Bridget Shine, CEO of the Independent Publishers Guild in the UK, is at the forefront of the revolution taking place in publishing today. In this week’s episode we discuss what it means to be an independent publisher, and from the author’s perspective, what it’s like to be published by an independent publisher. The old rules and divisions are breaking down, and there are fantastic opportunities for those with the will and the energy to explore them.
She also has some great tips for approaching independent publishers, and advice for those considering setting up as publishers themselves. And if you get lost in the definitions – indie authors, independent publishers, partner publishing – she takes a reassuringly pragmatic and positive approach:
‘The point about the IPG… is we’re all about helping one another and supporting each other and if you start getting a bit too ground down by those definitions you would get stuck very easily. For us, it’s about people sharing, it’s about the spirit of independence.’
The IPG site: http://www.ipg.uk.com/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge (starts 18 September): https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club and today, this is really exciting, I’m here with Bridget Shine who is the Chief Executive of the IPG, the Independent Publisher’s Guild in the UK. She’s a former publisher and literary agent. She joined the IPG in 2004 and I have known her for … Oh my goodness what, Bridget, five years now … four or five years?
Bridget Shine: Five years. Hello Alison, lovely to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s so great to have you here. You are such an icon of independent publishing, so it’s terrific to have you on the show.
Bridget Shine: Let’s start with a bit of flattery. Thank you.
Alison Jones: I always find that helps. Tell us a little bit about the IPG and how you came to be involved in it?
Bridget Shine: Absolutely, so the IPG is the trade association for independent publishers in the UK, and we represent independent publishers of all shapes and sizes. So from international heavyweights, like Bloomsbury Publishing, Faber and Faber, Cambridge University Press, to medium-sized owner-managed companies like Kogan Page and Nosy Crow, to very small startups. The IPG exists to help our members do better business, and we do that in a number of ways. We run conferences, our flagship Spring conference takes place every March, our Autumn conference, a one-day conference, in Central London. We have the Independent Publishing awards, we have collective stands at London and Frankfurt book fair. I write a weekly newsletter, we do lots of special offers and special deals, and most importantly, I’m really proud of this, we launched the IPG skills hub this year, which is an online training platform for our members.
Alison Jones: Which is absolutely brilliant by the way. I am very excited that, it’s pretty impressive isn’t it? An incredible amount of content on there already.
Bridget Shine: It is. Well, thank you, and thank you for all your contributions. That’s what really makes the IPG special, is there’s this great camaraderie amongst our members, including the great Alison Jones, and people, they’re very much about sharing best practice and it’s very much about care and share. One of the best sessions of our conference, for example, has been a session on what the biggest publishing failures as well as publishing successes. People just love that, and really what distinguishes our members is, because they often tend to be the people that own the company, they’re quite prepared to stand up and say what didn’t work as well as what did work. People can learn a lot from that.
Alison Jones: Absolutely, yes, that’s one of the things that I love about this show as well, people sharing their disaster stories, their war stories.
Bridget Shine: I came to be involved in the IPG because, as you said, I was a publisher and I worked for big publishing houses, which I enjoyed, for an academic press. And then I worked for a startup publisher, Crown House Publishing, and when I was there we joined the IPG and it was fantastic because I was fast-tracked up and became a publishing director in a very short space of time. I had worked as a literary agent, I worked for a big publishing house, so I had knowledge of systems and I had some publishing experience, but I also had fantastic gaps in my knowledge and so joining the IPG was a great way of meeting people who are my friends today, that was some 16 years ago, very good friends with a number of people I’d met at the IPG conference in Cardiff a long time ago. It just meant that I was able to email people and say, “What would you do if you were me with this situation?”
So yes, that’s how I came to be involved in the IPG, and I really feel incredibly honoured to do what I do, it is a privilege to work with the smartest people in the industry. It might sound a bit cheesy but I genuinely believe that we do make a difference and we do help people.
Alison Jones: Yeah. As a small publisher who joined the IPG, I can testify to that as well. One thing you haven’t mentioned is the stand parties. Surely that’s the key reason most people join the IPG?
Bridget Shine: I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned that. Our stand parties are legendary, so in fact this year’s London Book Fair … so yes, we have our stand party with hundreds and hundreds of people. My first day in the job in 2004 was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and we had a stand party on the second day and I remember turning to someone and saying, “Do you think anybody will come?” Because I was new and I was shy or what have you, and now my main focus is: how long will the drink last?
Alison Jones: And it’s never quite long enough is it?
Bridget Shine: No, never long enough. It ran out in record speed this time around at London Book Fair. The other thing I just wanted to mention about the IPG; really what I think sums up the best of the IPG, is our mentoring programme. Again, Alison, you very kindly have been involved in mentoring other IPG members, but that’s going from strength to strength as well, and I think again, that sort of, this is all free of charge, people giving up their time and they have very busy jobs. It really is an amazing quality I think amongst our members, that they’re prepared to do that.
Alison Jones: And I think that that sense of collaboration and generosity that marks out the IPG, that’s really a hallmark of independent publishing, it was a revelation to me, because obviously I’ve been in big publishing all my life as well until I started up my own company. And I know I hear that from people who self publish as well, the indie author community. I just wanted to ask you more broadly, do you think that’s one of the symptoms of how publishing has been changing over the last few years? How has publishing changed? What direction is it travelling in?
Bridget Shine: Well obviously there has been the proliferation of independent authors, so that’s been fascinating to watch and to see grow. But I think, in terms of … With your background Alison at Macmillan, you can see that a lot of trade publishers have migrated over to doing things a way that academic and education publishers would do. For example, more focus on selling direct to consumers, building communities, that whole reaching out to your world rather than going through retails. Retailers are incredibly important but in terms of just understanding the consumer that bit better, I think that has changed beyond recognition in the last five years, I would say.
Alison Jones: What do you think has driven that change, Bridget?
Bridget Shine: Because … Well, I think obviously the changes in the marketplace, so we’ve seen a consolidation of retailers, obviously the likes of Borders and that falling by the wayside. The likes of Waterstones changing their policy and refining what they buy, which is no bad thing necessarily because it just means that, a few years ago, certainly, our sector was struggling with a large amount of returns. And then, obviously, there are online retailers have come into play in the last 10 years, let’s say. So there are all those things that have changed.
But I also think it’s quite fundamental as well. If you’re publishing books, there’s no substitute for understanding who is your customer, who’s reading these books, and what it means to them. There’s market intelligence and commissioning and things like that, but I can remember when I was at Crown House Publishing and we had a very strong database that we sold direct to, and we would go out to various related conferences. It was so stimulating to talk to people who bought your books and understand why they bought it and what their feedback was. It’s that engagement, that direct engagement, that’s transformative really.
Alison Jones: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s something that I think niche publishers and a lot of independent … not all of them, but a lot of independent publishers are quite niche, they have a very defined community, and it’s relatively easy for them, possibly even easier than for one of the big five for all their resources, to really be part of that community and engage with it.
Bridget Shine: Absolutely. I think of someone like Jessica Kingsley Publishing, for example, who have been going for more than 30 years. They published books in specialist fields like autism, and they are global leaders in that field, so they have a very defined area of what they publish in but they are really respected, so they know their community really well. Yes, it is easier the more niche you are.
Alison Jones: But I think the lesson there if you’re an author as well, if you’re pitching, just be really, really clear about where your book is and which independent publisher’s going to go for that, because so many of them just aren’t going to be interested in your book unless it’s squarely in their sweet spot.
Bridget Shine: Exactly, exactly. If you’re going to take the time to pitch to publishers, really do some work and look at who they publish already, and also look at, is that the sort audience that you want to be publishing? You can also see feedback from authors in various places and I think that’s very important to do as well.
Obviously, we haven’t talked about digital as well. Digital has transformed, and it’s quite interesting because five or six years ago there was a slight panic about digital publishing strategies and digital marketing strategies, whereas now that’s really at the heart of all publishers, large and small. I’ve been really impressed by the way people have adapted in our community, independent publishers. The IPG, eight years ago, we set up what we called our Digital Marketing Quarterlies; we had quarterly meetings and we made sure that we’d cover the latest and people would come and share best their best practice. But actually, now that’s just at the heart of what publishers do, so we don’t actually need to have dedicated sessions with that labelling. That’s just at the heart of what our members do.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I remember that in the PA, we used to have a digital director’s meeting and we would fairly frequently say, “The whole point of us is to make our job title completely redundant because it’s just all publishing.”
Bridget Shine: Exactly, exactly. The other thing that has affected publishing in the last few years is the global impact, so print on demand has had an amazing impact, and print on demand is not just about printing, it’s about distribution as well, so you can have your book readily available throughout the world.
There are other challenges with currency fluctuations and where books are sourced, where books are bought and where they end up. There are complications that publishers are grappling with, and I think it’s fair to say that that’s happened for a very long time, but certainly at the moment, for some, particularly I would say the academic publishers and some specialist consumers, that’s a big issue that books are being bought in the UK because the pound is weak and then they are turning up in the States and other places, and of course they’re being returned in other places where they weren’t bought.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and this is symptomatic of something bigger isn’t it? The whole fact that laws are territorial, laws apply in one country, and the world today really, really, isn’t. I wanted to come onto something else as well, which you sort of touched on, which is the whole nomenclature around independent publishing. Indie authors wouldn’t necessarily call themselves independent publishers, and independent publishers would maybe frown at the indie … There’s publishing services firms… It’s kind of a mess isn’t it, the terminology we use?
Bridget Shine: It is, it absolutely is, and we had this discussion at a recent board meeting; how do you define an independent publisher? A few years ago the IPG had a very clear definition of an independent publisher; it’s run and owned by a company… sorry, an independent publisher is owned by an individual or a group of individuals and it’s not publicly traded. That’s it really, in a nutshell. However, if you look at the IPG and what people publish and who our members are, they range far and wide, so we have university presses, we have charities, we have one or two PLCs and we have authors who are self published and they run it as a business.
The point about the IPG, and our Memorandum Articles of Association reflect this, is we’re all about helping one another and supporting each other and if you start getting a bit too ground down by those definitions you would get stuck very easily. For us, it’s about people sharing, it’s about the spirit of independence and… yes, it’s about people helping one another really. In terms of an independent author, absolutely, it’s a very interesting (and obviously shortened to indie authors): there was a little bit of prejudice, I think it’s fair to say, about independent authors until fairly recently. I don’t know if you’d agree with me Alison?
Alison Jones: Yes, I think that’s true. There was some sniffiness in established circles, which I suppose is inevitable… Yeah, it’s a bit tragic.
Bridget Shine: It is very tragic. Also, you just need a few people to come along and show how excellent and how professional people can be, the fact they’re the authors…
I suppose what it really comes down to is how much time you’ve got, and if you want to be the marketeer and the distributor, and if you do then I think that’s fantastic, and if you don’t, well then there are other people who can do that for you.
Alison Jones: So it’s more about mindset and how you self identify, perhaps? I think you made the point in another conversation we’ve had, about the IPG being for publishers or authors who consider the publishing side as a business rather than focusing purely on the writing side.
Bridget Shine: That’s absolutely right. Because the IPG exists to help our members do better business, we actively welcome self published authors who run as a business, who are set up to run it as a business. If you are really looking … you know, you’re publishing one or two books, that’s it, then there are lots of fantastic trade associations that you would be better served signing up to. For example, the Alliance of Independent Authors, ALLi, do a fantastic job. Really a wonderful reach and a great ability to help self published authors.
Alison Jones: Yes, and Orna Ross was on the podcast as well, that was a really interesting episode, she’s terrific. But assuming an author does want to pitch to an independent publisher rather than publish themselves, what does it mean, what are the pros and the cons of pitching and getting published with a smaller independent publisher rather than one of the big houses?
Bridget Shine: Well, I know this from first hand experience, having worked for a startup independent publisher. We really needed our authors to do well and we gave them an incredible amount of attention. For example, I had one author who frequently said to me, “Bridget, I’ve just never had this amount of attention,” and he had been published by one of the big publishing houses and his books have been reprinted 17 or 18 times.
The point was they were part of our family, if you like, we were much smaller, we were publishing much fewer books, but it was just incredibly important that these books did well. What I would say though is it’s about realistic expectations, so when you go along, whether you’re pitching to an independent publisher or a big publisher, you really need to work out as an author, what you think that they can do for you and if that is really what you want. When I was the publishing director at the startup company, I would always go out and meet up with the author and say, “This is what we can do and this is what we can’t do, and if, out of those of things that we can’t do, if those things are really important to you then we aren’t the publisher for you.” I don’t think anyone ever didn’t sign up with us who we wanted to sign up. We had a tremendous amount of energy and, as I say, it is about relationships, it’s absolutely about relationships and communication.
In terms of pitching, what you get is that value added of care and attention, and I think that they will have a level of expertise and I’m sure they’ll be using a lot of freelancers if they’re a small house, who will bring their own expertise to your book, to your project. That’s not in any way to be detrimental to larger publishers, I mean it could be that a larger publisher may be better for you, but I think it’s a really good exercise to work out from the outset what you want as the author, what are your expectations and then work back from there.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant, yeah I completely agree, it’s about getting clear on your expectations upfront. If you are deciding to pitch to, or to send your proposal through to an independent publisher, what’s your best tip for getting a yes?
Bridget Shine: Best tip. Well, the obvious things I’m afraid. Sending clean, clear copy, chasing if need be but not haranguing.
Alison Jones: It’s a fine line isn’t it?
Bridget Shine: It is a very fine line. Also, if the publisher’s just not responding then that’s not a good sign either, in terms of: really, would you want to work with people who don’t communicate? I think it’s perfectly reasonable for publisher to come back and say, “We’ve got a lot of books that we’re considering and we want to give them a little bit of time, so please bear with us.” So again, it’s those communication channels from the get go I think. Good communication, sending clean copy, and also being very clear about where you think your book will work, where it’s pitched at, who it’s for, and why you think that publisher is the right one for you.
Alison Jones: And that takes a bit of work doesn’t it? That isn’t just changing the name on the cover letter.
Bridget Shine: Absolutely not. It is about doing some research, looking at who else they publish, do they sell internationally? Is it important to you that your rights get sold to those books? Or is it export sales? Or is it just important to you that you think your book’s going to be in Waterstones, because I can tell you there are lots of very disappointed authors on that front, I’m afraid. But, that said, their books sell incredibly well at particular fairs or other places. So, really working out who your audience is and, working back, who do you think can deliver that for you?
Alison Jones: Yeah, brilliant. And if somebody’s thinking, ‘do you know, I actually quite like the idea of becoming a publisher as well as an author,’ maybe they’re thinking about setting up as an independent publisher, what would your advice be for them? Apart from join the IPG, obviously.
Bridget Shine: It would be remiss of me not to say join the IPG…
Alison Jones: I think we can take that as read, yeah.
Bridget Shine: Absolutely, I think it is, again, about networking, going along. There are lots of industry events, obviously the IPG has the flagship conferences, but there are other events too. Joining communities, following various people on Twitter, social media, asking lots of questions, going along to London Book Fair, going to the seminars that are free at London Book Fair. Again, if you are not going to join the IPG and look at all our mentoring and that, see if you can find mentoring or having a network with other people outside of that. I think our industry, wherever, at whatever size, this is a special industry with people very, very, happy to help other people. I think that’s even greater, as we’ve already said, in the independent sector.
Alison Jones: And a stand party wouldn’t be a bad place to start actually would it?
Bridget Shine: And a stand party. I have to say, the IPG, we have a collective stand at London Book Fair, and we have about 80 companies on the stand. I was talking to someone who’s just joined the IPG and they are rights consultants, and they said that they actually picked up business just waiting on our stand at London Book Fair, just by picking up conversations. I think, yes, book fairs, absolutely are fantastic havens of information, but certainly coming to a collective stand like the IPG, I think that’s really, really good.
Alison Jones: I think that’s so true actually. I don’t think I told you that, but I had my best conversations, my best spontaneous, unplanned conversations, I think all happened on or near the IPG stand at London Book Fair.
Bridget Shine: That’s lovely. It just feels me with great pride when I look at the IPG stand. I should also say that the IPG team, we are a lean machine, so we have more than 600 members, and on our stand there are about 80 companies, but the IPG team, there are three of us who work full time, two coming back from maternity leave in a job-share shortly, so everybody works incredibly hard. But it just makes it so worthwhile when you see that buzz and everyone together, it’s a really exhilarating part of the industry to be in I think.
Alison Jones: I think you’re right, and I think maybe that that mindset, you are lean and small and agile yourselves, and I think that comes across; you understand how it is for small companies where you’re doing everything, actually.
Bridget Shine: I hope so. What I say to the team is, I hope that we reflect the best of an independent retailer, a personal touch with our members, but the sort of efficiency of perhaps an online retailer, that streamlining information, getting things out on time and all that sort of thing. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that we really enjoy immeasurably.
Alison Jones: It’s a good industry to be in, isn’t it? There are good people and it’s … Books are special, there’s no getting away from it. There’s something really magical about it.
Bridget Shine: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: Now, I always ask my guests to recommend another guest for the show. Someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books. Who do you think I should have on the Extraordinary Business Book Club next Bridget?
Bridget Shine: Well, I think that you should invite somebody called Miranda from Do Books, and I have to think about her surname because obviously I have just thought about this, but I think that they reflect the best of independent publishing. It’s a startup, it’s only been going for about four years. Miranda has a lot of experience from working in the publishing industry, but she basically saw some people doing some conferences, the ‘Do’ conferences, and then thought, ‘I’m sure there could be some books that come out of this as business books.’ She set this up and they’re profitable and she has … They do exciting books, you just want to read them, really exciting. So she’s done the commissioning, but she’s had the business of setting up a business, and she’s also doing business books. I think she would be fantastic.
Alison Jones: That’s such a great … Is it Miranda West? I think I met her …
Bridget Shine: It is!
Alison Jones: That’s it, I met her I think at the Autumn conference, last year maybe. I love the format of Do Books as well, they’re really tactile, they’re just a nice small format aren’t they?
Bridget Shine: They absolutely are. Everything about them exudes excitement I think, and it’s about also, lets be very real here, books are competing now with lots of other content in other formats and people feel very time poor. So, to have beautiful books, brilliant content, I think you’re onto a winner.
Alison Jones: Yeah, it’s such a great name as well actually: Do Books.
Bridget Shine: It absolutely is.
Alison Jones: Brilliant, so Bridget, if people want to find out more about the IPG, where should they go?
Bridget Shine: They should jump onto IPG.uk.com, our website. All our contact details are there, they’ll be listing all our events, all the reasons why you should join us, they’ll be profiling lots of our members. There’s a host of reasons to join the IPG and we would really welcome anyone who wants to set up as a publisher or who is already a publisher, to come and join us.
Alison Jones: Fantastic, and I shall put that link up on the show notes as well so people can go and have a look. Thank you so much Bridget, that was really, really, fascinating. I always learn something more when I speak to you.
Bridget Shine: Honestly, the feeling is mutual, Alison; thank you so much for asking me, I feel really privileged to be asked.