How to be a packager

For fifteen years, I was a book packager. It has nothing to do with packaging and a bit more to do with books, but it's a great gig and there are useful lessons, because there are dozens of industries just waiting for you to do something like this. Let me explain:

A book packager is like a movie producer, but for books. You invent an idea, find the content and the authors, find the publisher and manage the process. Book packagers make almanacs, illustrated books, series books for kids and the goofy one-off books you find at the cash register. I did everything from a line of almanacs to a book on spot and stain removal. It was terrific fun, and in a good year, a fine business. Along the way, I worked with just about every major publisher and created more than a hundred books. I packaged (with various levels of success) video games, college professors, Julia Robert's astrologer, an award-winning children's novelist, the Weekly World News, Kinko's and (almost) Craftsmen Tools.

I think there are real advantages to this model (and not just for books). Star Wars toys, for example, were created by a packager, and so are most big budget movies. Duncan Hines licensed his name to Roy Park, perhaps the most successful food packager of all time. Roy died of old age with more than half a billion dollars to his name thanks to all that cake mix.

First, the world needs packagers. Packagers that can find isolated assets and connect them in a way that creates value, at the same time that they put in the effort to actually ship the product out of the door.  Kaplan might never have gotten into the test prep book business if we hadn't done all the hard work of persuading them to enter the market (it took several years) and creating the books that launched their line. One series of books generated tens of thousands of new customers for them.

Second, in many industries there are 'publishers' who need more products to sell. Any website with a lot of traffic and a shopping cart can benefit from someone who can assemble products that they can profitably sell. Apple uses the iPhone store to publish apps. It's not a perfect analogy, because they're not taking any financial risk, but the web is now creating a new sort of middleman who can cheaply sell a product to the end user. We also see this with Bed, Bath and Beyond commissioning products for their stores, or Trader Joe's doing it with food items.

Any time you can successfully bring together people who have a reputation or skill with people who sell things, you're creating value. If you find an appropriate scale, it can become a sustainable, profitable business.

The skills you bring to the table are vision, taste and a knack for seeing what's missing. You also have to be a project manager, a salesperson and the voice of reason, the person who brings the entire thing together and to market without it falling apart. Like so many of the businesses that are working now, it doesn't take much cash, it merely takes persistence and drive.

Here are some basic rules of thumb that I learned the hard way:

  1. It's much easier to sell to an industry that's used to buying. Books were a great place for me to start because book publishers are organized to buy projects from outsiders. It's hard enough to make the sale, way too hard to persuade the person that they should even consider entering the market. (PS stay away from the toy business).
  2. Earning the trust of the industry is critical. The tenth sale is a thousand times easier than the second one (the first one doesn't count… beginner's luck).
  3. Developing expertise or assets that are not easily copied is essential, otherwise you're just a middleman.
  4. Patience in earning the confidence of your suppliers (writers, brands, factories, freelancers) pays off.
  5. Don't overlook obvious connections. It may be obvious to you that Eddie Bauer should license its name and look to a car company, but it might not be to them.
  6. Get it in writing. Before you package up an idea for sale to a company that can bring it to market, make sure that all the parties you're representing acknowledge your role on paper.
  7. As the agent of change, you deserve the lion's share of the revenue, because you're doing most of the work and taking all of the risk. Agenting is a good gig, but that's not what I'm talking about.
  8. Stick with it. There's a Dip and it's huge. Lots of people start doing things like this, and most of them give up fairly quickly. It might take three or five years before the industry starts to rely on you.
  9. Work your way up. Don't start by trying to license the Transformers or Fergie. They won't trust a newbie and you wouldn't either.