Knitting a Long Tail in Niche Publishing – Featured Session on Book Marketing at SXSW 2012

by Karen Jonson

Author, Publisher, and Knitter, Shannon Okey Discusses the Realities of Traditional Book Publishing Today – and the Opportunities in Self-Publishing

SXSW 2012 Report Booklet Cover

To receive a full copy of my 2012 SXSW report, see note below.

2012 was the year of the book at SXSW – there were more sessions on book marketing that year than ever. What’s more, many of the other sessions, such as talks on content and idea-generation, were also valuable to new authors, like me.

After the event, I was so excited about the content that I created a highlights report after the event. Here is an excerpt from that report.*

Description of Event

Larger publishers and distributors are often unwilling to take a chance on what they consider “niche.” Yet consumers want specialization and more advanced content rather than lowest common denominator material.

What’s a creative professional to do? Using the example of knit publishing and its evolving presence in the e-book market, as well as best practices for designers and creatives relating to publishing, we’ll explore ways to increase creators’ revenue and buck the established publishing system.

Shannon Okey is the founder of Cooperative Press, an independent publishing company devoted to exploring new ways to publish, promote and champion authors in a swiftly-changing industry. CP pays significantly higher royalty rates and offers much more control than other publishers do. We’re also digital-friendly and constantly looking for new ways to do what we do better. Shannon herself is perhaps better known by her online moniker Knitgrrl, and is the author of more than a dozen major-publisher books, a former magazine editor and a frequent contributor to magazines and television.

What I Learned

A few minutes into this talk, I wanted to walk out. After all, I quickly learned that the “knitting” in the title literally meant knitting, as in yarn. And the “long tail” was a play on words, meaning both long-tail marketing and a long tail in knitting. I wondered how and why this craft session got booked for SXSW. But because the large room was sparsely populated, there was no way to sneak out gracefully.

Boy, was I happy I stayed. It turns out that Shannon is a self-taught veteran of self-publishing who has tried many of the various avenues for publishing and marketing books. She provided one of the best discussions of book self-publishing that I’ve heard – including an overview of her publishing company’s unique business model.

She began by presenting us with a traditional book publishing reality check. When knitting became popular in the late 1990s after the success of the book Stitch and Bitch, Shannon and a fellow knitter were offered $15,000 by a book publisher to author a book on knitting. An attractive offer — until you break it down.

Out of that advance, Shannon and her co-author would have had to pay $2,500 to an agent, $4,000 to an editor, $7,000 to a photographer, and $500 for miscellaneous shipping costs. “That left $1,250 for us to split,” she said. “Plus, we couldn’t even write the book we wanted to write. We had to write the book the publishers wanted.”

Shortly after that experience, Shannon published a Kindle single. “We immediately made a few hundred dollars, and the light bulb went off. Why not just publish whatever we want to publish ourselves? We’ll have more control and likely earn more money.” She and her partner have done just that ever since.

Shannon advised writers to find new topics for books by following trends (like knitting in the 1990s), and then figuring out what they can add to the conversation. What are the deficiencies in the marketplace? Which books on the subject are okay, and which are not so great? Are there any groups on the topic that you can connect with?

How to Help the World Find Your Book

Shannon acknowledged that the hardest part of self-publishing is that “the world has not found you yet.” As a knitter, she has an advantage: Namely, a website community of two million knitters. However, to attract people to purchase her books, she is constantly engaged in a wide range of marketing activities, including podcasts, radio interviews, book reviews, and speaking engagements. “Engage your community. Ask questions. Solicit participation,” she advised.

The “long tail” she cites in the session’s title means that authors should plan to be in the book writing business for the long haul, constantly searching for ways to help potential readers find you.

“The long tail is about setting things up and keeping the wheels turning. It’s about getting a steady income stream from multiple sources and formats. And it’s about constantly writing, marketing, and creating ideas. It’s not about obsessing over every book.”

Obviously, Shannon is doing something right. She is selling her books and she spoke at SXSW to an appreciative, albeit small, audience!

Learn More

The audio version of her talk is available here (just click the audio button).

Her slides are available here.

Note: To receive a full copy of my 2012 SXSW report on marketing, content, and idea-generation, email your request at Karen at indiebookmarketingcommunity dot com.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

siobhandaiko August 6, 2014 at 2:53 am

Shared to my Facebook Writer page and Tweeted. Excellent advice.


Karen Jonson August 25, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Thank you!


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