Every year, publishers release thousands of new titles, but the vast majority don’t turn a profit. M0st authors spend years working on a book, only to see it languish, unable to find an audience.
Amy Snook thinks there’s a better way. She just launched a new publishing firm called Parea whose goal is to publish books by new authors, then help find an audience by targeting influencers and communities with whom each title will resonate. It’s the latest effort to to shake up a sleepy, old-fashioned industry.
Snook has spent her career thinking about how to use the internet to help brands find consumers. She was an early employee of the makeup brand Glossier before taking on the role of COO at the alcohol brand Haus. In both cases, her job was to use use social media to find and create passionate communities. In the midst of building these companies, Snook always had her head in a book. “I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I couldn’t help but notice that the publishing industry operated so differently from modern brands,” she says. “It seemed that most books never found an audience, which seems like such a waste of resources.”
Today, the industry is dominated by five large publishers that have operated for more than a century: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. (That will shrink to four if Penguin Random House’s acquisition of Simon & Schuster goes through.) While these companies publish thousands of books every year, they build their business around a few best sellers that will sell millions of copies and help pay for everything else. While the publishers put a lot of money into marketing books they expect to be hits, they put very little resources into smaller books or unknown authors. “Authors are expected to market books themselves,” says Snook, “which is why publishers tend to favor writers with an inbuilt audience, like celebrities. But many authors don’t have the skills to market their own books.”
Snook’s business model, on the other hand, begins by identifying communities of readers who are currently underserved. While the most likely person to read a book is a college-educated Black woman, Black female authors are still underrepresented—despite a spate of recent books by such authors. Of the first six books Parea has under contract, four are by Black women.
Snook is also focusing on the category of “self-help” (or in her words “self-expansion”), which tends to generate a lot of best sellers. She defines these books as nonfiction that help readers think through a problem or learn something new. The first book, The Hours Before Dusk, is by sustainability journalist Jenna Matecki, who profiles 25 different cities and challenges readers to find joy in their everyday experience of city life. The second book on the docket is by an African American death doula; the third is by a Black female hotelier in Morocco. To edit the books, Snook has brought on Alyea Canada, who has spent her career editing books from independent presses and until recently was an editor at online literary magazine Asymptote Journal.
When Snook starts working on a book, she reaches out to a community of readers who she thinks might be a good fit for that title. With Matecki’s book, Snook scoured TikTok, Instagram, and popular reading blogs for book influencers who love travel and cities, giving them early versions of the manuscript and inviting them to provide feedback, which sometimes led to changes in the manuscript. The idea is to help influencers feel invested in the success of the book.
She then works with these influencers to get their communities excited about a new release. The Hours Before Dusk officially comes out in August and has already sold several thousand copies in preorders. Snook considers this a success because most first-time authors sell only 2,000 copies overall. Parea’s books will be available primarily through the brand’s website, although Snook will partner with select retailers who are likely to reach the target audience. And while Snook doesn’t pay authors an advance, they’ll get 20% in royalties on each book, which is double the industry norm.
Snook is employing a similar playbook to how DTC startups often build followings. Glossier, for instance, reached out to beauty influencers (and their followers) who would understand the brand’s minimalist, natural aesthetic and help drum up support before launch. The brand gained millions of followers on its social media accounts, which allowed it to sell directly to its community.
Jane Friedman, a publishing analyst with more than three decades of experience in the industry, agrees that publishers tend to focus their attention on a few titles they believe will sell well. But they also hope that there will be a few surprise hits. The problem is, historically, a few influential gatekeepers are responsible for “discovering” new authors or hidden gems. “The DNA of traditional book publishing is that it has catered to tastemakers—like librarians, booksellers, and book reviewers at big publications like the New York Times,” Friedman says. “And unlike other consumer companies like Coke and Maybelline, publishers don’t do rigorous and systematic market research. Publishers don’t really seem to care much about what readers want; they’re led by the gut instincts of editors and gatekeepers.”
Traditional publishers have begun to understand the power of Instagram and TikTok, and some imprints have marketing teams that reach out to TikTok influencers to promote new releases. But given the volume of books, it’s still impossible for every title to get equal billing. Snook wants every book in her portfolio to get attention, which is admittedly easier since, to start with, she’s only releasing a dozen books a year. And Snook isn’t the only one trying to upend book publishing. Over the past few years, other startups have tried to come up with creative new ways to market books. Zando, for instance, was founded in 2020 by Molly Stern, the former publisher of Crown. Stern doesn’t primarily rely on bookstores and advertising to market new books but instead partners with celebrities and brands who will promote books to their fans and customers. Zibby Books, founded last year by book influencer Zibby Owens, will release nonfiction and memoirs from diverse voices. Owens has developed a unique way to compensate authors and employees, by dividing 75% of all net profits each calendar year among each employee and author (in addition to giving them traditional royalties and advances). This financial structure is designed to allow all authors to benefit equally.
Friedman thinks it’s a good thing that new, independent publishers are coming up with creative ways to help first-time authors rise to the surface. But for now, these upstarts are still small and probably can’t affect broader change across the industry. “The question is, Can this be scaled?” she says. “That’s where the rubber hits the road.” Friedman points to PR company Open Road Media, which focuses on generating publicity for new books, as something that has the potential to be more disruptive. “They have created a digital marketing engine that is exactly what big publishers need to market their books at scale, which seems far more interesting and sustainable,” she says.
Snook realizes she’s starting small, but she believes Parea and the other startups in this space have the power to put pressure on the bigger players to change the way they operate. And ultimately, this gives readers more opportunities to find talented authors and great books. “I hope traditional publishing will look at this and realize they were missing out by not trying to understand who their readers are, what they want, and how to involve them in the book acquisition and marketing process,” she says. “I don’t believe publishing is a zero-sum game. If more of the world is reading more often, we’ll be in a much better place.”