How Independent Publishers Change The Game

In November of 2023, a piece entitled “The Fight for the Future of Publishing” started making the rounds on my various social feeds. Initially, I was disappointed as I began to read the first lines. Not because I disagreed but because I had been working on a similar piece about the book publishing industry that fall, just as I was launching my own independent publishing house, Rise Books. I thought someone had beat me to the punch—but then I kept reading.

The article was from a Substack journal called “The Free Press,” though at the time I did not realize it was connected to Bari Weiss’ media venture of the same name. By the third paragraph, it was clear that this was actually a right-wing think piece about how diversity and equity are bad for book publishing. How the cancellation of Woody Allen’s memoir was both a liberal error and a financial mistake. How forums like Substack were liberating conservative voices, when stubborn, old traditional publishing was busy erasing them.

Back in the 2000s, I worked in that publishing industry, directly for the infamous book publisher Judith Regan. Rupert Murdoch would often call us directly, sometimes yelling into a sat phone from across choppy seas, “I’m on the yacht!”

George Bush was president and though many of us identified as liberal, we published Rush Limbaugh, Donald Rumsfeld, and Neil Strauss’ The Game, now an Incel classic. Prior to that gig, I had worked for another label called The Free Press, this one an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and our list included Tony Robbins, Chris Matthews, and Dr. Phil (whose behaviors both public and private should have gotten him canceled years ago, but some mysteries remain).

At this point in the journey, profit isn’t the reason most of us are showing up to work every day.

We made a lot of money. A lot. In fact, in 2001, the year before I left that job at The Free Press, Simon & Schuster made $648.8 million, an increase of 8.8 percent over the previous year. Five years later, I quit Harper Collins, although under far more egregious conditions. We were doing the book, If I Did It by OJ Simpson. I am one of the few people who read the original manuscript in which OJ described Nicole’s murder in such horrifyingly graphic detail that it eliminated any lingering doubts about his guilt. My boss, the aforementioned Regan, was well-known to be a mercurial leader, and those were during the good times. The OJ book was a fiasco and the pressure from Rupert was mounting as word of the project began to emerge. There is not a hot enough bath.

If that was what book publishing was supposed to be, I realized I didn’t want it. Sure, the book would have made a fortune. It would have been horrifically traumatizing for the families, and rightfully, would have gone against Son of Sam laws, which is ultimately how the Goldman family stopped its publication, republishing a different version, where the profits went to their foundation.

I left book publishing for good, knowing that it could be so much better, more interesting, more equitable, but also, kinder.

We were only a few months out of the summer of 2020, which offered a brief glance into what widespread activism could look like in this country, when an opportunity to return presented itself.

A dear friend of mine and fellow author, Rebekah Borucki, had been negotiating her book contract at Hay House, but the publisher had remained silent as some of their authors had quickly become some of the leading Covid-deniers in the country, creating uncertainty and backlash in an already uncertain time. She decided to walk away from the contract. The next day, I wrote her a text, “I guess it’s time to start your own publishing house.”

“I had created a small children’s imprint called Wheat Penny Press to publish my own book, but I never thought I would be a publisher until I left my old one.” Rebekah shares, “It was very clear that they weren’t a company that was invested in any of the values that I was—in terms of equity and platforming authors who really had something new to say.”

By the end of the month, we had formed Row House Publishing, and I was officially back in book publishing. The thing was, we weren’t alone.

Over the last twenty years, the number of independent book publishers has grown by over 21 percent, with independent publishing now making up over 35 percent of the market. For publishers like Borucki, the Pandemic years felt rife with opportunity. Zibby Owens came to the space from a similar perspective. After starting a popular podcast during the pandemic, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read,” she quickly began to build a community of readers and writers, many of whom weren’t seeing their stories reflected by big publishing.

“I kept hearing about all the dissatisfaction in the industry. And then I had some of my own books come out. I had two anthologies and a children’s book and a memoir,” Zibby shares her experience with me over lunch around the corner from her bookstore in Santa Monica, Zibby’s Bookshop. “And then I got to see different three different publishing houses and how they operated.”

She smiles, “I am the type of person who, when she hears about a problem, I want to fix it.”

For Rebekah, the spark was the exact opposite of the Free Press piece, which denigrated the calls for diversity within book publishing: “In a rapidly shifting culture, where people are becoming so intentional with how they spend their money, when you are honest, transparent, ethical and equitable, and you are foundationally committed to justice, you will not only attract consumers that are aligned, you will also attract numerous bestselling authors.”

Since my time in traditional book publishing, there have been public attempts at increasing diversity, both within the rank and file of the companies and on their publishing lists. But the stats have not changed by much. Since 2010, there has only been a .87 percent increase of Black authors, a 2.96 percent increase of Latino authors, and a decrease in Asian authors, of .72 percent.

So as much as Woody Allen might have struggled to find a home for his memoir, Black, Brown, and Asian authors have found a significantly harder uphill battle. For veteran publisher, Arthur Levine, the desire to see more diverse authors led him to leave his eminent position at Scholastic and start his own house, Levine Querido.

“What I saw along that time, just from my perspective, creative decision making shifted from being that of the editor and editor-in-chief to the finance department and closely allied with sales and marketing. It’s no one’s fault; it’s a mathematical necessity. Whether you have 24 titles or 500, your independent sales rep still only has an hour to meet with a buyer. They have to manage it by only presenting the top 20 or the top 10 titles, the ones that publisher has invested the most money in.”

In 2022, two years after helping Rebekah Borucki launch Row House Publishing, I decided to create my own publishing house. By then I had been running my book coaching company, Rise Writers, for a couple of years, another Pandemic-era creation. Like Zibby, I had built a community of writers, many of whom were talented and committed authors with diminutive platforms, who would struggle ever to get a traditional book deal. I knew I wanted to build a house which would publish their works, harkening back to my own early days in publishing, before social media.

But book publishing is a notoriously hard game.

As Levine shares, “Until 2023, we were doing just fine. We were marching towards our goals and profitability. You want to make books and you want to make them in a particular way and you want to have control over their environment. Sometimes there is just an extra blast of headwind.”

For some small-ish publishers, the outlook has not been as dire. Though she is an inarguably hard worker, Zibby Owens also has resources like few others. Her father is businessman and billionaire Stephen Schwarzman. When she launched Zibby Books, PW offered a profile of the company, sharing she had eight full-time staff. Her publisher, Anne Messite, had previously run Vintage and Anchor Books at Random House.

At the time, Rebekah and I were in full-hustle mode, fundraising, acquiring, producing, managing, and editing all of our first six authors with just the two of us. When I told Zibby the story, her response said it all, “It was just the two of you?”

“Uh-huh,” I replied.

“It was just the two of you?” she asked again.

With Row House, we raised over $1 million in seven months, but we had a cultural zeitgeist at our backs. As Row House drives people once again to its GoFundMe effort, Rebekah remains hopeful: “This model is totally possible if people first and foremost embrace community. The biggest struggle is lack of imagination. We have really big imaginations and the audacity to believe that something new can be done.”

As Arthur explains, even with decades in book publishing and over 100 books released by Querido Levine since its 2019 inception, “We are still six people, and ten cups of coffee, and we’re doing it together based on a coherent mission. We want to publish great books by people who have been marginalized or not represented very well.”

But like most businesses ruled by the whims of capitalism, we are discovering that principle and profit don’t always align. Because though Row House Publishing and Rise Books both have distribution deals with Simon & Schuster, the production and printing costs are enough to sink the whole endeavor. Authors can become unhappy when faced with the realities of a startup and the budgets associated with independent publishing, and unlike in traditional book publishing, will sometimes resort to legal tactics to push small publishers into decision-making, knowing we are financially vulnerable. It is nearly impossible to get national media attention without the funds for a big publicist, and there are many freelance publicists out there willing to charge a fortune and rarely deliver.

But at this point in the journey, profit isn’t the reason most of us are showing up to work every day. For Rebekah, disruption has always been the driving motivation: “I love independent publishing. By being transparent, we‘re empowering authors to get better deals.”

We start small and through our innovations, we become something else entirely.

In our view, book publishing should be more than a vehicle for Dr. Phil or Tony Robbins or even the bestselling books that rightly deserve their place on the list. It doesn’t mean that everyone should get to have their book published—but rather that there should be more room for more perspectives and less gatekeeping or curating the trends and landscapes that dictate what sells and what sinks.

As Rebekah adds, “There is a way to do good and make money and I think that were doing that. It’s a new business, and you got to put that money out. That million came from 1,300 people. What we did was make book publishing accessible. Because that’s what Row House is.”

And even at Rise Books, where we had reschedule our 2024 titles in response to our economic reality, we ended 2023 hitting our fundraising goal, raising $300,000 in our first year, with another $150,000 to go. And we launched a hybrid imprint, Ascend Publishing, where authors cover the cost of publishing and receive a traditional publishing experience in exchange. We recognized that in creating a guaranteed revenue stream, we could reach profitability without having to sacrifice quality, keeping Rise Books focused on its mission: publishing books from writers who would not otherwise be able to secure a traditional book deal.

It’s not unlike Netflix, who began by renting out DVDs and became a gamechanger in streaming entertainment. We start small and through our innovations, we become something else entirely.

Zibby agrees, offering, “I mean, look at the TV networks. It was a much bigger deal to have a show on NBC. Yeah, they’re still NBC, but it’s a much less big deal now. It’s the same thing in books because there are more players now, and if the book gets out there and finds an audience, it doesn’t matter how it gets there. I think everything is changing, no matter how big you are.”

Or how small. In its first two years, Row House Publishing has had two NYT bestsellers, with one title reaching #1. Zibby Books has had two USA Today bestsellers, one Target Book Club pick, and a pick from the Book of the Month Club. Levine Querido Books has had one NYT bestseller, numerous national bestsellers, and has been honored by both the Newbery and Printz awards multiple times. And Rise Books, well, we’re only two books in, so we’ll keep you posted.

But despite the cries from right-wing media, the landscape is changing. It is becoming wider and deeper, it is working to offer more people an opportunity to share their message, to connect with their communities, to build publishing houses which reflect the times we live in, one which feels light years away from Donald Rumsfeld and OJ Simpson. One which still hums with the resistance of 2020, and which offers a new vision: placing principles over profit, despite all the reasons to do otherwise.

As Arthur Levine makes plain, “Our goal is to love your writing and make sure it gets out to other people. We’re not out to exploit anybody; very directly, our success is your success.”


live through this

Live Through This by Kristen McGuiness is available from Rise Books.

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