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July 27, 2023

Tony van Veen's Passion Is Paying Off

Tony van Veen's Passion Is Paying Off
# Digital Printing
# Team/Culture

The maverick behind BookBaby shares his passion for empowering independent authors and artists

Tony van Veen's Passion Is Paying Off

There are 250 awe-inspiring photographs inside her book, but there's no image quite like author Lucia Bawot’s own face when she begins to cry tears of joy. Lucia is a Colombian photographer and storyteller, and she’s opening the mailed package from BookBaby that contains the first copy of her digitally printed book, an anthology of women coffee farmers in Columbia.

For years, Lucia had woken to the dream of publishing a mix of short vignettes and photographs that would bring to life the stories of 25 Columbian women farmers. She had filled the dual roles of creative-minded artist, skilled with her lens and keyboard, and business-minded communicator, experienced in helping coffee industry firms form their narratives and communicate value for sustainability projects.

So, as Lucia opened the package and saw the beautifully printed work for the first time, she literally held her dream in her hands. In the unboxing video that marks the occasion, she becomes emotional when she feels the spine. There it was — 200 8.5 x 11-inch pages of her passion, immediately available to the world in hardcover or paperback, with an audio version coming soon.

The Maverick Behind the Mission

Tony loves that digital print can have such a genuine effect on the people who see it and touch it. He has spent the past three decades of his life helping independent authors, musicians and filmmakers publish, distribute and promote their own books, music and films. Today, he’s CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of BookBaby and its sister firm, Disc Makers.

Tony knows what it’s like to be an artist who wants others to experience his work. In the early 1980s, after moving from Aruba to the Philadelphia area to attend the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Tony went to his first punk-rock gig. When the mosh pit started, he wrongly figured a fight had broken out. He was hooked on the music, and quickly formed a band with a few college buddies.

Soon, the band wanted to press some vinyl records and give them to others in the underground Philly music scene. They did so through a company called Disc Makers, which was founded in 1946 to produce vinyl records. “What’s really rewarding, and what’s really interesting to realize now, is the punk-rock scene in the 1980s was like the original do-it-yourself piece of the music industry,” Tony says. “It was all independent. We figured no label would ever want to talk to us, so we’ll just make our own damn records! The whole thing was extremely entrepreneurial.”

That last word is important. Not only did independent bands have to make their own music, they had to market themselves — get booked, create signage, distribute printed newsletters for fans and more. Tony was fascinated by the business of the music industry, and the goal of empowering creatives.

After graduating, he went to work for Disc Makers and quickly rose through the ranks there. He began working closely with independent artists, helping thousands of them produce, distribute and market their cassettes and CDs. The company had bought one of the first HP Indigo 5000-series presses to make some of items (like printed liner notes and the CDs themselves) quickly and on-demand.

Tony became president of Disc Makers in 2005, then CEO in 2008. That year, the firm acquired CD Baby, the largest independent digital music distributor in the world. He and his team had turned into the undisputed leader in CD and DVD manufacturing, producing tens of thousands of new titles a year. After the acquisition, the joint company represented 800,000 independent artists with more than 10 million songs.

But Tony is a maverick at heart, always wanting to press forward and advance.

“Our core legacy product was a mature technology in steady decline,” he says. Meanwhile, many people around him started using Amazing Kindle e-readers. Almost immediately, Tony envisioned the book equivalent. His company already knew how to take digital files, format them in the way a recipient needs, deliver the files so they’re consumed in print or electronic form, do so in very low quantities if desired, get accounting reports and pay the rights-holders a much-better-than-industry-standard amount.

“I thought, ‘Let’s get this same process done for authors,’ Tony says. “We have a real opportunity to offer value to them.”

BookBaby launched in 2011 as an e-book publishing platform. When Apple rolled out its iconic iPad, BookBaby was one of the original launch partners. Within months, authors started to ask for printed versions of their works. Tony and his team outsourced those print orders until 2016, when the volume of work became so high that BookBaby invested in an HP Indigo 10K Digital Press.

BookBaby was growing. The company was now handling all printing, finishing, binding and trimming. All the while, Tony kept focusing on the goals and needs of BookBaby’s customers. He felt that each high-quality printed book was a tangible culmination of an author’s dream, and his company was going to do everything it could to turn those missions into milestones.

BookBaby Makes Self-Publishing Easy

In the book publishing industry, one of the biggest challenges for authors occurs after a manuscript is finished: Who will edit and design it? What should the cover look like? Is there a standard size for the genre? How thick should the paper be? And even more importantly, how will they market and promote the book to the right audience?

BookBaby exists to make self-publishing easy. The company creates and distributes printed books and e-books to a large distribution network, including Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and other popular retailers worldwide. BookBaby also empowers authors with a suite of promotional tools, services and resources, and enables them to sell books directly to buyers in whatever quantity desired. The company employs more than 100 people, including in-house editors, graphic designers, marketing professionals and customer support personnel. It successfully delivered more than 10,000 book printing projects in 2022.

One of those projects in 2002 was a book for a Lucrecia Di Bussolo, an architect and photographer who wanted to publish a collection of images she had taken to show the beauty of her hometown, Midland, Michigan, USA. She was astonished by the nature of the city during all four seasons, and wanted to share her photos with friends and the community. Lucrecia turned to BookBaby, and was thrilled to receive her beautifully printed copies to distribute around the city.

Tony says some BookBaby authors have a built-in audience (popular bloggers, public speakers, business owners, etc.) but many don’t. The company provides a wide range of services to help both kinds. Some of those services are simple; others are sophisticated, like optimizing metadata for describing books on Amazon, and creating digital ads for use on the Google Ads network within a given marketing budget.

HP Indigos Are Fueling Growth

For all authors who rely upon BookBaby, the concept of custom is key. Just like Disc Makers could produce 100, 300, 500 discs for an independent musician, BookBaby’s digital print know-how enables authors to produce one, 10, 500 books — whatever quantity and options they want, with whatever trim size and binding type makes sense.

“We were never a turn-on-the-press-and-just-keep-it-running company,” Tony says. “We’re not selling throughputs; we’re selling setups.”

BookBaby has grown with HP Indigo technology, and now operates four HP Indigo Digital Presses — a 10K, a 12K, a new 100K and a 7K for smaller sheets. “Inkjet has gotten really good, but every time we felt the quality you get with Indigo was unparalleled,” Tony says. “We surveyed the print landscape each time, and we kept finding the HP Indigo quality was superior. I keep thinking of the photographer who wants to open his or her book and see stunning images, not decent ones. We never want to sacrifice in that area for our authors.”

Tony continues to be a maverick on two fronts — the continuing movement to empowering independent artists, and the continuing revolution of on-demand digital print as a way to make that happen.

“Thanks to on-demand printing, authors can distribute their books to readers without having to buy and store hundreds of books on their own,” he says. “They have the freedom to market and sell their books around the world without having to worry about storing, shipping, or having enough books in stock.” And from BookBaby, they can receive those books in as fast as a few days.

“When you have great value, a quality product, and fast delivery, it creates a flywheel effect,” Tony says. “Happy customers reorder, and they will tell their fellow authors.”

Printing the Passions of Others

The Dscooper has spent a career caring deeply about the people who receive printed items. He has lived through music technology lifecycles and a couple of book ones.

“I have rolled up my sleeves in every area of the business — marketing, sales, HR, operations, customer service — and I've learned enough about finance to be dangerous. I have managed strategy, goal setting, and tactical execution. I have started brands, killed brands, grown organically and through M&A, bought companies and sold them. My company has been owned by an entrepreneur, two private equity firms, and now, by me and my executive team. I have advised independent content creators and company CEOs alike. All this, at the only company I've ever worked at.”

Tony still can picture his own time as a punk-rock drummer, and today he loves seeing the delighted, excited faces of independent authors like Lucia, whose passionate about Columbian coffee farmers, and Lucrecia, who fell in love with the nature images of her hometown.

He pauses a moment, then smiles in the same way BookBaby's next client might. He says, “I absolutely love what we’re doing here.”

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