As often happens, a distributor’s fairly simple idea of offering a one-stop platform for print and digital editions soon evolved into something more. Beyond the envisioned base of independent publishers and authors, libraries, bookstores, and others have taken advantage of the service and the company has found success in unexpected places.
“It was specifically designed as an interface for independent publishers to upload their content for print and e-book distribution in the same place,” said Robin Cutler, senior manager of independent publishing at Ingram Content Group. “Then we had book stores that wanted to start their own publishing programs, and libraries realized this was a good tool to get their content updated and made available.”
Cutler said the IngramSpark platform’s launch in July 2013 brought together existing print-on-demand services the distributor had employed for both print and digital editions.
“We had this technology for a while but had never put the two together and made a service specific for independent publishers,” Cutler said. “It basically built on those and improved the platform itself to make it easier to upload content and provide distribution.”
The simplicity of its design proved attractive to more than just small presses. In January 2014 the Williamson County Public Library in Franklin, Tennessee, launched its own publishing program. “A labor of love,” according to Library Director Dolores Greenwald.
The library’s debut title was a children’s book co-authored by staff members, Bucky & Bonnie’s Library Adventure, the first product from the library’s own Academy Park Press imprint. Local and regional authors were soon invited to submit works for consideration. Sales of the book—which went on to win industry awards—have helped fund programs, increase the library’s collections, and inspire further projects.
“The success of our first book and development of our publishing program illustrates how libraries of today can move forward in new and exciting ways,” Greenwald said.
Since then, IngramSpark has partnered with libraries, book stores, publishers new and experienced, and authors who have found new avenues to independent success.
Taking Care of Business
There were obvious advantages for the platform, emerging as it did from a long and well-established book distributor. Cutler said, however, that experience offered an interesting hurdle to clear.
“One of the challenges of launching a new service within an existing company is that people are used to doing things a certain way,” Cutler said. “We work within the company on what we can do better and how to make doing business with Ingram a little easier.”
Inspired by early success stories the staff approached self-publishing and marketing based on that very experience. In its two years of existence, the platform marked the biggest growth area on the publishing side of the Ingram house. Along with Williamson and other libraries, Cutler said the company attracted writer’s groups looking for the advantages of working with an established entity which distributes to more than 31,000 global retail partners, provides e-book distribution to 70 percent of the world.
The company’s reach offers publishers the opportunity for top-shelf distribution, and Cutler recommends nothing less than a professional approach to the product.
“Our goal is to help people evolve from a writer into a business owner of their own content,” said Cutler, who has spoken with many writing groups. “They want to make their content available in as many formats as they can. The business of publishing—even if you’re doing it yourself—is a business. The ones that sell the best are the ones where they learned the steps required to bring a book to market.”
Successes and Surprises
Driven in part by the anticipated e-book boom, IngramSpark instead found its own niche. Cutler said that both distributors and publishing conglomerates had needed a way to streamline the balance between digital and print, but the concept was soon realized as the ideal forum for a growing segment.
“The trend four years ago was leaning toward e-books,” Cutler said. “But that flattened out. People want their choice and writers need to make their content available, especially independent and self-published writers. That part of the market was growing.”
Along with a host of libraries and independent bookstores which have adopted the platform for local writers’ groups, Cutler said that IngramSpark proved particularly attractive to authors of self-help, business, and spiritual works.
“Happily so,” Cutler said. “That kind of content sells well in stores and to libraries.”
As with any success story there have been unexpected discoveries. Among the breakout titles was a poetry collection, Black Butterfly, the origin of which was a true hybrid of conventional craft and cutting edge media. Robert M. Drake—“The Poet of Instagram”—took an unusual approach to marketing his work before putting it in book form (Read more in the Foreword This Week interview with Drake.)
“He originally created his poems on an old-fashioned typewriter,” Cutler said. “He’d take pictures of the pages and post them on Instagram.” Launched on IngramSpark under the poet’s Vintage Wild imprint, the title went on to top specialty sales charts when released in April 2015.
Other notable releases have included an adventure in the Indiana Jones vein, The Sword of Moses by Dominic Selwood, which Cutler said sold well in both print and digital format and garnered positive reviews from traditional outlets; and Walking the Bridgeless Canyon by Kathy Baldock, a story with the timely and topical subtitle, Repairing the Breach Between the Church and the LGBT Community, that has been widely available in multiple formats since its 2014 release.
Two years after launching what was designed to provide a common platform for print-on-demand and digital editions, Cutler said the company will continue applying what has been a successful formula for independent publishers and authors.
“The focus will be to help people help themselves better,” Cutler said. “Tying the publisher or author more directly with retailers and libraries can serve both sides of Ingram’s business—content creators and making the content available. That’s the big part of what we’re doing.”
James A. Mitchell is a veteran reporter and author of four books, including The Walrus & the Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution and But For the Grace: Profiles in Peace From a Nation at War. You can follow him on Twitter @jamesamitchell3.
James A. Mitchell