Book Marketing

These independent Southern California book publishers reveal how they’re handling the pandemic – LA Daily News

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year and stay-at-home orders went into effect in cities worldwide, it left people with more time read, but it also created a slew of dilemmas for the publishing industry.

Release dates for new books were rescheduled. Restrictions on travel and large gatherings lead to the cancellation of in-store events and book festivals. Bookstores closed, their existence hanging in a precarious state as weeks passed as they waited to re-open.

For independent publishers, with smaller budgets and fewer marketing resources at their disposal, it also presented a quandary: How do you let people know your books exist when so much promotion is reliant on in-person events?

  • Tobi Harper of Red Hen Press. (Courtesy of Red Hen Press)

  • Rare Bird Press’ Julia Callahan is co-author with Erin Hensley of “I Remember Everything: Life Lessons from Dawson’s Creek,” which is illustrated by Jillian Barthold and publishing in October 2020. (Photo credit: Jessica Schilling/Courtesy of Rare Bird Press)

  • Terri Accomazzo of Angel City Press. (Courtesy of Angel City Press)

  • Kate Gale of Red Hen Press (Photo credit Emily Petrie/Courtesy of Red Hen Press)

  • “Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films” by Arthur Dong. (Courtesy of Angel City Press)

  • Aimee Liu’s “Glorious Boy” (Courtesy of Red Hen Press)

  • Rare Bird Press’ Julia Callahan is co-author with Erin Hensley of “I Remember Everything: Life Lessons from Dawson’s Creek,” which is illustrated by Jillian Barthold and publishing in October 2020. (Photo credit: Jessica Schilling/Courtesy of Rare Bird Press)

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For Pasadena-based Red Hen Press, the answer was online. “We were geared to have not just the biggest season we ever had, but probably twice as big as the biggest season,” says Tobi Harper, deputy director and marketing director for the non-profit publisher. Red Hen only pushed three titles to fall, so the outfit still had plenty to promote, which happened largely through virtual events.

Their partnership with The Broad Stage resulted in “Red Hen Poetry Hour,” part of “The Broad Stage at Home” series that ran for six weeks. They launched their own virtual programming, “Hen House at Home,” a five-episode “spring book tour” featuring conversations with authors like Deborah A. Lott (“Don’t Go Crazy Without Me”) and Ellen Meeropol (“Her Sister’s Tattoo”), both of whom had books published with Red Hen. It was a temporary solution, but it might be a sign of a shift in how books are marketed even when social distancing is a thing of the past.

In the future, Red Hen co-founder and managing editor Kate Gale says, they hope to augment in-store events with live stream events. “Red Hen has, for a long time, wanted to reach the marketplace of people who cannot leave their homes for one reason for another,” says Gale. That includes everyone from people with disabilities to those who live in remote areas.

This might, in fact, be a development similar to the ebook, which was seen as a fad at first, but ultimately serves a greater purpose for underserved communities. “What we found out with the current ebook market is that it’s a lot of people who are visually impaired in whatever capacity,” says Harper as the type size of ebooks can be adjusted by the user.

For Angel City Press, whose focus is on L.A.-centric books marked by attention to art and design, showing people the physical product is crucial to their marketing strategy. “We think of them as both content and object,” says Terri Accomazzo, executive editor for the Santa Monica-based publisher, of their releases. “We really rely on in-person events both as a way to get the word out about our books, but also it’s an opportunity for people to see and feel the richness of what we’ve been able to put into that book.”

In fact, when Los Angeles began its shutdown, one event that was impacted was the launch party for “Judson: Innovations in Stained Glass,” a book documenting the century-plus history of Judson Studios, at the stained glass maker’s facility. “We were asking ourselves whether or not it was responsible to be hosting a gathering at that time,” says Accomazzo. “That was a challenging time for us because we had invested so much into that book and were so excited about having the launch and, at that time, things were so uncertain that we didn’t know how to handle it.”

Like others, though, events for Angel City books were able to move into virtual spaces as well. In June, David Judson gave a book presentation with Vroman’s Live using the streaming platform Crowdcast.

Ultimately, Accomazzo says the shutdown forced them to rethink how they will connect with readers going beyond the pandemic. “Even before the shutdown happened, we’ve been thinking a lot about our relationships with our readers,” says Accomazzo. “This shutdown has given us the opportunity to think about how we build stronger relationships with those people and bring them into our little L.A. history family in a closer way.”

While events were able to segue to the online realm and readers could certainly still buy books online, the temporary closure of brick-and-mortar stores meant that people probably wouldn’t discover new books by browsing. Inside a book store, readers might gravitate towards the title on a spine, flip through a couple pages and make a purchase without having read a review or without much familiarity with the author. That’s important for small publishers who probably don’t have the advertising budget of a major publisher and likely aren’t receiving the same amount of press.

“The biggest challenge has been the closure of physical book stores and what that means for browsing,” says Julia Callahan, director of sales and marketing for L.A.-based publisher Rare Bird. “Indie publishers don’t have the clout that Random House has to get our books on the front page of the New York Times book review or in these huge publications that everyone is still sitting around and reading. It’s harder for us to get in those doors.”

Even as Southern California stores reopen, the social distancing guidelines can still prevent shoppers from spending too long in one shop, curiously peeking inside the books on the shelves. “There still isn’t a lot of browsing going on,” says Callahan, whose own book, “I Remember Everything: Life Lessons from Dawson’s Creek” coauthored with Erin Hensley and illustrated by Jillian Barthold, is coming in October. “That’s the scary part and that’s the part that we had to discuss how we’re going to get books in front of faces in a different way.”

Still, Callahan says that Rare Bird has seen increased engagement with readers, such as when the book “Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk” by Sam McPheeters of the seminal New York hardcore band Born Against, was featured in Pitchfork’s Book Club.

“That brought a lot of people who are music fans to our catalog,” says Callahan. And since Rare Bird has released a significant number of music-related books, they had more for people to read.

“If we can find a silver lining in all of this, people being home has given them more time to read. People want to read. People want to educate themselves,” says Callahan. “They want new books coming into their homes.”