Q&A: IBPA Director Angela Bole on Self-Publishing and the Digital Future

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Angela Bole assumed her role as executive director of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) in July 2013, moving over from No. 2 in command at the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). As she rounds out her first year as the head of the largest publishing association in the U.S. with about 3,000 individual members, she took some time to speak with Digital Book World about her plans for IBPA and how independent presses, self-published authors and digital natives are all reshaping the marketplace.

Rich Bellis: What was it like transitioning from BISG, where you served as deputy executive director since 2009, and how were the first few months settling in at IBPA?

Angela Bole: It was a little bit of the best of both worlds. I had a lot of the same contacts coming over from a similar trade association in publishing, or at least a sister association. I still had a lot of the same people that I continue to work with, so that was really helpful.

But it’s a whole new market for me working with independent publishers and self-published authors, so there’s a learning curve as well. I’m still in the middle of it.

RB: What direction are you planning to take IBPA in order to continue to serve that market?

AB: IBPA has a long history. It’s been around for 30 years, and it’s one of the most trusted associations in publishing for independent publishers. It has a strong legacy, and that was really interesting to me coming in. Our focus now is just to strengthen the foundations even more: to look at the different programs that we’re running and make sure they’re relevant today—and they have been for many years—and to change some of them if we see that we need to do that to make sure they’re meeting our members’ needs.

Another thing that’s important to us right now is really understanding who our members are. So we launched a full-scale member survey in March, and we pulled results in that we’ll be analyzing this summer so we can start to tailor programs to different members’ needs.

RB: Without having done that yet, can you speculate on anything you’re likely to learn about the makeup of your membership?

AB: I think it’s too early to tell. One thing that’s true about IBPA is that we are a professional association. We even have a code of ethics for our members that talks to the professionalism that is expected from people and companies who join IBPA. We’re for people who are serious about making a living off of the work they do, and are serious about plugging into proper copyright and proper registration, all of that—so I expect that that’s going to be reflected in the results we see from people who are pursuing publishing as a career.

RB: How has the rising influence of self-published authors impacted IBPA’s member base and the services you offer?

AB: What I hear from those who’ve been at the association a lot longer than I have is we’ve always had a big self-published author base at IBPA, even when it wasn’t so easy to be a self-publisher. It’s very common for people to join IBPA because they’re interested in publishing their own work, and then once they understand that process, some of them take to publishing other people’s work and start to learn that side of the business, which includes learning things like royalty tracking, how to pay authors, how to set up contracts.

We have seen the quality of the work produced by self-published authors increase tremendously over the past ten years. You couldn’t compare a self-published book to a New York-published before, but now the quality is much better than it used to be.

RB: Did you follow the debate earlier this year when self-published author Hugh Howey released a host of data on author earnings? It underscored, among other things, the persistent scarcity of reliable sales data in the industry. What are the conversations you’re hearing surrounding that issue among self-published authors and independent publishers?

AB: I did read some of that. I think it’s very much the way you described it. Any data we can get out there is good data to look at. There isn’t a lot of data on the independently published market. Self-published authors that are going into Amazon, for example, and not buying ISBNs—it’s not tracked by the major research that the publishing industry uses to define itself. So there’s a huge market out there that isn’t being tallied. It’s important for us as an industry to be able to understand the size and shape of that market.

I think what Hugh was doing, and is doing, is very good for the industry. We can take it all with caveats and a grain of salt, as with any data. There are a lot of different ways you can interpret it, but the first step is to get the information to have some kind of baseline to start a conversation. I was very happy to see we at least got that done.

Related: Data on Readers Still Scarce, Retailers Should Take Action

Related: Analyzing the Author Earnings Data

RB: Do you think your members have a unique relationship to digital? How would you characterize it?

AB: No, I don’t think so. A lot of the things our members are dealing with and needing to know involve structuring themselves in ways very similar to traditional publishing. It might be different in size but not really different in kind.

They’re all struggling to compete on the same playing field as traditional players, and that’s what IBPA can help them do: to help them understand the market so they can get out there and have a voice, generally speaking. So I don’t think they’re uniquely digital. Many of our members publish print and digital simultaneously.

RB: A speaker at a conference recently brought up a remark that was made at Digital Book World 2014 by a publishing executive, that the pace of change in the industry is likely to be the slowest now than it will ever be in our lifetimes. Do you think that’s true? How quickly are things changing for the indie community in particular?

AB: Well, there’s always been change and I assume it’s always fast, particularly when you’re trying to innovate. I’ve been working in publishing for twelve years and every day of my professional career it’s felt like there’s never enough time and there are always things changing and we constantly have to innovate. So I don’t really know that that’s going to be any different if you’re going to try and stay relevant in any industry.

Will it accelerate more? I think we’re seeing a very interesting place where we’re about to have digital natives be the people who are developing content and the platforms for reading that content. We’ve never had that before. And I think that’s really going to change the conversation and boost digital in a way we haven’t seen before. But I don’t think it necessarily means we’re going to feel different kinds of acceleration.

RB: What’s next for IBPA? Is there anything in the works now that you’re especially looking forward to?

AB: I’m looking forward to publishing the results from our member survey. As the largest publishing association in the U.S., with 3,000 independent publishers, we have a unique thing to say about the size and shape of this part of our industry. So it will be interesting for us to get that research out so people have a foundation to discuss other things related to independent publishing.

We’re also about to launch a new educational platform online through OpenLearning.com, which I’m excited about. It’ll be a place for members to come and access different types of content at any time they’d like in many different categories—ebooks and marketing and distribution. It’s just going to grow. Right now we’ve got all the basics in there. It’s fun to be able to grow as we move forward.

And we just finished our Publishing University, and that was a big hit. So I’m excited to take what we learned from that conference and build the next event for 2015.

Related: Check out courses on offer at DBW U!

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