How NetGalley uses data to frame decision-making and help books succeed
One of the core principles at NetGalley is our focus on data. We give publishers the tools to help them understand and use their data as strategically as possible, and we use data to guide the development of our service.
When we work with publishers on a strategic level, and as we continue to build new features in NetGalley, we are thinking about what data is most valuable to publishers. When we meet with publishers, we hear that you would like more ways to correlate your marketing efforts with activity, or better understand your audience. It’s important for us to know which metrics are most important to you in the pre-publication phase, and how you’re using your results to understand what’s working for your books.
And as much as we are encouraging publishers to look at their own data, we are doing the same for ourselves.
Since early 2019, NetGalley has been working closely with Mandy Fakhoury, our on-staff data scientist, to delve into our own data. She has helped us examine how publishers are using the site, which tools are most used (and how effectively), and how industry trends are manifesting on NetGalley.
Mandy shared a bit about her work as a data scientist for NetGalley and Firebrand, plus a tip about how lay people can become more comfortable using hard metrics to guide their decision-making.
What is the role of a data scientist?
The role of a data scientist is extracting meaningful information from data. My job is focused on data management, modeling, and business analysis. The process for any data scientist is defining the problem, collecting the data, understanding and exploring the dataset, and analyzing and communicating the results and findings. Ultimately there’s a question to be answered or a problem to be solved, therefore the majority of my time is spent making sure the data is ready to be analyzed. The remainder of my time is spent on creating models or analyses that give insightful meaning or show certain trends that answer or solve the problem.
What have you observed about how publishing engages with data, compared to other industries?
Publishers require data to make clear decisions to innovate and better serve their customers. Like other industries, data is a crucial part of the decision-making process. As an example, most industries use historical trends which allows them to identify which areas have been successful and which ones need improvement. In the publishing world, historical trend is about identifying which genres yielded the most sales and which titles sold the most.
Any favorite project you’ve worked on for either Firebrand or NetGalley?
I can definitely say I have learned more about natural language processing (NLP) and text analysis within both Firebrand and NetGalley. I have become more familiar with the data that goes into the publishing world. On the Firebrand side I have learned the trend of publishers owning or losing a buy button, as well as whether a sale price is different than the list price provided by a publisher among other insights. On the NetGalley side I have created a Word Cloud based on reviews from members [now live for NetGalley Advanced clients!]. Doing the Word Cloud, I got more comfortable using Flask as well creating applications in R Shiny. I have also gotten a deeper understanding of sentiment analysis as well as text classification and the quality of a text. Overall, every project teaches me something new and that is my favorite part; with data science you never stop learning.
Any advice for non-data scientists to become better at using hard metrics to guide decision-making?
Decision making is a critical aspect of success or failure. In this new era, data has become a key part of the decision-making process. Once a problem has been clearly defined, it’s a matter of collecting the appropriate data needed to answer our problem. Data provides us with the information that can be used and processed in different ways to make decisions. A big challenge is knowing how much to rely on the tools at your disposal and how much to rely on your instincts. An effective decision is made based on a blend of experience and data. The best approach is understanding your data, the behavior of trends, as well as your audience, and don’t let the data blindly drive your decision.
A dedicated data scientist is invaluable to the growth of NetGalley for Kristina Radke, VP of Business Growth & Engagement.
“Mandy is dedicated to helping us understand all of the activity on NetGalley and find real answers about the use of our site, both by publishers and members. It’s so important to how we plan NetGalley’s continued growth. A gut feeling just isn’t enough to make business decisions! I don’t want to just think about data and activity–it’s critical to my role to understand it and use it to get better and better. I love working closely with Mandy as she collects and analyzes our data, and making space to consider what that data means to us going forward.”
Lindsey Lochner, VP of Marketing Engagement, explains that publishers benefit from our increased investment in data analysis.
“Lately we’ve been hearing more about data analysis from many of the publishers we work with, whether they have an official data scientist (or team) in-house, or their individual marketers have an increased focus on the data available to them. As our clients dig even further into their own data, it’s our goal to help provide some of the missing puzzle pieces that fit into the entire picture of how a book is performing. Mandy helps us visualize and analyze the specific activity and review data that we gather from our platform, so that we can present that back to publishers to help widen their scope.”
When we launched NetGalley Advanced in January 2019, we did so to give publishers even more early data. And as we continue to build out new features and functionality within NetGalley Advanced, every update we are releasing is to help publishers discover a deeper understanding about how you (and any associated imprints) are using the site. Publishers can see how members are interacting with their titles, and how their actions (both on and off NetGalley) affect NetGalley activity, and more.
How Janna Morishima and Misako Rocks! turned rejections from editors into an opportunity and an experiment
Publishing is a challenging industry. In order to be successful, you need to be able to take changing trends in stride, turn failures into opportunities, and be brave enough to try new approaches. Publishing strategist Janna Morishima and manga author Misako Rocks! have been able to do just that with Misako’s newest manga project, Bounce Back.
Both Morishima and Misako have had winding paths in publishing, pivoting when their own interests or the market dictated.
Morishima began as an assistant to Scholastic trade publishing’s Creative Director, David Saylor. After reading about graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson, she saw an opportunity for children’s books to be graphic novels. She and Saylor created a proposal for a new imprint and began Scholastic’s Graphix for children’s graphic novels. Next, she moved to Diamond Book Distributors, to cut her teeth on the business side of the industry as Director of the Kids Group during the financial crisis in 2008. But, after a few years, she missed working directly with creatives, and ended up walking away from publishing altogether to help her husband run his photography business. Several years ago, Morishima combined her experience in editorial, in corporate publishing, and in the world of freelance art to start Janna Co. Now, she works as a consultant, helping visual storytellers like Misako to build their careers and navigate the publishing industry.
When Misako moved from Japan to the United States, she got a job working at the Madison Children’s Museum. She became a manga artist once she saw how interested kids were in manga and anime. After sending around her portfolio to publishers, she published three middle grade graphic novels in 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately, the financial crash plus disappointing sales meant that she wasn’t able to get a new contract. So she changed her focus. She wrote books for a Japanese audience about learning English and finding an American boyfriend and started to teach manga to students, both in the classroom and in private lessons.
Now, she’s getting back to the world of middle grade manga with Bounce Back with Morishima’s help.
They sent out their first round of proposals, but frustratingly only received rejections or nothing at all. Instead of shelving Bounce Back, they took that failure and used it to re-strategize. The pair enlisted the help of beta readers and found themselves with a stronger story and a community of readers who are invested in the project – in part because they helped shape it!
What is the origin story between you and Misako?
I met Misako for the first time soon after I started working at Scholastic. One of my tasks, as assistant to the Creative Director, was to review artist portfolios. In those days, we had a certain day every month when artists could drop off their portfolios for review. This was in the time before Dropbox and online portfolios!
One day, a young Japanese artist who was living in Wisconsin called me to ask about our portfolio review procedures.
She dropped off her work and I wrote her a detailed editorial letter, explaining how she could improve it. Whenever I thought an artist had potential, I tried to give them some concrete tips on how to keep making progress with their work. The surprising thing is how few artists actually followed up and reached out to me a second time with revised work.
Misako was one of the exceptions. About a year after I met her for the first time, she reappeared on another portfolio day, with brand new sample art. I was impressed with her enthusiasm and persistence. I gave her the names of some other people in the industry she could talk to — and before long, she had a book contract with Henry Holt!
Misako eventually moved to NYC and we became friends. She would ask me for advice about her publishing career, and I always enjoyed helping her out.
When I started my consulting business a couple of years ago, it took me a few months before I asked her if she wanted to work with me formally. In my head, I was thinking, “What is she going to say? I’ve been giving her advice as a friend for so long — is she going to think it’s weird when I suggest that we start a business relationship?”
Once I did finally ask her, though, she didn’t bat an eyelash. “Let’s DO IT!” she said with her usual exuberance.
How did you arrive at your beta reader project for Bounce Back?
The first thing that Misako and I worked on together was a book proposal for Bounce Back. I helped her write a detailed synopsis and develop several pages of sample art. Then I submitted it to a handful of publishers.
Four editors got back to us with rejections. We didn’t hear from the rest of the people I had submitted it to.
In the past, those rejections might have stopped me in my tracks. But being older and wiser, I knew I should listen to my gut instinct. I still had a good feeling about the project. I decided that we should keep moving forward with the intention of self-publishing, maybe doing a Kickstarter campaign. So I said to Misako, “Write the first book in full. I’ll edit it, and we’ll see where it goes.”
Misako went right to work and churned out the first draft in record time. I edited the first draft and she revised it. Once we had a revised second draft, I wanted to get feedback from the target audience before deciding on our next step. I just had a strong intuition that showing the manuscript to outside readers would provide the compass we needed to determine the next step in our path.
That meant that we needed to find beta readers.
Who are your beta readers? How did you find that group and determine the right mix of students, librarians, and educators?
Luckily, both Misako and I had plenty of people we could ask in order to find beta readers.
First of all, Misako teaches manga art to kids all over New York City. She knows their teachers and parents. And I was working as a consultant with the NYC Department of Education School Library System, so I knew school librarians.
Both of us made a list of everyone we could think of who works with or might know kids between the ages of 10 and 13 who like manga and graphic novels. Then we emailed them to describe our project, and included the link to a Google Form where people could apply to be a beta reader. Misako also posted a call for beta readers on her Instagram page.
(We made a sample beta reader application form based on the form we used; you can find it at http://bit.ly/sample-beta-form. Feel free to make a copy of the Google Form and adapt it for any project!)
We didn’t have any “right number” of beta readers in mind. We honestly had no idea how people would respond. We were a bit shocked by the number of people who submitted applications! It ended up being more than 100 people – about half kids and half grown-ups (mainly teachers and librarians).
What have you learned from the beta readers?
When I mentioned to a few industry friends that we were sending the manuscript as a Google Doc to about 100 beta readers, some of them thought we were crazy. “You’re going to have 100 people leaving comments in the same manuscript?!” they said. “It’s going to be a mess!”
They might be right, I thought to myself, but we’ll never know until we try! I was also encouraged by Guy Kawasaki’s description of the beta reader process he used for writing APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur. [Kawasaki used NetGalley when launching APE, and wrote about it as a publicity and marketing tool in the book itself.] He also let a very large number of people read his manuscript and writes in detail about what a significant contribution they made to the development of the book.
After sending the Google Doc link to our full list of beta readers, about 65 of them actually read the manuscript and left comments (more than 700 comments, to be exact!). We were thrilled with that follow-through rate.
The first thing we learned was that following your gut instinct and experimenting is a very good thing! We got so much useful feedback and Misako significantly revised the manuscript based on specific suggestions from beta readers. For instance, she amped up the budding romance between main character Lilico and her love interest Noah — apparently middle graders like a little romance almost as much as young adults!
One point which many people asked about was how we would differentiate between times when Lilico is speaking Japanese (with her parents and when she’s alone with her cat Nicco, for instance), and when she’s speaking English. After that, Misako did a lot of research to find specific fonts to use in the lettering of the graphic novels: one for English, and a different one for Japanese.
We were also surprised by how strongly people reacted to “mean girl” Emma. They thought she was terrible, but at the same time they seemed to be fascinated by her, and couldn’t get enough of her obnoxious behavior. This made us happy… because the sequel to volume 1 is all about Emma.
At its heart, though, the experience with beta readers underscored a basic principle of 21st century marketing: the more you let people behind the scenes and get them involved in the creative process, the more invested they are and the more they want to help you succeed. We were amazed by how carefully our beta readers read the manuscript and by the level of detail in their comments — and even by the back-and-forth discussions that they had with each other!
As one beta reader commented at the end, “Hope all of this feedback will turn this book from an amazing book to an AWESOME book!” The help they gave us was invaluable.
What other benefits have you gotten from your beta reader experiment?
Simply that it gave us confidence in the project! Before showing the manuscript to beta readers, I had a feeling that it would appeal to middle grade readers — but of course, I’m not 11 years old myself anymore, so I couldn’t be sure! Once we got the comments from the beta readers, we knew that they had become thoroughly emotionally involved in the story.
That was a huge relief.
How are you planning on keeping beta readers engaged throughout the publication process?
Misako is launching a brand new website for Bounce Back, and on that website people can sign up to get updates about the process of getting Bounce Back published and other behind-the-scenes details. Our beta readers are the first people to be on that mailing list!
We’ve tried some Instagram Live and Skype “Ask Us Anything” sessions to keep Misako’s fans in the loop. But we haven’t started doing that sort of thing on a regular basis yet — we want to!
What’s next for Bounce Back?
We’re in search of a publishing deal. I just submitted Bounce Back to a new round of editors and we’re waiting to hear back from them. If we can’t find a traditional publisher for the book, we will consider self-publishing. But our first choice would be a traditional publishing deal, because full-color middle grade graphic novels are very expensive to produce.
Misako is also going to be a special guest at several comics and book shows this fall. October 19-20 we attended Baltimore Comic-con, and on November 15-17 we’ll be at Anime NYC. January 25th, 2020, Misako will be at Teen Bookfest by the Bay in Corpus Christi, TX.
Those shows are another chance for us to speak directly with fans and learn what they’re most excited about.
You’ve said that you think that traditional publishing has a lot to learn from self-publishing, and vice versa. Can you give a few examples?
I think they are learning from each other now. The stigma attached to self-publishing is eroding a little bit because of some high profile successes.
I think the biggest thing that traditional publishers can learn from self-publishers is the importance of connecting directly with your audience rather than relying on intermediaries to sell the book. The publishing ecosystem is complex, so there are always going to be intermediaries — reviewers and booksellers and librarians, etc. — but now it’s possible to build strong relationships both with those influencers and your actual readers.
What I think self-publishers can learn from traditional publishing is the importance of having a well-rounded team contribute to the final book. All writers need editors. All books benefit from great design. All books, no matter how good they are, need strong marketing and sales plans in order to get found. If you’re going to publish on your own, it’s important that you find the right people to help you.
It seems like the story of you and Misako and the story of Bounce Back are stories where you were able to turn failures into opportunities. How do you think about the relationship between failure and the creative process?
Yes, I certainly felt a bit like a failure when I initially left publishing. I know Misako was very disappointed when her first graphic novels didn’t sell very well in the early 2000s.
But I think failure is critical to growth for any human being. The key is to be clear-eyed about the reasons for your failure, while at the same time forgiving. Any time you try something and it doesn’t work out the way you wanted or the way you expected, give yourself a high five. Because you tried it! That’s huge! By trying something and failing, you now have useful data. You can review what happened and find the things to improve or do differently next time.
Basically, failure is inextricably involved in the creative process. If you really want to get better and achieve something big, you’ve got to embrace the fact that there will be failure along the way.
Developing the right mindset to be able to use your failure rather than get paralyzed by it is critical. I read tons of self-help books, started practicing meditation, and have given a lot of dedicated thought to this subject! One of my favorite people who writes about failure is Seth Godin. He sums up everything you need to know about failure in 372 words.
Janna Morishima is a publishing strategist and literary agent specializing in graphic novels and visual storytelling for kids. She was one of the co-founders of Scholastic’s Graphix imprint and the director of Diamond Book Distributors’ Kids Group and has worn almost every hat in publishing, from art and editorial to marketing and sales. Find out more at http://jannaco.co.
*Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
How the biggest library system in the country meets patron needs, and how publishers can better connect with libraries at all levels
The more that publishers know about their audience and their industry partners, the better able you are to meet their needs and build lasting and mutually beneficial relationships. That’s why NetGalley Insights recently spoke with New York Public Library staffers from the branch level to operations.
We heard from
Lynn Lobash: Associate Director, Readers Services
Brandy McNeil: Associate Director of Technology, Education & Training
Brian Stokes: Library Manager, Mulberry Street Branch
They gave us an inside look at how they learn about their patrons’ interests and needs, how librarians find out about new books, and how publishers can best engage with their librarians and community, and more.
After hearing from Lobash, McNeil, and Stokes, we encourage you to consider that in the bigger library systems, you should consider reaching out to various departments and outreach should look different for different types of contacts you’re talking to. Consider reaching branch librarians through social media influencers (for example, the vibrant Librarian Twitterverse) or pitching author visits. For the more technologically-minded publishers, consider a workshop partnership. And be sure to share larger trends you’re seeing across the industry with your library partners at the operations levels!
Branch librarians in the NYPL system are plugged in to their patrons’ interests, even though collection development happens through the BookOps team. At the branch level, staffers tend to use anecdotal experience and personal relationships as their data points. Brian Stokes, Library Manager at the Mulberry Street Branch told NetGalley Insights, “Most of our awareness of what’s new and popular simply comes through personal interest and observation of what’s circulating.” To see first-hand what the patrons at the Mulberry branch are interested in, Stokes spends a few hours each day at the public desk.
The staff at Mulberry Street are, unsurprisingly, book-centric people. According to Stokes, they are already accessing publisher resources about new releases or industry tools without any prompting or encouragement from management.
For example, the YA librarian at Mulberry Street uses NetGalley to submit LibraryReads nominations. And Stokes relied heavily on NetGalley and Edelweiss when he co-chaired the NYPL’s Best Books for Teens committee in 2017 and 2018.
Most of his direct communication with publishers comes from organizing author talks, which he considers to be one of the most effective ways to engage his librarians and the community of patrons. Librarians are hungry for more author visits!
In between individual library branches and the BookOps team is Reader Services, who often act as liaisons. They train staff to think about the needs of their particular communities and to provide readers advisory, both in-person and through displays and shelf-talkers. They hear from branch librarians and pass recommendations to the selection teams. Reader Services also recommends books directly to patrons via Twitter, Facebook, email, and best-of lists.
Lynn Lobash, Associate Director of Readers Services, told NetGalley Insights that she thinks of her job as “raising the profile of librarians as book experts.”
She works more directly with publishers, bringing her staff together for publisher book buzzes several times a year. Lobash appreciates publishers’ willingness to provide galleys and their contact information during these buzzes. She emphasizes that librarians are proud to work on behalf of all their books, not just the biggest and buzziest.
“I’d like them to know how hard librarians work to get their books into the hands of patrons who will love them, and not just the big literary fiction books they are putting money behind, but all the books from DIY to urban romance. Some people in publishing feel that libraries are a detriment to book sales and that is a shame. They show this resentment in their mark-up on ebooks in particular.”
Lobash is also open to more industry-centric communication from publishers. She’s interested to hear what trends publishers are seeing in the overall market so that she and her team can build more engaging displays and collections to help patrons find what they want.
While the Readers Services team doesn’t provide their internal data to publishers, she considers purchase orders to be the best indicator of what the NYPL is interested in.
In addition to responding to patron needs in collection development, the NYPL is dedicated to making sure that its patrons have access to digital tools that are increasingly required in jobs and to accomplish basic necessities of life. Brandy McNeil, Associate Director of Technology, Education & Training counts this as the library’s biggest asset, but acknowledges that encouraging technological education can be tricky because patrons don’t always know which skills they need.
One of the ways that the library system addresses these needs is through innovative pilot programs. These programs introduce patrons to new skills while also gauging general interest in these topics to see which should be expanded more broadly. McNeil told NetGalley Insights that every workshop or class starts out as a pilot, whose success is measured by attendance and patron assessment scores via surveys. Some recent pilot programs have included Project Code, Make It Print It Sell It and Office Readiness. While they do not share this information with publishers as a default, they are open to sharing attendance numbers and relevant demographic information with publishers on a case-by-case basis.
The biggest challenge libraries face is to demonstrate to patrons that they are relevant and vital. That’s why McNeil and her team are staying up to date with AI and VR. “It will help show patrons that we are staying current with the technological changes they are experiencing…that we are readily equipped to answer their questions and guide them forward, proving that libraries will always be a need for communities.”
NYPL is uniquely positioned as a free community resource within a huge and expensive city. Brian Stokes told NetGalley Insights, “It’s virtually impossible to find somewhere in New York that doesn’t require any money from you to spend the day there. In any given week a parent could bring their baby to a professionally-run story time, check out a copy of NormalPeople, pick up a DVD to watch for Saturday night and send a few important work emails while their kids plays in our children’s room in 72 degree air conditioning while it’s 95 degrees outside. For free! That’s huge and something that’s definitely a rarity in 2019 Manhattan. The challenge is remaining present in the minds of people who are fortunate enough to not need the library that other people do need us. As such, we are still vital.”
Michelle Vu, Director of Business Intelligence & Data Management at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is implementing automation at HMH while keeping humans front-of-mind
Automation in publishing, as in any other industry, can seem risky. Workers wonder what will happen when their job can be done – in part or in full – by a computer program. For example, how will interns break into the industry if there are no galley envelopes to stuff and send?
But where some see cause for concern, Michelle Vu sees opportunities. In her role as Director of Business Intelligence & Data Management at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Vu is working across divisions at HMH see how automation could make workflows smoother and more effective. She is fostering honest dialogue about pain points throughout the book publishing process. Vu is using automation to give her colleagues more space to do the creative and thoughtful work that humans are uniquely good at, and that is required to shepherd great books into being.
She recently gave NetGalley Insights an inside look at how she thinks about automation and how she is implementing it at HMH.
How do you define automation?
Automation takes a process typically performed by a human being and uses technology to either remove the human element completely or create a hybrid of the two. We’ve seen many forms of automation throughout history, mass production and the assembly line, chat bots, Alexa and Siri, and the thermostat in our homes. It is easy to forget modern conveniences are the result of some form of automation.
I see automation as an opportunity to improve employee satisfaction by reducing the amount of boring but necessary tasks we each do every day.
One of my favorite hotels to stay at in Boston is the Yotel in the Seaport District. Walking into the lobby, you check in at a kiosk with the credit card used to book the room, the machine creates a security card for entry to your room and prints a receipt with your room number. Automating tasks like check-in and setting up room access frees up the concierge to do the very human work of making a visit special through personalized recommendations. If I need recommendations for things to do, there is a human being at the concierge desk whose time was not spent processing my stay but rather guiding me to the exciting things Boston has to offer. I realize this type of interaction (or non-interaction) may not work for everyone, but I find the experience very liberating.
You use the framework of Human+ to think about incorporating automation. Tell us what that means to you.
Human+ is building a digital workforce of software bots, machine learning, and artificial/augmented intelligence to work alongside and complement our human workforce. Identifying and segregating tasks that robots excel at with speed and accuracy (processing invoices, sifting through reams of financial data) from tasks that humans do best, especially those requiring subjective reasoning and creativity. To me, this means recognizing there really is a way to do more with less. By offsetting our talent with the aid of technology, we could invest more of our time with innovation.
How are you integrating automation into workflows at HMH? How and why did you take on this role?
We have been using software bots in the HMH trade division for the past six years on a much smaller scale and only within the data group. Our bots function to automate the retrieval, manipulation, and ingestion of data from external sources (think point of sales, daily ebook sales, etc.). It was not until recently that HMH implemented an enterprise level RPA (robotics process automation) program. Recognition of and support of RPA organization-wide has not only helped us ramp up automation projects; it has given us the visibility needed to expand beyond data ingestion into business processes.
Last year, our corporate automation team reached out to me to become a member of the advisory board for the RPA initiative. As the head of data and analytics for the trade division, RPA has been an area I have been wanting to explore for several years. To be perfectly honest, I knew very little about automation, but since I already work closely with our Publishing Operations team on workflow and processes, this was the perfect opportunity to dive right in!
What are the psychological, cultural, or social implications of integrating automation into publishing?
Evangelizing automation from an empathetic perspective is the most important thing for a successful RPA implementation. Ask a person at any level from various industries and they are sure to be overwhelmed, doing the job of two people or simply cannot find enough time in a day to finish their work. It’s important to remember that automation is not just a series of meetings to go over process improvements nor is it the new shiny IT project. A grassroots approach would be most effective, so people are less inclined to view automation as a mandate or a cost-cutting initiative. Having people create their own areas of efficiencies allows for greater ownership and accountability over their processes.
I think of automation as a shift in our culture and rethinking the way we work and what we call “work” from a holistic point of view. It is not biased toward return on investment or reduction in staff, but rather a long-term approach for employee engagement and innovation. Traditional publishing is often hierarchical in structure with divisions and imprints focusing on each of their own processes. Honest conversations between departments about automation can help break down the silo mindset and engage employees to think bigger picture where they can add the most value to the book production life cycle.
What responses have you been getting from colleagues when you are automating parts of their workflow?
I am fortunate to be working with such a wonderful group of people at HMH, who have reacted to my questioning and probing into their work with curiosity and excitement. My role is to foster discovery sessions where we uncover and unravel processes, asking why we are doing something and what kind of results are expected. I’ve received positive feedback even during the discovery phase where we are stepping back and breaking down tasks. Not all projects are good candidates for automation, but the conversation itself has had a positive impact in people’s work in an empowering way. Having the support of upper management is key. I am grateful to have a management team that understands and realizes this is an opportunity to create powerful changes in our definition of work.
Which kinds of jobs have already been affected by automation? Which roles do you anticipate will be impacted next? How will it change entry-level positions?
The types of automation we’ve looked at have been administrative type tasks that are being done by non-admin people. For example, an editor submitting author advance payments or accounts payable invoices or a production manager tracking the status of shipments from freight carriers. We are looking at tasks and not necessarily entire jobs. For entry-level positions, I expect automation could potentially mean fewer admin duties and more meaningful work.
In the case where entire jobs are being eliminated, some companies transition and train the people affected by automation to manage and even build the actual bots. It makes sense since they know the process best and can troubleshoot and fix issues.
What hopes or plans do you have for the future of automation in publishing, either at HMH or across the industry?
I would like to see vendors of publishing software integrate automation features into their applications by improving the management of production schedules and having a more targeted approach to workflow based on user profile. From a contracts, permissions, and sub rights perspective, using NLP (natural language processing) for semi-structured data in managing contracts and royalties would improve accuracy of data management and tracking of licenses. It would be interesting to integrate bots into the manuscript editing process that could potentially reduce the number of passes and streamline the workflow. One of our next big projects at HMH is to automate certain parts of metadata management to resolve data discrepancies, missing data and potentially even have bots create new data.
Michelle Vu is the Director of Business Intelligence & Data Management at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where she heads the data and analytics team for the HMH Books and Media division. In her thirteen years of experience in trade publishing, she has led many metadata initiatives to improve workflow efficiency and generate product discovery. Michelle is passionate about delivering insights in meaningful ways, facilitating increased productivity and driving effective decision-making. Most of her free time is spent baking, cooking, eating, talking about food, and all things cats.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Anyone who works in the book industry is, in a sense, a content curator. But a curatorial eye looks different for different segments of the industry: for agents, marketing departments, booksellers, critics, and influencers.
Stephen Sposato, Manager of Content Curation at Chicago Public Libraries told NetGalley Insights how he and his team think about their roles as curators for their community, and which resources they use to make sure that they are best meeting their patrons’ needs.
Unlike an independent bookstore, which caters to the current interests of a neighborhood, librarians need to consider a wider demographic and a different set of needs. With 80 locations, over 2.6 million books in circulation, and 1.7 million patrons, Sposato and his team are curating for a massive and diverse community.
Sposato told Insights, “We’re expected to provide access to books for a lot longer (sometimes even after they’re out of print). We also tend to offer materials people need for short term help but don’t particularly want to own, such as resume books, SAT prep books, or books on dieting and fitness. The public expects us to offer access to all books in perpetuity, but the reality is we have limited resources and must make choices every day about the collection, and so librarians are curators in this sense.”
Here are the resources that Sposato and his team use to curate the offerings for Chicago Public Libraries.
“We actually order most new mainstream books because we serve a large city and we can count on wide demand. For us the trick is to correctly anticipate the level of demand and to order the right number of copies. We check the previous track record of the authors of new books and look at the performance of similar books. We are committed to stocking a collection that is “current, diverse and responsive,” as it states in our library’s most recent strategic plan, and at the same time we need to be fiscally responsible with our funding.”
“We stay on top of the coverage of forthcoming and new books pretty well. Aside from the opportunities I just mentioned, publishers work with library distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor who helpfully create lists of forthcoming titles each month. And librarians across the country also discuss forthcoming titles on social media and contribute to the monthly LibraryReads list of the top 10 titles recommended for readers each month.”
“We don’t have as much direct contact as we could ideally, but the bigger publishing houses and some of the mid-size publishers have staff devoted to library marketing, and we receive regular email newsletters from them, as well as notices about forthcoming books, including some access to advance copies. When we can attend professional conferences, there are often opportunities to see them present forthcoming books in person and meet with them in exhibitor booths. We also receive some catalogs by mail. Our publisher reps also tend to be extremely helpful when we contact them with requests by email.
We’ve had great success with publishers sponsoring author visits, and we’ve even started experimenting with “book buzz” events for the public as when Penguin Random House came and pitched new books directly to our patrons or we invited smaller local publishers to showcase their newest titles. We also had the opportunity to partner with Macmillan recently who worked with a mystery book club at one of our branches to promote some new mystery titles.”
Sposato hopes to expand his collaborations with publishers. “With the demise of some big [bookstore] chains over the last couple decades, there are fewer physical places for people to discover new books, movies and music. We see libraries playing an increasing role in discovery, and we think that’s of long-term benefit to publishers, so more dialogue would be great. I’d also like to see more proactive inclusion of libraries when launching books of local appeal: we need to know about big Chicago books before anyone else. And while book stores tend to be found in the wealthiest neighborhoods in order to have the best chance of survival, we have a presence in more diverse neighborhoods. We love it when publishers are open to discussing the needs we see throughout our entire society.”
How do you or your marketing team work with regional librarians? Email us at email@example.com. We’d love to feature your strategies!
Stephen Sposato is the manager of Content Curation at Chicago Public Library, overseeing selection and readers’ advisory. He has over fifteen years of experience in collection development and readers’ advisory. He has written for Library Journal as a reviewer and as a contributor to the Reader’s Shelf column. He has provided extensive RA training, given presentations at BookExpo, the Illinois Library Association and the American Library Association, and currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors for LibraryReads. You can find him on Twitter at @stephensposato.
Repackaging books with new covers, new back cover copy, or even a new titles is one of the tools in a publisher’s arsenal to give a book more life. Whether making decisions about the trade paperback design after the hardcover has been on sale, or discussing changes to a backlist title that’s been acquired from another publisher, Sourcebooks uses a lot of data to support their repackaging efforts.
Sarah Cardillo, Director of Publishing Operations at Sourcebooks shares how she and her team use sales numbers, comp titles, and audience responses to guide their redesign strategy.
1. Consider a book’s total positioning, in addition to sales
When we are looking at the trade paper edition of a hardcover release, we start by looking at sales – how many [books] did we actually sell, what percentage of the inventory sold through within the first 6-8 weeks, and did it sell at the level we had expected it to sell? We look at retail sales [as well as] library sales. Sometimes a book might not sell at our expectations at retail, but may have landed very strongly with the library markets.
If we are looking at the cover for a book that was previously published by another publisher, or perhaps self-published, we look at how the book was positioned as a whole. So, we start even further back than the cover. We think about the title, the story hook, or positioning, and the category the book will be shelved in. Even if the book had relatively strong sales, some of these other factors may give us insight into how to launch the book at a new level for Sourcebooks.
2. Involve everyone in the process
Since we start by looking at sales, the decision begins with the sales department and the marketing team. The marketing team weighs in with what they were seeing at the point of launch. Did they get the reviews they’d hoped for, the media placement they’d planned? Do they think the media had an impact on the sales (or lack thereof)? We may also discuss what the consumer reviews look like. Sometimes we see that consumers are most excited about a particular aspect of the book that we did not position against – that we didn’t address on the cover or with the back cover copy.
If this was a previously published book by another publisher or self-published, then the conversation may start with editorial – again though the editorial team starts with how they want to publish the book for their list – once they determine that positioning, the art director will review and make a recommendation on the cover direction.
In most instances, the design team is brought into the conversation when there’s already a recommendation on the table to repackage.
3. Pay attention to comp title performance
We rely heavily on data – and comp titles provide data. We may see that a design trend has faded or taken off and so we rethink our packaging to fit into that trend. We research the categories and subcategories in depth to provide expertise on what works (and what doesn’t) when positioning a book into a certain category. We want to make sure that the consumer who reads a particular type of book knows at immediate glance that this book is for him or her. We want to make sure that our cover fits within the design space of similar books, but also stands out or stands above the other books. That the consumer sees it and knows it’s what they like to read, and that they care enough to pick it up.
4. Listen to your audience
I would say most repackages are driven by external market considerations. If we believe the current cover didn’t help sell the book, a new cover has the chance to reach a different audience – where your hardcover may have been packaged more like a romance, but your reviewers really like the mystery in the story – a repackage could lean toward the mystery aspect. So it’s still based on content, but now external factors are telling us to reposition against other aspects of the content.
A good example within the romance space was a repackage we did for a book that we published as a trade paperback title – The Curl Up & Dye by Sharon Sala. Sharon Sala is a New York Times bestselling author in the romance space, but this trade paperback did not land the way we had hoped. But when we released her second Blessings, Georgia book, I’ll Stand By You as a mass market romance, we saw that her numbers were very strong in the mass market space and that people really loved her Blessings, Georgia setting. So we then repackaged The Curl Up & Dye as a mass market romance with a new title, You & Only You. It was already set in Blessings, Georgia, but we did not market it that way for the original trade paperback release. When we put it in mass market we made sure to communicate to the consumer via the packaging that this was set in Blessings. The one thing about mass market books and authors is that they often write within a “world” and the consumer is trained to look for copy on the cover (or in online metadata) that indicates a particular book is part of a particular series, or world. The success of I’ll Stand By You showed opportunity and a market – but more specifically that her customers were in that space already – she had success with other publishers in the mass market space, and keeping her where her customers were but then also packaging her new titles in a cheaper format allowed her to grow her reach both with existing customers but also with customers who read similar mass market titles by other authors. Plus, the lower price presented less of a barrier for entry for new customers.
5. Remember your deep backlist
Sometimes we look at titles that were published 5-10 years ago (or more) and think about bringing them back out with new covers as a way to boost sales. Especially in the young adult and the romance space. Since those audiences (especially Young Adult) turn over to new people so regularly and trends change so quickly, a successful book with a fresh cover can easily find new readers, and the accounts are happy to take the book because it was successful in the past with the previous audience. We are seeing a lot of illustrated covers in the young adult space right now. 10 years ago covers were all photographic. So we are looking at our backlist right now and seeing what books sold well but could get new life with an illustrated cover direction.
6. Capitalize on the success of a repackaging campaign
If the sales increase, we can attribute part of that to the cover, of course, but we know other factors may play a part, too. The change to a more affordable format and the repositioning of the back cover copy are also important. When we see a repackage working really well, we’ll consider what we did and if there were elements that we can use from that repackage to guide the cover for the author’s next book or similar books in the same genre.
7. Think about repackaging at all stages of the publishing lifecycle, including acquisitions
Our goal in repackaging the Poisoned Pen Press backlist titles [which Sourcebooks acquired in 2018] was to give them a more cohesive look across authors and series and to have more immediate recognition for consumers. We wanted to make sure that the consumers who devour mystery titles but have never heard of Poisoned Pen would recognize the books as mysteries that they’d want to read. We felt that, while there were many strong covers on the books, there was room to help drive consumer awareness even more. To use our experience designing for this market to increase sales.
Sarah Cardillo is the Director of Publishing Operations at Sourcebooks, one of the 10th largest publishers and the largest woman-owned trade book publisher in North America. She began her career as a production editor with Publications International (now Phoenix International Publications) but since joining Sourcebooks twelve years ago, she has grown her professional reach exponentially. As director of publishing operations, Sarah oversees numerous key departments, including the award-winning art and design department, and the production, manufacturing, and editorial production departments. She utilizes her project management and change management knowledge to build workflows and increase efficiencies across publishing operations. At the onset of the digital transformation, she rebuilt the standard bookmaking process to seamlessly integrate ebook production into the workflow. Her passion for organization and process has transformed the way departments communicate within Sourcebooks. Sarah has both a bachelor’s degree in written communication and a master’s degree in corporate communication and change management.
How CAKE Literary makes space for new voices and untold stories, “baking” diversity into every book.
According to the most recent statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison, there are more children’s books about animals than there are about African, African Amerian, Asian Pacific Islander, Asian Pacific Islander, Latinx, American Indian, and First Nations children combined.
Sona Charaipotra is one of the many people in the publishing industry whose work is changing those statistics. As an author and co-founder of CAKE Literary, she is bringing more diverse books into the world. She recently told NetGalley Insights what kinds of stories she is passionate about sharing with the public, how it feels to be making room for underrepresented voices in publishing, and what’s on the horizon for CAKE Literary through 2020 and beyond.
What is the origin story behind CAKE Literary?
Dhonielle and I met the first day of class in our MFA program in Writing for Children at the New School. We bonded pretty quickly — talking about our favorite books and TV shows and sharing our work over pepperoni pizza at Patsy’s. One of the things that always came up in our conversations was how rarely we got to see ourselves as the hero of the story as kids, a fact that held true for my own kids even back in 2012. So we decided to do something about it, both with our own stories and eventually in founding CAKE Literary, which is a boutique book packager with a decidedly diverse bent. Like Alloy or Glasstown Entertainment, we’re not a publisher or an agency, but specifically a packager, which means we come up with fun, creative, big concepts, find the right voice to tell the story, then walk the writer through the publishing process.
What need does CAKE Literary serve in the industry? What problem does it address or what hole does it fill?
A lot of times with publishing, especially when it comes to stories by people of color, it’s easy to presume that pain is what sells. But I think recent successes have shown time and again that we are also allowed to celebrate the joy in our communities. Our focus is on lifting marginalized voices and showing that we, too, can be the ones to save the day, to find love, to become heroes of our own joyful stories. I think the joy part of it is so critical. Yes, our stories tackle meaty, real issues, but they also put fun front and center.
How are diversity and inclusion “baked in” to CAKE Literary as a central part of its business model & vision?
We envision the diversity of our stories to be organic, in the sense that it’s ever-present, but it’s not the main thrust or plot of the story. It’s in the very bones of the world building, and it helps shape and define every part of the character and point of view. It’s truly baked in, in the sense that it sort of disappears the way an egg does when you bake a cake — it’s necessary and ever-present, and you can’t really remove it. You wouldn’t have the same cake if you did. Our first series, Tiny Pretty Things, is pitched as Pretty Little Liars at a cutthroat Manhattan ballet conservatory — completely high concept and fun, right? But it’s got three very different POVs, and each is grounded in who the girls are as people. Gigi is black, from California, and the new girl. June is half-Korean, from Queens, and struggling with both food and family issues. Bette is white, blonde, and the classic legacy. These cultural, socio-economic, and racial factors define the very different experiences each of these three girls have in the very same setting. The diversity is organic and inseparable, a big part of the story without becoming the whole story.
What does it mean to you to be a spacemaker – shepherding unrepresented voices into the mainstream?
It is honestly my favorite part of the job. Only now am I beginning to see representations of something akin to my experience on the page, but my kids will have so many more options. That’s astounding. They are devouring all these stories that serve as reflections, but also all the stories that offer them windows into other experiences. And it’s a profound thing to find a voice that needs to be lifted, to be heard, and help them navigate the publishing process, to share both the highs and the lows with them, because, let’s face it, publishing can be a very rough ride, especially for marginalized writers, and you need that safety net to fall into. There are people who held the door open for me and Dhonielle, and we are thrilled to pull others through it, too. Because as the latest CCBC numbers show [seen below] there’s still so much work to be done.
Who else is doing work to make publishing a more equitable and diverse industry?
How does your work as an author influence your work with CAKE, and vice versa?
I think it goes hand in hand. Dhonielle and I had to use our own work — our first series, Tiny Pretty Things — to launch the company before anyone would begin to take us seriously. We had to go through the process and experience ourselves, and bring the lessons that we learned from it with us. Luckily, we had some great mentors along the way, and a strong community of fellow authors who were super-supportive too. Hopefully we can give back in the same way, by being there as mentors to new writers as they make their way in publishing, too.
Your new YA book, Symptoms of a Heartbreak comes out on July 2 through Macmillan/Imprint . What qualities make it a CAKE book?
Symptoms of a Heartbreak is a classic CAKE project. It’s fun, high concept and hopefully a delicious read, and the organic diversity informs every part of it. I pitch it as Doogie Howser meets The Mindy Project — it’s about a 16-year-old girl genius doctor who’s doing her first real medical internship — and falls in love with a patient. It’s got a classic romantic comedy structure, but Saira’s background as an Indian-American teen informs so much of her family life, her work ethic, her point of view, the micro and macro aggressions she faces in her work and life. It also informs the way she views love and romance. You can’t take that out of the character or the story itself and have it remain the same.
We’ve got a lot of amazing things lined up for 2020 and beyond, and everyone should definitely stay tuned for lots of TV and movie news coming up, too! Plus, our next venture is into the realm of adult fiction with our LayerCAKE imprint. But we’re always on the lookout for amazing, unique voices. That’s the best part of this job, really — getting to find these astounding new voices and then share them with the world.
Bio: The author of the YA doc dramedy Prognosis: Love And Death, Sona Charaipotra is not a doctor — much to her pediatrician parents’ chagrin. They were really hoping she’d grow up to take over their practice one day. Instead, she became a writer, working first as a celebrity reporter at People and (the dearly departed) TeenPeople magazines, and contributing to publications from the New York Times to TeenVogue. These days, she uses her Masters in screenwriting from NYU and her MFA in creative writing from the New School to poke plot holes in her favorite teen TV shows, like The Bold Type — for work of course. She’s the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book packaging company with a decidedly diverse bent, and the co-author (with Dhonielle Clayton) of the YA dance dramas Tiny Pretty Things and Shiny Broken Pieces, as well as the upcoming psychological thriller Rumor Game. She’s also the interim editor of the Barnes & Noble teen blog.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Firebrand Technologies’s newest service, Eloquence on Alert, gives publishers more access to data about their titles across retail sites than ever before. Through EoA, publishers can keep tabs on any changes to their title information, including changes to sale price, product pages, buy buttons, and third-party seller activity.
Catherine Toolan, Director of Eloquence Services at Firebrand, gave us an inside look at how Eloquence on Alert developed, and some of the surprising ways that publishers are already using it.
What were the origins of EoA?
Eloquence on Alert came out of a simple need for publishers to determine if and how their products were being displayed on retail and reviewer sites. Publishers send out metadata to trading partners and there is very little feedback from those trading partners once the metadata is received. This simple mission planted the seed and from there we have discovered that there is a lot more information we can provide to make it easier for publishers to help their products succeed.
A lot of the impetus for EoA came from Eloquence on Demand users. Many of our clients were sending out the very best metadata that they could on the industry recommended schedule but they were still having issues with the data or the timing of updates on some sites. They also encountered situations where their titles did not appear on some sites at all. As you can imagine, publishers with a large list cannot check retail sites daily for the presence or absence of their titles. Eloquence on Alert grew out of a need to help publishers tackle these and similar problems.
Eloquence on Alert was conceived in 2016, with the first data collection in July of that year. We released an “alpha” Title Management-dependent version of EoA in 2017 and quickly realized that we needed to pivot and build a SaaS model (software as a service) that would allow for independent product growth.
How does EoA interact with other Firebrand products like Title Management and Eloquence on Demand?
Eloquence on Alert is a standalone product and does not require the use of any other Firebrand products. We will be working to integrate EoA with Eloquence on Demand and NetGalley in the future.
How does EoA fit in with Firebrand’s overall vision around publishing and data?
Firebrand’s flagship products, Title Management and Eloquence on Demand encourage publishers to develop workflows and data management practices that help them to provide some of the best metadata in the industry. Eloquence on Alert takes this a step further and helps publishers fine-tune their practices by drawing attention to trading partner behavior in relation to their metadata content and delivery schedule. The best metadata in the world does not do much for you if your partners are not using it.
What need does EoA meet for publishers?
Eloquence on Alert monitors critical factors such as fluctuating list and sale prices, changes in sales rank, missing product pages, missing buy buttons, third-party seller activity, marketing assets, review count growth, and audience sentiment. EoA is committed to continued product development and enhancement to meet emerging industry needs.
We know that a select group of publishers have been using EoA in beta. How have you seen them use EoA?
Each of our beta customers is using EoA in a different way. This was somewhat of a surprise! Some are using it primarily to monitor third-party seller activity, some are using it to track missing product pages or price data fluctuation, and some are using the data in their own Business Intelligence systems to augment their internal data analysis.
Did any of them use it in ways that surprised you?
Yes, there are several uses that have surprised me. One that seems obvious to me now but did not initially is the use of EoA to track products that should not appear on certain sites. When certain products appear for sale on a specific site it is a violation and their product management team is alerted so that they can contact the site to have the product(s) removed.
How do you hope publishers will use EoA now that it’s more widely available?
I hope that EoA will become a “first thing in the morning” activity. The EoA results can be used to let you know if there will be any burning issues to deal with today, if any of your products are on the move, or if all is status quo for the day. A simple check-in with EoA can do a lot to inform your priorities.
Where can readers learn more about EoA or see if it’s a good fit for their goals?
The best way to learn more about Eloquence on Alert is to see it in action – words cannot really describe it! Readers can contact our Sales and Marketing department at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a demo.
Andrews McMeel Publishing is a major player in poetry’s resurgence with a new generation of readers. Their list includes bestselling poets like Rupi Kaur and amanda lovelace (whose most recent title, the mermaid’s voice returns in this one has over 400 reviews on NetGalley). With a focus on young, digitally-engaged poets from all over the world drawing upon their diverse backgrounds and experiences, they connect with audiences who may never have seen themselves reflected in poetry before.
In honor of National Poetry Month, we sat down with Kirsty Melville, President & Publisher of Andrews McMeel. In this interview, she tells us what she thinks is behind poetry’s current boom, where she’s looking for new voices, and what trends she sees on the horizon. She describes how the publishing industry is becoming more responsive to what readers are looking for, and how booksellers can use poetry to engage with new customers.
What do you think accounts for some of the popularity behind popular poetry from a diverse group of poets, especially among millennials?
The impact of technology, really. The ease of being able to connect and communicate online has opened up sharing. The ability for people to share their work online, and to share their books. And then for the books to be available at retail so that [readers are] having an experience online and then able to buy a physical book. Poetry lends itself to the experience of reading in short form online. You have that short, shareable mechanism that something like an Instagram distribution platform provides. It also provides building awareness. People want to read poetry privately and it’s a form of reflection, so you see them purchase the same poetry in a book so they can experience the same work.
One of the things that I’ve found most exciting about the poets that we publish is that it’s a global phenomenon. Lang Leav was this poet we published. She was born in a Thai refugee camp — she’s Cambodian originally, raised in Australia. She started posting her work on Tumblr. I saw that she had this fan base in Asia; young women in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines were reading her work. I saw this community of young women who were totally involved and interested in what Lang had to say.
Young women see themselves reflected in [these] poets. So, you have someone like Rupi who is Punjabi-Canadian and she’s a brown woman. So suddenly brown women are seeing themselves reflected in the work of poets and spoken word artists. And then you have someone like K.Y. Robinson who’s from Houston and who’s African-American. She’s writing work and young women are seeing themselves reflected in her work. Or you have Upile Chisala who’s from Malawi; she’s speaking to African women. I think what’s happening is that the internet is facilitating young people seeing themselves reflected in the writers of today and responding to that.
People can finally have poets who are not dead white men writing about things that are relevant to them. Poetry has always been the form of talking about the meaning of life and expressing emotions around life and loss and trauma and understanding the world. All that’s happened is that the Internet’s facilitated that sharing.
Where are some of the places that you and your team are looking to keep up with emerging voices, emerging trends, or communities that you hadn’t known about before?
I think because I’m Australian, I’ve always had a global outlook. Last year I went to the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. One of our authors, Najwa Zebian, who is Lebanese, was on the panel there. I was fascinated to see the Arab world responding to poetry. Rupi had been there 2 or 3 years ago and had a similar response.
I was in Sydney in Australia and we are publishing a young aboriginal boy who is 13 years old who won the Australian Poetry Slam a year ago called Solli Raphael. And he writes about some of the issues that he, as an aboriginal and indigenous young man growing up in Australia [deals with]. Environmentalism, for example.
I think a lot of young people see the world as a place they communicate, so I’m looking everywhere. And I’m looking in communities who haven’t had their worlds expressed. amanda lovelace, the author of the princess saves herself in this one, she has a strong feminist orientation and LGBTQ fan base.
What’s your strategy for moving poetry away from its reputation of being intentionally oblique or rarified, broadening the perception of poetry as something that is for a lot of different kinds of people?
This resurgence in poetry is providing an awareness of the power of poetry in people’s lives. I actually think that we as a culture are committed to poetry as a genre. At Foyles in London you can see Rupi Kaur next to John Keats in the poetry section. It’s bringing more people to poetry, bringing them more to discovery. Once you’ve read one type of poetry it can lead you to another.
Rupi recently wrote an introduction to a Kahil Gibran edition of The Prophetthat Penguin Random House is publishing. [Young people are] interested in the genre and people want to write poetry. So there’s this great canon. [But] there’s room for everyone.
What trends do you see emerging in poetry for the rest of 2019 and beyond?
I think a lot of the themes that we’ve seen around feminism and self care and personal expression and identity and immigration.
We’re publishing a book next year with Ahmed Badr who was a refugee who started a platform called Narratio, which is about helping refugees write poetry about their experiences. He’s worked with the United Nations and so he’s been working with refugees to help them express their experiences through poetry. He was an Iraqi refugee who wrote a poem about the experience of having a bomb dropped on his house. He read it at the United Nations. He’s a student at Wesleyan, actually. He had launched this website in part because he wanted to be able to help others write about [the refugee] experience.
Greenpeace has enlisted Solli Raphael to be a spokesperson for their latest video. It’s pretty amazing how young people are embracing spoken word poetry as a means of communicating.
Anything else you’d like more people to know about poetry publishing?
One of the things that I have always been passionate about advocating for is booksellers to bring poetry out front. Young people are going into bookstores and buying poetry. So, poetry in the front. Put it on the cash rack. Have a display! It’s National Poetry Month now, so there probably is. But make poetry relevant again. Bring it back. I think it’s a way of bringing more young people into the stores.
It sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s less about booksellers making poetry relevant, but booksellers realizing that poetry is relevant and that it is what the next generation wants.
Yes, exactly. Poetry has always been there but for some reason gets a bad rap. But if all booksellers could treat poetry the way they treat fiction bestsellers… Put the poetry up front and see what happens! They might sell more than they realize. I think a lot of people are looking to break away from their digital lives and poetry is a form of self-care. I think that the things a lot of people are looking for are for nurturing and reflection and time for themselves. And reading a book of poetry is the way to do that. To be more human again.
Bio: Founding publisher of Simon & Schuster Australia, Kirsty moved to the U.S. in 1994 as Vice President and Publisher for Ten Speed Press and led in its transformation from a niche publisher into an internationally recognized, award-winning company. She subsequently departed Ten Speed to work as Publisher for San Francisco’s University Games, was appointed Publisher and Executive Vice President of Andrews McMeel Publishing in 2005, ultimately being named President and Publisher in 2009.
Known for best-selling humor, poetry, inspiration, entertainment and children’s books, Andrews McMeel is home to an extraordinary and vibrant selection of writers, artists, poets and comic storytellers. A global, independent, and integrated media partner, Andrew McMeel distributes creator content through global syndication; book, calendar and greeting card publishing; digital consumer experiences; and entertainment licensing. Under her leadership, Andrews McMeel has published many #1 New York Times bestsellers including Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur, with more than 7 million copies sold, How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You by Matthew Inman, more than 1 million copies sold, the Big Nate children’s series by Lincoln Peirce, over 5 million copies sold, and Posh puzzle and coloring book program with more than 10 million copies sold. Since 2013 she has been at the forefront of changing the way poetry is perceived and marketed, helping grow and expand the poetry category for readers worldwide.
NetGalley Insights chats with writer and publishing professional Preeti Chhibber on her career path, her mentors, and the other people making publishing a more inclusive industry.
There’s a lot of talk in the publishing industry about efforts to address diversity and inclusivity. We’ve listened to panels all year long from Tech Forum to London Book Fair. Preeti Chhibber is one of the people doing the work to make it happen.
Frankly, she does it all! She points out where the publishing industry is falling short in terms of representation, both at a systemic level and in the titles that are being published. She produces content to make the industry more diverse, like her contribution toA Thousand Beginnings and Endingsand her podcast Strong Female Characters. And with her Marginalized Authors & Illustrators database, she is giving publishers no excuse for a lack of diverse hires.
She spoke with NetGalley Insights recently about how her career path evolved, her mentors and collaborators, and the other players who are making publishing a more inclusive and dynamic industry.
Tell us about your career trajectory: What was your path from children’s publishing to being a professional cultural critic and enthusiast, a podcaster, and all-around advocate for a more inclusive pop culture?
It wasn’t so much a path as it was something that happened side by side. My work in children’s publishing inspired my advocacy because I was noticing a trend of our kid lit to be very monochromatic. It was rare to see books by and about people of color. Then I started realizing that we work in an industry where we can affect what is and isn’t published, and if I was going to be vocal about books, why not look at the rest of the media landscape as well? I had a vested interest, after all. In terms of the criticism and podcasting, I’ve always written about pop culture on my own time – I grew up on the internet and in the era of blogging and WordPress, so when I realized I could get paid to do this, I had a portfolio ready to go when I started pitching.
What brought you to book publishing and what were your early days in the publishing industry like? What piqued your interest? What challenges did you face?
Book publishing sort of happened by accident. I don’t mean that in a “I fell into this job” kind of way but rather “I can’t believe this is a real job.” I was, as so many young South Asian American students are, pre-med when I was in undergrad. And I was struggling because I am terrible at math and science. I’ve always been more of a reader. My brother was in New York at the time, and he met a woman who worked at Tor and he facilitated a phone call between us where she told me about her work, and I was flabbergasted. This isn’t an industry discussed in the Indian community at all. We get doctors, lawyers, engineers. Publishing? What is that. But as soon as I realized that I could be a part of something that got books into readers’ hands… that’s all I wanted.
Early days were interesting. I got my start in kid lit at Scholastic in 2008, and it was just when the industry was starting to think about how we were being impacted by the Internet. I saw the rise and fall of several e-readers and e-reading apps in the span of four or five years. It was so frustrating to watch as an entry level position without the power to say anything!
It’s always a challenge in publishing to disrupt the status quo. The industry is so old and so slow to change, but it needs to change. When I started, it was so difficult to get noticed without knowing someone (I only got my job by meeting someone at NYU who put my resume in for her position when she left). Publishing is not an equitable industry, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. The pay is low, the work is intense, and you have to come from some kind of privilege to be able to afford to work. I heard an HR rep on a panel once brag about an entry level assistant who had to work an extra job in addition to her work at the publishing house in order to afford to live in the city. I’m… still mad about it.
Who were mentors and colleagues who inspired and encouraged you along the way? How did they help you find your path?
In 2015 I started working for a woman named Ann Marie Wong, who was the boss that I think people dream about. She was so supportive and encouraged new ideas – together, we started the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) partnership with Scholastic Book Clubs as well as a Young Adult initiative. I also want to shout out Sona Charaipotra, who co-founded Cake Literary, a book packager for commercial, diverse children’s literature. She, as a fellow desi woman in publishing, has always been available for conversations about new jobs, or negotiating, or in my case, quitting the industry to write full time for a year. It can be difficult to navigate the business side of some of these old companies, and having women of color around who have done the Thing and can use their experience to help guide you is invaluable.
What has it been like to go from working on behalf of other people’s books to being a writer yourself? Was this always the goal or was it something that developed along the way?
Writing is definitely a goal that developed along the way. It was just so far out of my understanding as something that I could do. Growing up, I had Arundhati Roy or Jhumpa Lahiri as examples of Indian women who were writing for a living. And… I am not either of those women, who are literary bastions of excellence. Early on in my career, an executive said that it was so important to understand the line between Writer and Publisher, and knowing what side you stood on. I know now what a ridiculous thing that is to say, especially considering how many of my colleagues are incredible writers… but when I heard it at the time, it stuck with me for years.
But, as I started noticing what books were being published, I thought I had something to say, a book to write for the kid I’d been. The kind of stories I wished I’d had. So here we are.
It’s been an interesting experience, because I know the publishing side so well, but I’m not as familiar with being a writer… and none of those writerly insecurities are stymied by knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. They might actually be exacerbated by the fact? Like, I can imagine what the meetings are like discussing a book which is not helpful, ha!
We know that moving forward is a collective effort–who have been your biggest supporters? Who are some others that are doing important work to make publishing more inclusive?
I already mentioned Ann Marie Wong and Sona Charaipotra above—but I’ll add women like Dhonielle Clayton, Ellen Oh (who were our colleagues on the side of WNDB when we launched the SBC partnership). In terms of who is doing good work right now to make the industry more inclusive? Patrice Caldwell and her People of Color in Publishing organization, Alvina Ling was an inspiration when she started the diversity committee at Little Brown. And honestly, every single publishing professional who speaks up about the inequity of the industry, many of whom I’ve had the privilege to work alongside like Kait Feldman, Celia Lee, Cassandra Pelham, Trevor Ingerson, Eric Smith, Jennifer Ung, Cheryl Klein, Nancy Mercado, Namrata Tripathi, Zareen Jaffrey. And so many writers (including the aforementioned Ellen, Dhonielle, and Sona) who won’t let publishing coast, like Daniel José Older, Justine Larbalestier, Laurie Halse Anderson, Heidi Heilig, Kayla Whaley—I could go on and on and on, this list is by no means exhaustive, but there are so many incredible people doing the work. We’d be here for hours!
Tell us about the efforts you have made to create communities in publishing, like your Marginalized Authors/Illustrators Database.
Yes! I created the marginalized authors/illustrated database because there is a thing in publishing called IP (intellectual property) – where the publisher will come up with an idea and then hire an author to write the book. I was noticing that editors tended to keep going back to the same list of cis, straight, white authors and I wanted to do what I could to equalize the playing field as much as I could… so I created a resource for editors to find a more diverse group of possible creators. It throws the excuse of “Well, I just can’t find any” out the window. Here! They found themselves for you!
[To request access to the database, fill out this form!]
Bio: Preeti Chhibber is a YA author, speaker, and freelance writer. She works as a publishing professional. She has written for SYFY, BookRiot, BookRiot Comics, The Nerds of Color, and The Mary Sue, among others. Her short story, “Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers” was published in the anthology A Thousand Beginnings and Endings (HarperCollins, 2018), and her first book, Peter and Ned’s Ultimate Travel Journal comes out this year (Marvel Press, June 2019). You can find her co-hosting the podcasts Desi Geek Girls and Strong Female Characters (SYFYWire). She’s appeared on several panels at New York Comic Con, San Diego Comic Con, and on screen on the SYFY Network. Honestly, you probably recognize her from one of several BuzzFeed “look at these tweets” Twitter lists. She usually spends her time reading a ridiculous amount of Young Adult but is also ready to jump into most fandoms at a moment’s notice. You can follow her on Twitter @runwithskizzers or learn more at PreetiChhibber.com.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.