Innovative model bridges the gap between indie authors and Christian retail stores, benefits both.

As independent publishing continues to grow, so do questions about where these books fit within the Christian products marketplace. One particular challenge is that many brick-and-mortar stores won’t consider titles that come through nontraditional channels, making it nearly impossible for self-published writers to get shelf space.

Enter Brandilyn Collins and Tracy Higley. Both respected Christian authors, they recognized early on that a lot of good content was never reaching the marketplace because independently published authors didn’t have a channel to get into retail stores, and retailers were uncertain about these books’ quality, message, and potential sales.

“Brandilyn had decided to independently publish her works and quickly realized it was an issue to get her books into retail. As she researched it, she saw the majority of authors in the same situation were settling for e-book sales and giving up on print sales,” says Higley.

Not satisfied, Collins was determined to find a solution, so she contacted CBA, who put together a stakeholder team to examine the situation, discuss the problem, and come up with a solution. In the summer of 2015, Collins met with Higley to discuss this gap in the system. And from that Stonewater Books was born.

“Stonewater is not a distributor, publisher, or marketer,” says Higley, CEO of Stonewater Books. “We are all those things. We are between the author and the distributor. We aggregate independent authors together, being careful to choose authors that retailers will recognize and know will sell through.”

The company doesn’t charge authors to be a part of its program. “We get a percentage of every book that sells,” says Higley.

Stonewater has established a relationship with Anchor Distributors to handle its books. Karen Fulton, executive assistant at Anchor, says Stonewater’s model appealed to them because it took care of the amount of labor normally required to work with an independently published writer. She believes storeowners will see benefits, too.

“Retailers want to buy from established vendors and not directly from authors, so a model like Stonewater’s is essential,” she says. “They will be glad to have the opportunity to get titles from popular authors that would otherwise not be available to them. They will be appreciative if the authors encourage fans to buy from the local bookstore instead of the popular online outlets. Self-published authors also will enjoy not having to deal with some of the problems they typically face in trying to get into bookstores.

“The Stonewater model addresses many of those obstacles,” she continues. “First, retailers need to be able to purchase the titles from a current vendor, whether that’s a publisher or a distributor such as Anchor. Retailers will not buy direct from an author. Secondly, we have built enough lead-time into the publishing cycle so that we have the opportunity to present it to the major accounts such as Mardel and LifeWay. It is also key that the books are available exclusively to Christian retail stores for a period of time and are not available via CreateSpace or Ingram’s POD program,” she adds, noting these programs have their place in publishing and work well for unknown authors or backlist titles.

For retailers concerned about the quality of the Christian content, CBA has agreed to vet the books Stonewater accepts.

“We’re trying to create a trustworthy, high-quality brand that people can trust,” says Higley. “It will be worth stocking.”

Stonewater’s first four releases are coming this fall: Devoted Heart by Bill Myers ($9.99, ISBN: 9780986138652), The Gift of Christmas Past by Cindy Woodsmall and Erin Woodsmall ($6.99, ISBN: 9780998753805), Impactivity by Tracy Higley ($12.99, ISBN: 9780990600558), and Plummet by Brandilyn Collins ($14.99, ISBN: 9780996961172).

“Tracy has been wonderful to work with and has handled all of the author interaction, which helps immensely,” says Fulton. “She attended our sales conference in March and is learning publishing from the other side so she can effectively mentor authors who want to see their independently published books available to retailers. Our sales team was very engaged at the sales conference and excited about this model.”

Fulton also reports that Anchor’s sales team has begun presentations to large accounts.

“Buyers have expressed interest in these titles as they are from known authors. It will likely take some time to build a reputation and gain ground, so hopefully Stonewater will find more authors willing to commit to this approach and give it time to take hold,” says Fulton.

Higley agrees. “It’s good for the industry as a whole. The success of the model depends on getting authors and selling well.”

She is very optimistic. “The need is there.”

Learn more about Higley and Stonewater Books at UNITE 2017. She will be appearing on the Big Idea Stage at 12:00- 12:30 p.m. on June 28 and 9:30-10:30 a.m. on June 29.


—Lora Schrock