Park Orchards, Victoria: Stu French and Teigan Margetts were already ruffling feathers in the Australian publishing industry before the COVID-19 lockdowns hit. But even in this climate, their direct-to-customer model has won their children’s-books publishing house Ethicool brand loyalty and an innovation grant.
As established authors of children’s books, the husband and wife duo quickly became dissatisfied with local book distribution options.
So, despite news of US book distributors and the local Co-op bookshops falling into administration, the pair launched their e-commerce site Ethicool in February, 2020— just days before the first Victorian COVID-19 lockdowns.
While the lockdowns have posed postage and logistical challenges, Ethicool has recently caught a second wind in the form of winning Amazon’s Launchpad SMB Innovation Grant to open warehouses in three new international locations.
They attribute their success to three main strategies.
1. Recreating a bookshop experience online
Offering new titles exclusively, the co-founders offer their customers the chance to digitally flip through their picture books before deciding to purchase them.
“We offer customers an opportunity to interact with the product by giving them detailed information, including excerpts of the story,” co-founder Margetts says.
“We also talk about why it was created, and let the audience learn a lot more about the creators through author/illustrator interviews.
“There are also read-alouds on the site so you actually see the whole book.”
While this transparency has garnered valuable customer feedback and loyalty, this mentality has put them at odds with their publishing peers.
“It’s part of the reason that some people in the industry have rejected us,” Margetts explains.
“They don’t understand digital marketing and data, and how we can use that to predict what customers need and want.”
2. Education at every turn
Calling for greater transparency in the industry, the co-founders have taken it upon themselves to educate aspiring authors and illustrators through summary posts on their social media and extended blog posts on Ethicool’s website.
“The whole industry is a bit of a black box,” Margetts says.
“With transparency comes accountability, and with accountability comes change and progress,” she adds.
This aspiration is also the driving force behind the book-selection process.
Despite a huge response to their social-media callouts for new authors, French and Margetts are selective about which titles they buy, requiring stories to be about a social issue such as environmental responsibility and recycling.
They also require every book to end on an action page, where the social issue is discussed explicitly in terms their zero- to six-year-old demographic can appreciate.
It was these action pages that won them the Amazon Launchpad SMB Innovation Grant.
The grant comes just in time to push forward plans to expand warehouse operations to Sydney, Auckland, Dallas and London in the coming year.
3. Practising what they preach
The co-founders don’t just write about taking action, they’ve based their business model on it.
“Traditionally, the publishing industry uses petroleum-based ink, which, in a nutshell, is pretty terrible for the environment,” Margetts explains.
“We certainly don’t need books that are contributing to the problem we’re trying so hard to solve.”
Ethicool books are printed with a soy-based ink on recycled or sustainably sourced material. The books are then shipped out in compostable packaging.
As part of 1% for the Planet, the publishing house donates one percent of their annual revenue to sustainability not-for-profits, even if they don’t turn a profit.
In an industry with a history of systemic climate issues and forecasted to take at least another decade to become carbon neutral, the co-founders’ considerations, while costlier than the standard practice, are proof of their values-based practice.