Transcript: Publishers Find Doing Good Also Pays

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Interview with Ashley Gordon, Mockingbird Publishing & Rana DiOrio, Little Pickle Press

For podcast release Monday, June 20, 2016

KENNEALLY: Making Information Pay is an annual occasion for the Book Industry Study Group to explore the latest issues in publishing and for attendees to learn how the latest technologies can drive success. For 2016, the program looked beyond making a profit to addressing the challenge of making a difference.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. Making a difference in publishing means tackling the things that don’t automatically come with dollar signs attached – community outreach, content accessibility, and diversity.

The publishing and bookselling industry has a long history of commitment to promoting literacy through book donations. The recent rise of cause marketing, though, is turning the industry to expanding its do-gooder efforts in creative and often dramatic ways. In May, Mockingbird Publishing founder Ashley Gordon moderated a BISG conference panel exploring the commercial rewards of social enterprise. She joins me on the line from Fairhope, Alabama. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Ashley.

GORDON: Thanks for having me, Chris. I appreciate your giving us a chance to talk about this.

KENNEALLY: Looking forward to the conversation. We’ll tell people that Ashley Gordon founded Mockingbird Publishing in 2010 to create beautiful books with not-for-profit organizations to help them tell their compelling stories. Ashley has worked with companies and organizations seeking to incorporate digital publishing and new content technologies into their offerings, with specializations in higher education, social enterprise, and startups. Her current and former clients include the National Association of College Stores, SIPX, Ingram Content Group, and Flat World Knowledge.

This is an interesting conversation to have, particularly in 2016, I think, Ashley, because at this moment the whole notion of how we sell books and get them into the hands of readers is changing dramatically. As a result of the digital revolution, publishers are seeking direct relationships with their customers. And clearly this notion of social marketing – cause marketing – is one way to grow that relationship.

GORDON: It’s a perfect way to grow that relationship, actually, because its basis is the connection between the company, the brand, and its customer. And it does so in a way that is mutually beneficial. Everybody’s working toward the same end goal. It’s not I’m trying to give you something that you will then buy. It’s let’s work together on a cause that we care about. So it’s the perfect way for publishers to look at creating direct relationships with their readers.

KENNEALLY: Right. That working together notion is something that’s important to readers, but it’s especially important to the generation of readers that’s coming behind the baby boomers, the millennials.

GORDON: It’s important to them from a consumer standpoint and also, interestingly, from an employee standpoint. They want their companies to commit to the community and to do so in a way that is not artificial or self-serving, that is genuine, and they want their lives to represent what they believe in. So both where they spend their money and how they make their money are tied to their beliefs.

KENNEALLY: Right. And the opportunity that publishers have to kind of capitalize on social engagement is really almost unique to them because of the kind of product we’re talking about. We’re not talking about hamburgers or automobiles. We’re speaking about books. Those are tied to culture, to ideas, to forward thinking.

GORDON: That’s exactly right. You mentioned in your opening that publishers have long been committed to literacy, and we have. As you say, the product we produce is something that contributes to the social good through literacy, through inspiring curiosity, through sharing of ideas. But it also is a product that is unique in people’s minds. It holds an emotional place for most people. And it isn’t one that people typically buy on price. It’s not I’ll buy this T-shirt that’s $5 instead of the one that’s $10. They buy the book that they want.

So when you’re looking at creating a cause marketing campaign around a product, we have both advantages because of the type of product that we produce and advantages in that it’s not so price-sensitive as many other commodities are. So we start from a very positive place.

KENNEALLY: It’s a fascinating point. Yet publishers are going to want to hear also about the benefits to their business. You’ve outlined in your discussion at the BISG conference – looked into the various aspects of this. They include sales and marketing, but there are other elements that are important, too.

GORDON: Yeah. One of the strongest arguments for it is establishing a positive brand for the publisher, which is something that they’re struggling with now. It establishes the author brand. It creates direct connections, as we said, with their consumers. And it can also drive revenue in some really creative ways. You’re able to look at what you already do in your social marketing campaigns, in your author events, and do those in a way that adds this additional component that drives sales for you directly and with your store partners.

And then it attracts talent. It’s something, as we said, that millennials are looking for. So it’s a means of attracting and retaining those vibrant young employees that we’re all looking for. There are very solid business reasons for doing this.

KENNEALLY: Right. There were a number of case studies that you explored at the BISG conference, and they involve particularly some of the big five. So it’s not just something that the independent book publishers are doing to distinguish themselves. The big five are picking up this challenge as well.

GORDON: That’s exactly right. A campaign from a cause marketing standpoint can work from a small independent publisher to the very largest. We were lucky enough to have the co-chairs of the GiveaBook campaign from Penguin Random House. That was their second year this past holiday season they launched a social media campaign in partnership with First Book, the largest literary nonprofit in the US, working with publishers to get books in the hands of children who need them. It was quite simple. For every hashtag that included GiveaBook, they would give a book to First Book. And the ultimate goal was 50,000 books, which they reached. They did this over the course of a few months, and the result was obviously 50,000 hashtags that occurred from their users on Twitter and Facebook.

They vastly grew their following online. They worked directly with authors who were also in the campaign, who were able to reach out directly to their readers. They partnered with bookstores around the country and actually created a map so that their followers could go and see the book donation point in their area. It drove their readers into bookstores, and they provided signage and other support materials in store that would promote sales that could then go to donations.

And then they went to BookCon and actually met many of the participants – the social media participants – and in a matter of a couple of hours, gathered 500 e-mails of their readers who wanted to do more. That’s just one example from a very large company that was able to take a donation that, frankly, they were already giving to First Book and turn it into something quite remarkable.

KENNEALLY: That’s really interesting. A point to make for the listeners is that this is a benefit not only to publishers but to individual authors as well. I suppose many appreciate the efforts that John Green, for example, has made around his various causes. There’s another example that you like to cite from Patrick Ness, who’s the children’s author of a couple of book series – the Chaos trilogy and A Monster Calls – and just recently he led a campaign to raise money for Syrian refugees.

GORDON: It speaks to the incredible power of social media, which we’re all learning to grasp, but also to the emotional connection that readers have to their authors and the power that authors have to drive that connection. Over a course of a few weeks, what grew from a single tweet that Patrick Ness tweeted in response to a particular moment in the Syrian refugee crisis around children ultimately raised over a million dollars, bringing in other authors and readers and people committing not just donations, but auctioning off through Twitter signed copies. It became a movement that wasn’t planned, in this case. It wasn’t a campaign like the Penguin Random House GiveaBook that involved lots of in-company effort. This was one person’s emotional commitment and response, and he was mirroring what obviously millions were feeling.

And now, as you say, John Green has – he has an entire army. He has his own tribe of followers, of which my 15-year-old son is one. It has raised my son’s consciousness on the awareness of what’s going on in the world and certainly educated him. So I think not only is social media an incredible platform for us to harness, but lots of (inaudible) – so believe that we might be underutilizing our authors and their emotional connection both to what they believe in and to their readers and what their readers believe in.

KENNEALLY: Well, it’s interesting there, I think, Ashley Gordon, because we can make planful efforts around cause marketing. But as you point out in the case of Patrick Ness, we can respond immediately, almost in real time, when a crisis happens or an issue comes up that that particular author or the particular publisher feels strongly about. That’s really the power of social media.

At this point, I want to bring on to Beyond the Book a frequent guest on the program, Rana DiOrio, who joins us now from San Francisco. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Rana.

DiORIO: Thanks, Chris. A pleasure to be here.

KENNEALLY: We’ll tell people again that Rana DiOrio is founder of Little Pickle Press, an award-winning publisher of children’s media dedicated to helping parents and educators cultivate conscious, responsible little people by stimulating explorations of the meaningful topics of their generation through a variety of media technologies and techniques. Little Pickle Press is a certified B Corporation. B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. This is a real commitment. This is not just a gimmick for Little Pickle Press. And you’ve done a number of things, Rana, that kind of fit into it.

Ashley Gordon was just telling us about the whole notion of cause marketing – doing good and doing well for Little Pickle Press as well. We were telling people just now about B Corps – this standard that one must aspire to for social performance and accountability and transparency. And indeed you worked on a particular campaign around that with Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

DiORIO: I did indeed. We called it the B Corps for ONE Campaign, Chris. It emanated from a trip I took to Ethiopia in the fall of 2012. I met the author of what became The Cow in Patrick O’Shanahan’s Kitchen about a year later. It’s a farm-to-table book raising awareness of where food comes from. Cabot aligned with us on that value – the farm-to-table value – but also to let children know that there is food insecurity in our own communities and in the world. And we partnered to align with that value and to get that message out.

The way the campaign worked was we got the word out to our community that we were going to donate 15% of the net sale of that title to the ONE Campaign that’s dedicated to eradicating poverty in the world. Then Cabot Creamery Cooperative got the word out to its community. And then finally the ONE Campaign got the word out to its community.

The net impact was that we made a material donation to the ONE Campaign. You had mentioned earlier some of the benefits to publishers and authors. I think it’s worth enumerating a few others. We expanded our social media reach by eight million as a result of this campaign, which lasted from the beginning of March to the end of December. We increased our house list – that is, our native database of the community that we interact with on a monthly basis. It was an opportunity for us to monetize a backlist title. I think the industry is so focused on frontlist that to find opportunities to give new life to a very relevant and timely backlist title is always a good thing. And then it leveraged the B Corps’ energies. Cabot and Little Pickle Press were aligned, and we increased stakeholder value in each company.

Of course, the campaign got national media coverage – thank you, Publishers Weekly and The Independent, which is the IBPA’s magazine. The Beehive, which is the B Corp community’s captive news network, picked up the story. And of course I had the opportunity to speak with you about it, Chris, at Publishers University.

KENNEALLY: Right. But again, this is something that is not just a one-off for Little Pickle Press. You do a number of things in this regard. The other most recent campaign has been the so-called Great Kindness Challenge. And I know that kindness is important to you, and there’s an important title in the Little Pickle Press catalog, What Does It Mean To Be Kind? Tell us briefly about this particular program.

DiORIO: Just to emphasize your point, brand partnerships is what we call this – is part of our DNA. We’re all about finding corporate partners and nonprofits that align with the values espoused in our titles. This particular campaign involved, as you said, What Does It Mean To Be Kind? The way it worked was that we offered a free e-book and discussion guide for the title to over 8,000 participating schools. And in so doing, we reached over five million students, who participate in 61 countries and in all 50 states of the United States. The catalyst was then that we inspired more than 250 acts of kindness, which – that in and of itself is a win as far as I’m concerned.

KENNEALLY: 250 million, I want to emphasize.

DiORIO: 250 million documented acts of kindness. That was part of the program – that the students were actually cataloging their random acts of kindness. That alone, like I said, would have been a successful campaign. But we ran it from the beginning of January to the beginning of May of this year. And here again we donated 15% of the net sale of that title through all channels, which I think is important to mention, so we included our bookseller friends. It was a channel-agnostic promotion. We even put shelf talkers in Helix so that booksellers could participate and promote the program for us.

In terms of what was in it for us, aside from the positive glow, we expanded our social media reach almost 600% during that period, which is pretty extraordinary. Again, we raised the profiles of all stakeholders. And here again we had national media coverage of the campaign, thanks to our friends at Publishers Weekly and IBPA and Foreword Reviews.

KENNEALLY: Well, Ashley Gordon at Mockingbird Publishing there, what you have been working on since 2010 and we’ve talked about previously on Beyond the Book – you’ve done a number of things working with not-for-profits to help tell these compelling stories, as you put it. I wonder if you could give us a case study of your own, where not only has the work that you’ve done in creating a book and sort of telling a story mattered to the participants but has really mattered to the community.

GORDON: We’ve done a few. We’ve helped out local outreach organizations in rural communities. We’ve worked with a cerebral palsy association, a medical clinic, an orphanage in Kenya. One of the most successful in terms of community involvement and activities was a book called Nothing Fancy about Kathryn & Charlie, and it was the story of the unlikely friendship between Kathryn Tucker Windham and Charlie Lucas of Selma, Alabama. They were disparate in both their race, their background, their ages, and they became lifelong friends.

We did that book for the benefit of the Selma Public Library. And to support it, we did events for children – creative writing and friendship-focused events – all around the state of Alabama for several months over the summer. And we raised quite a good bit of money for the library. We were upwards of $1,000, which is pretty good for a little independent press and one book. And what was even more important is that we touched the lives of thousands of children in helping them to express their own creativity and explore friendships in unlikely places.

There are lots of ways to approach this. As Rana pointed out, it’s great for backlist. It’s great for a new book that you’re looking for some unusual ways to promote. I think the limitations are only the ones that we set ourselves.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. Certainly no limits there to the possibilities of cause marketing and social enterprise. We’ve been speaking today about making a difference on the occasion of the Book Industry Study Group’s annual conference and a panel discussion there. On the line with us from Fairhope, Alabama, has been Ashley Gordon, the founder of Mockingbird Publishing. Thank you so much for joining us on Beyond the Book, Ashley.

GORDON: Thank you for having me.

KENNEALLY: We’ve also been chatting with Rana DiOrio, the founder of Little Pickle Press, based in San Francisco. And thank you again for joining us on Beyond the Book, Rana.

DiORIO: Always a pleasure, Chris. Thank you.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. With its subsidiaries RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom, CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining, and rights licensing technology. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.

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