Thursday, June 01, 2006

Mom & Pop Publishers

Make no mistake, the Mom & Pop operation is the publishing/community sweet spot as far as I'm concerned. It's the place where the needs of the community get the most play in the decisions and direction of the company — and, if ignored (or misread), will spell the doom of the publisher. This level of dependence ensures that the Mom & Pop publisher will stay close to the community.

When I was twelve years old, my friend and I raised money the traditional way, mowing lawns and running a paper route. Then we spent it the traditional way (for twelve year olds), at the corner candy and comic shops. The workers at these shops knew us by name, they knew what we liked, and they took the time to talk to us. That meant that they could upsell and cross-sell pretty effectively. It also meant that they knew what kinds of things to stock. There was no corporate headquarters telling them not to stock chocolate-covered raisins, they knew Marty and I would be there to buy them every Wednesday. even if there had been a near-by big-box store back then, our stores had won our loyalty by treating us like friends, not nameless customers.

The Mom & Pop publisher is going to be the same way. They're involved enough in the community to know what books are needed/wanted, and who the best people are to write them. Even better, they have the trust of the community to produce the right thing. Because they tend to be smaller shops, with less history behind them, they can be more flexible about what they do and how they do it, they can respond to their community — to borrow a phrase, they can be agile. Finally, because they're in the community, they have a very short feedback loop. If they're doing something wrong, they hear about it while they still have time to recover.

This isn't to say that the life of a Mom & Pop publisher is all roses. They have plenty of problems of their own. It can be hard for them to manage there supply chain (witness Manning's underestimation of Ruby for Rails sales. They sold through their initial printing before they even got their first run back from the printer). In some cases, it can be difficult to get books placed in traditional book stores — and once you're in, it can be hard to get the premium locations. Being small can work against you in the cost department too, you don't get the printing, binding, shipping, and other discounts that someone doing ten or one-hundred times your business will.

What can the Mom & Pop do? I've got four ideas to share:

  • Stay close to your roots — don't lose sight of the community and don't run off to join a bunch more communities, make sure there's a good reason to join another one (and some real synergy between it and the one(s) you're already in).
  • Contribute, contribute, contribute — use some of your resources (time, talents, and/or money) to help improve the communities you belong to; work on or sponsor projects, send books to user groups or conferences, give talks, and write some free documentation. It all adds up to a stronger community and a more important role in it.
  • Explore the broader market in your community — don't be afraid to publish in the niches, especially with the advent of smaller, electronic materials. It only takes a modest investment to help create a new marketing niche.
  • Shop at the farmers market &mdash there are a lot of interesting writers and topics that could make the jump into your portfolio, seeing what's hot (and who's hot) should provide lots of material for your next strategy meeting. (If you don't remember my analogy of the farmers market, take a look at my initial post on this topic.)

Hopefully, these posts are worthwhile. I know they've helped me work through my thinking about publishing and writing. They've also helped me discover some new publishers. I'd like to hear your thoughts about this. Please post a comment below to let me know what you think about Mom & Pop publishing, or tech publishing in general.

This post is part of a collection of articles about Publishing, Growing Markets, and Books.

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