Can This Small Publisher’s Radiohead-Style Plan Change the Way Books Are Sold?

Noah Eli Gordon CoverWith the release poet Noah Eli Gordon’s The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom, Brooklyn Arts Press is attempting something rare in small publishing — they are trying to change the way books are sold. Specifically, BAP, run by managing editor and publisher Joe Pan, is selling Gordon’s books via a “pay what you want” model, in the vein of Radiohead and Louis CK, albeit with some significant differences. To begin with (and perhaps surprisingly) BAP is selling physical and not digital copies of the book — you pay only a five dollar S&H fee along with whatever price you choose. And the obvious thing: Radiohead and Louis CK were able to implement such a model because they are famous. Although Gordon is not famous, Brooklyn Arts Press is hoping that word-of-mouth, the model itself, and the quality of the book, which is excellent, will help drive sales. And it already seems to be working.

Flavorwire: Can you give us a little bit of background for Brooklyn Arts Press? What was the motivation to start a small press?

Joe Pan: BAP was founded in 2007 out of a desire to publish art books, poetry books, and lyrical short fiction by emerging talents. Like myself, a lot of writers at the time were submitting to big contests, each costing about $25 a pop, and getting shortlisted for prizes that only chose one book out of a thousand, which meant a lot of great manuscripts weren’t finding homes. I was also co-director of an art gallery at the time, so I was wandering around Brooklyn doing studio visits, meeting artists, and everything kind of clicked. Because of the advancements made in digital printing, and offset printers having to compete for our business, we (small and independent presses) basically have the freedom now to publish whatever art forms suit our interests, at a much lower cost. The trick, though, is to find new ways to sell books.

Can you describe the model you’re using to sell/distribute Noah Eli Gordon’s new book?

We’re selling a paperback (not digital) copy of Noah Eli Gordon’s 158-page book The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom using a “Pay What You Want” model, plus $5 shipping and handling. On average people are choosing to pay $10 a copy, which is about what we expected, though a number of readers are offering $18, which will be the price once the presale ends on March 7. A few people have even paid upwards of $25, which is very generous on their part, and helps supplement the purchase price of those who maybe can’t afford to pay more. Or perhaps it speaks to their enthusiasm for the book or for the poet. In any case, it’s really wonderful to see.

What inspired this model? And what about the model makes you hopeful that it could change the game for small publishers?

Plateauing poetry sales kicked my ass into a higher gear, but I’m always attempting to figure out new ways to expand our readership. The industry is changing in ways I hope to manage, but also in ways I couldn’t possibly conceive or prepare for, so I try to stay up to date with new marketing strategies and keep most everything transparent when sharing info with other small presses. Everyone knows about Louis CK and Radiohead testing out the “Pick-Your-Price” model, but my initial inspiration came from blog posts and interviews with writers like Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and the crime fiction novelist, Seth Harwood, a friend of mine, whose PDF giveaway of his novels earned him recognition by fans of the genre and his book picked up by Random House. All of these forward-thinking writers put their trust in a few ideas that paid off — free content draws readers (which is why we offer downloadable PDF excerpts of each book on the author’s webpage), readers who enjoy your new work will invest in your older books, and making books available at cheaper prices will ultimately sell more books, and if the price-points are correct, will make the writer and publisher more money. Now, these writers were all experimenting with selling digital copies. I’m taking this idea a step further by selling a tangible copy that the buyer will receive at their doorstep, and leaving it to the reader to judge what that’s worth to them, or what they can afford.

As a small press, I can afford to take more risks than the big publishers, so I should. I’m not as well connected as they are, so I have to work harder to build up our readership. I’ve spent more money on Noah Eli Gordon’s book than any other poetry book, both in terms of production costs and marketing expenses, but it’s nothing like what larger publishers might spend. My original thinking was, if nobody buys this book, it won’t be because of the writing — this book is a literary marvel; a decade-long accomplishment by a tremendously talented poet—it’ll be because I executed a poor marketing campaign. What makes this promotion risky is the imagined doomsday scenario where everyone pays a penny for the book and I lose money. But I thought that would be highly unlikely. Plus, even if this three-week promotion didn’t deliver, I could still rely on future conferences, readings, bookstores, and my distributor to help recoup spending and ultimately, hopefully, turn a profit. The risk of losing money is a primary concern for most publishers in general, but the larger risk for many small presses, whose efforts stem from a love of literature, is having a great book go unnoticed. Nobody can afford that.

So the downside to a listless campaign would mean I’d have to hustle a lot more down the road to sell these copies. If it succeeds, however, everyone wins — the readers, the author, and BAP. People pay what they can afford and get a great book, and we’ve developed a new avenue of marketing for our poetry. The promotion, of course, isn’t meant to replace how we sell poetry entirely, it’s meant to augment and add to a larger marketing plan. Librarians, teachers, and bookstores aren’t necessarily buying from us during the pre-sale, they’re going to purchase copies through our distributor later on, after reviews come out, or when teachers order books for their classes. I imagine the promo as us reaching out to our first wave of readers — friends, friends-of-friends, family, other writers, readers who buy every BAP book. If done well in advance, the response could help us determine the size of a book’s print run, saving us both time and money. I imagine there are lots of advantages to gauging the initial response to a book.

In a way, this really isn’t a new format at all — lots of small businesses have run Kickstarter campaigns to fund their projects, using more or less the same tactics: spread the word, identify early on what the expected sales will be, create and promote accordingly.

How did you come across The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom? Is there something in particular about this book that you thought would help activate this model?

Well, Noah Eli Gordon is an incredibly talented writer who has already made a name for himself in contemporary poetry. The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom is his ninth collection. It’s an engaging, heady, musical steamroller of a book. So we already knew it had the potential to do well. Most of our books come to us through our website, during our June reading period, but in this case I approached Noah, first for a chapbook, then a full-length collection. I had been toying with the idea of a “Pay What You Want” model for about three years, but never seriously considered it until last year, when we noticed poetry sales plateauing across the board. It was like we could only sell a certain amount of books, no matter how well known the author was, how many prizes they’d won, or how active they were with social media and self-promotion. We began shifting our marketing attempts, solicited input from other small presses, ramped up advertising and mailing efforts, and waited. But the plateau remained. We saw a small spike in sales, but lost money on advertising. We had to try something else.

I was at a small diner in Florida enjoying my chicken-fried steak when my wife essentially woke me up out a fifteen-minute haze. Apparently I’d just been scarfing down food at a clip while silently staring wide-eyed into traffic. In my head I was constructing a narrative whereby Noah’s book was going to be introduced in the way it since has been. I was playing the promotion out as a marketing misstep; as a limited success; as a moderate success; as being the runaway hit Go the Fuck to Sleep was for Akashic Books. I was toying with numbers and running through a personal list of bloggers and journal editors, examining who was most likely to love the promotion and write about us. I ran over the details with my wife—she’s good at asking the right questions, poking holes in my faulty, wishful, emotional reasoning. A week later I asked my marketing person, Sam Hall, what she thought. She had questions and we talked it out. Then I wrote Noah and asked if he’d be down for an experiment.

Cut to now: we’re entering the final week of promotion, and already we’ve sold enough copies to put any other poetry book of ours into a second print run. (Since we anticipated more sales with Noah’s book, we quadrupled the print run.) The novelty of the campaign has certainly helped, and provided a few unintended consequences, like building a larger Facebook fan-base, expanding our newsletter list, and even generating more sales, it appears, for other BAP authors.

I believe the real test of this kind of promotion will be selling a book by a first-time author. Comparing those numbers to these is something I look forward to sharing with the community.

What’s next for BAP, both in terms of upcoming publications and aspirations, etc?

We’ve got some really terrific books coming up: a hotly anticipated poetry book by Seth Landman this summer, chapbooks by Wendy Xu and Anaïs Duplan in the fall, a book of essays on acting and scenography, a book of essays and performative texts in relation to three major international artists, a book of poems by Daniel Borzutzky in the winter, and a novel or two in 2016.

My plan is to grow BAP in whatever ways I can, in whatever directions I can, by publishing whatever hits me right. We’re looking to publish a lot more fiction, too, and trying to find new avenues of revenue, of course. Basically I’ll continue to help my writers and artists find their audience in whatever ways I can, while allowing myself the time to write my own poems and novels. That’s been the plan since the beginning, that’s the plan moving forward.