Ten things we learned at our Business Strategy Meeting

Our Meeting was packed with tips for growing a publishing business. These are ten of our favourites.

1. Get your workflows in place
Establishing clear processes for tasks like data management, ISBN acquisitions, file storage and author and freelance contracts will smooth the path to growth in the future, said Nia Beynon, publishing, sales and marketing director of Boldwood Books. “Think about your critical path—the workflows and your route to publication.”

2. Work out what you can do yourself
With so much work to be done in a new or growing business, it can be tempting to outsource. But with advice and practical tools easy to find online, it’s possible to take on aspects of tasks like design and marketing—and it will save money too. “Never underestimate how much you can do yourself… it’s easy to default into previous ways of working, but running your own business is a chance to challenge the norms,” said Nia Beynon.

3. Think big
Boldwood Books may have started small, but it’s thinking big, said Nia Beynon. If you establish the right distribution networks for print, digital and audio formats, set up a good ecommerce system and social media channels and explore international promotional and advertising tools, you can soon start generating exports and rights deals around the world. Or as she put it: “You can reach the world from a basement… Don’t underestimate your value just because you’re a small business—believe in yourself and your potential.”

4. Know who’s doing what
A clear organizational structure makes it much easier for a business to scale up—even if it’s still small. Di Page and Julia Morris, co-founders of Critical Publishing, were clear from the start about their respective strengths, and divided their responsibilities in the business accordingly—then looked for freelance help in areas where they were short on expertise.

5. Set your values
Effective business strategies start with the three Vs: values, vision and voice. “It’s really important to capture your values—what you stand for and how you want people to see you,” said Julia Morris. Those values should set the tone for how the business communicates with customers, authors and partners, as well as visual aspects like branding and design. “Keep honing your brand… show your personality,” said Di Page.

6. Be ready to pivot
Meze Publishing, which started out in magazines but has built a substantial books business, is a very good example of how new and relatively small businesses can pivot and diversify their output much faster than bigger ones. All publishers need to stay alert to changes in the market, because trends and consumer habits can change fast, said managing director Phil Turner. “In all businesses you reach a ‘What’s next’ phase, when the environment changes and you have to stay ahead of the game… things sometimes run their course, and you’ll need to find something else to replace them.” Publishers should be agile enough to pounce on unexpected new projects too, added Di Page. “Be opportunistic—sometimes great ideas come along that don’t seem to fit with your plans, but that might be exciting and profitable.”

7. Think like an owner
For most publishers, producing and selling books will be the enjoyable bit, but all businesses need to pay close attention to finance and cashflow. A good book-keeper or accountant can be a big help, as can a hard-headed approach to publishing choices. “Be realistic about what you can achieve… think about what will be the best things for your business, not the most fun,” said Di Page. For people moving from corporate to independent publishing, this can require a change of mindset. “You need to learn how to be a business owner—it can take a while to learn that you don’t have to report to someone, and that the buck stops with you.”

8. Look outside for expertise
When a business changes its strategy, it will often require new expertise in-house, said Phil Turner. “Be honest about the skills you have and get expert help when you need.” Try to continually upskill team members too, using the IPG Skills Hub to help. And be choosy in your recruitment, making sure that new staff buy in to your culture and vision. “It can sometimes feel like a chore, but if people are going to stick around they’ve got to be a good fit for the business.” 

9. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Because all of its experience was in magazines, Meze Publishing made plenty of mistakes when it entered the very different world of books—but a crash course in the industry was no bad thing, said Phil Turner. “In a way it was beneficial for us that we didn’t know all the pitfalls.” Learning from mistakes is sometimes the best way to get better.

10. Ask for help
All four speakers agreed about the generosity of publishers in sharing advice and expertise. Network as widely as you can, don’t be shy about asking basic questions, and ask for preferential rates from suppliers and partners. “The book industry is incredibly generous… and if you don’t ask you don’t get,” said Nia Beynon. “Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to people—unlike magazines, this industry is very giving,” added Phil Turner. Di Page and Julia Morris emphasised the value of business mentors too—and don’t forget the Business Support Helpline, mentoring scheme and many other resources that come with IPG membership!

The IPG’s Business Strategy Meeting was supported by Publishing Consultancy Group.