happen much more quickly than Big6 and consulting pundits are predicting.  (When I said that 10 months ago, it was a much more impressive and bold statement.  At this point, I think the pundits are even convinced that this is going quickly.)

Authors with brand names may try getting into the game with original fiction and “self-driven” books as opposed to putting out “publisher driven” books.  We’re seeing a few do that already.  We’re seeing a great many published authors doing the “Reprint Rush.”  (i.e. rushing to get their backlist up in ebook formats.)

All of this opportunity and choice is a good thing.  The sales picture for small press is fabulous right now, but it also comes at a price.  Currently ebook sales are dominated by one very large company which single-handedly created the tipping point for ebooks. What I don’t want to see is publishing become a “company mining town” with one dominant company calling every shot.  We need competition for a robust industry.  Otherwise, this could be a bad thing.

But overall, I’d say this is boom time for the smartly positioned small press.

MIKE: Your team has been in the publishing business, in one way or another, for quite some time. Was there still a learning curve to starting a new press and, if so, what were some of those unexpected, or under-expected, obstacles?

DEBRA: Experience in publishing was an absolute blessing.  Still, we had a few bumps in the road. Strong personalities and passion for the work had to sort itself out.  We had to deal with the company growing faster than we anticipated.  Those early days are all a blur now.

I wouldn’t have called us the typical small press.  Between us we had written more than 200 books for large New York publishers.  Most of us were under contract to New York publishers at the time we opened our doors.  One of our folks was a NYT bestseller.  We had Fine Art and Journalism degrees among the ownership group.  I had almost 20 years of business consulting under my belt.  The group that pulled together BelleBooks was a diverse and incredibly talented group of creative assets.  We pretty much checked every “box” you can think of as a credential for opening a publishing company.  And still it was a hard, long slog to get to where we are today.

In those days, print distribution was the only game in town, so that was the biggest challenge.  Creating enough demand that the wholesalers stocked your books automatically.  Getting the whole package right so that Barnes & Noble “picked up” the books for national buys.  In the early days we only published about two to four titles a year.  These days, not counting our limited reprint program, we’ll publish about 30 originals a year.  Our biggest challenge this year has been stepping up our web presence.  We’ve just redone our company blog and connected everything (Facebook/Twitter, etc.) and we’re in the process of redesigning our website.  All publishers these days are slowly dragging themselves into the new reality of capturing ebook sales right on their websites.  We have DRM concerns so we have to do a complete upgrade/rethink of everything.

The challenges in publishing never end.  You have to love what you do otherwise you’ll go crazy.  There is no “business as usual” in these changing times.

MIKE: Tell us about Belle Books. What factors prompted you to start it? Are you a natural entrepreneur, did you see a void that needed to be filled, or do you just love books so much that you can’t be apart from them?

DEBRA: The idea was floated during a large SF/F con in Atlanta (Dragon*Con).  A group of us were hanging out in a hotel room.  The wholesaler implosion had either just happened or was happening right then.  The internet retailer sales were going up year-to-year.  It was clear that there was a way to reach consumers/readers beyond putting books on shelves.  Amazon was churning books.

Because I have such a long history as a business consultant, I notice these sorts of things.  I mentioned that the timing was right for the rise of strong independent publishers, very much like model producing the quality independent films we now see.  Almost in unison, the authors in the room turned to me and said, “How much will it take and when can we start?”

Our Editorial Director, Deborah Smith, often likens this moment to a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie in which Judy says, “Let’s put on a play in the barn!” However, these were serious people and they treated the company as a serious enterprise from Day One, which accounts for our success to date.  Only two of the stockholders are actively involved in daily management of the company and staff.  The remainder of the stockholders serve as advisers and make up our board.

The unexpected challenge was that expectations morphed from “selling direct” to becoming a traditional publisher stocked by wholesalers.  Our business plan changed quite a bit.  So, instead of working to develop the internet and direct sales piece, we took aim at traditional publishing and grew in that direction.  How ironic that we are now seeing the industry quickly converting to digital media sold without bricks and mortar or wholesalers.

MIKE: Bell Bridge spun off from the successful BelleBooks imprint. What compelled you to start this new line and what niche are you seeking to fill or capitalize upon?

DEBRA: About three and a half years ago, I bought a Kindle2.  Then I said, “The sky is falling!”  We’d heard about ebooks for more than ten years.  They were always supposed to be just about to “hit big.”  But they never did.  I had waited on the Kindle2 because the first version was ugly.  That fact alone was a big clue to me that Amazon was on to something with the second model.  They’d figured out how to appeal to me aesthetically.  I saw the improved design and I popped for the device because it’s the business I’m in.  Once I had the Kindle, I knew I’d never buy another print book.  And I haven’t.

That’s a scary thought when you run a publishing company that ONLY (at that time) publishes print books.  Our Editorial Director was also thinking along these lines and wanted to step up our title output.  We began making plans right then to spin off the new imprint and re-envision not only how we marketed and sold books, but our demographic and whether it was a strong demographic for the typical ebook reader.  We wanted to begin appealing to demographics and genres we felt would be the sweet spots for early adopters of “big retail” ebook technology.

Suddenly our Southern focus at BelleBooks was too limiting if we wanted to make the leap to electronic publishing and establish our brand with these early adopters.

In opening up to more titles per year and more genres, we added more staff, but we still are incredibly selective about what books and authors we work with.  Life’s too short.  We’re interested in wonderful voices from socially savvy authors who understand that this is a long tail process with independent publishers.  We don’t launch a book in six weeks and move on.  Our process from availability to the point we feel we’ve reached deep enough into the market is about a year.

We’re looking for evergreen backlist titles we can continue to promote and sell as we build frontlist.  We’re interested in long term relationships with authors.  That’s not to say we don’t consider and haven’t done “one off” titles from authors.  We’re never going to turn down a NYT bestselling author who says, “You know. . .I have this odd little book that really isn’t a good fit for my Big6 publisher.  Can we work together on just this book?”

Bell Bridge Books is a big tent pole.  We publish what interests us.  We love women’s and general fiction, although we’re well-inventoried for those genres at the moment.  Fantasy and YA do well for us.  We love mystery/suspense.  May turned out to be our mystery/thriller month with three books in those genres.  Ours is a very eclectic, yet cohesive list.

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Make sure to visit this Tuesday, May 31st, for the remainder of this informative conversation.

BPeller May 30, 2011 at 6:34 AM

Great interview! Very informative. I had no idea that the publishing business was changing THAT much. Interesting that Debra insinuates that Amazon, which spear-headed the ebook transition, could become an obstacle to a “robust industry.”

Jill May 30, 2011 at 12:40 PM

I appreciate these interviews, which give me food for thought. For many reasons, I don’t think I’ll be marketing to the CBA any longer, but don’t know what direction to go. Mainstream? Small press? Self pub? Publishing feels like a wandering a maze on a moonless night, with no torches to light the way. And it’s quite possible I’ll never make it to the other side.

Thanks for the interview, Mike and Debra.

xdpaul May 31, 2011 at 2:41 PM

Take it with a grain of salt, but my approach is (perhaps too) similar to my approach with short fiction markets: find the good publishers that marry well (in my mind) to my work and target them.

The supply of good writers is so great, the slush piles so huge, that catching the attention of a decent agent or publishing house (large or small) becomes a numbers game, and it is best if you have large, pre-qualified numbers.

I wouldn’t eliminate any publisher merely on the basis of size or format.

Joy @ Edgy Inspirational Romance May 30, 2011 at 1:35 PM

Debra!

I was just in your GMC conference in Rochester last weekend. It was sooo informative! I just wanted to pop in and say thanks. 🙂

xdpaul May 31, 2011 at 10:03 AM

Bug report: the blog link has extra characters, resulting in a 404. The correct link is – http://www.bellbridgebooksblog.com

Mike Duran May 31, 2011 at 4:35 PM

Thanks, Dan. I corrected that.

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