Launched by Claiborne Hancock in the fall of 2006 with his own money and 24 titles, Pegasus Books has sprouted wings. The New York independent published 65 titles last year and reported sales of $1.8 million, turning its second consecutive year of profits. "We've grown even during the recession," Hancock said during a lunchtime interview with the Pegasus publisher and with Pegasus editor Jessica Case. The company recently hired an assistant editor, and Hancock is considering other additions to the staff.
The house publishes primarily crime and mystery as well as biography, history, and serious nonfiction and has managed to sign or license titles by fairly established authors. It published the bestselling Swedish crime writer Camilla Lackberg's The Ice Princess in 2010 and this year The Preacher (and sold paperback rights to S&S), which has sold more than 12,000 copies in hardcover since May. The house also published The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking. A biography of the late historian Iris Chang, who committed suicide, written by her mother, Yin-Yang Chang, herself a Ph.D. from Harvard University, the book has sold nearly 6,000 copies in hardcover. "We've managed to take an important story and make it work," he said, pointing to stellar reviews in the Wall Street Journal, San Jose Mercury News, and the Atlantic.
All the house's titles are available as e-books. Pegasus contracts with Open Road Integrated Media to distribute and market its frontlist titles as e-books and picks about 10 titles a year to receive Open Road's full multimedia treatment—author Sara Blaedel (Call Me Princess), for example, was brought to New York to be filmed by Open Road's Luke Parker Bowles for an enhanced e-book. W.W. Norton, its print distributor, also handles e-book distribution for some of its backlist. Hancock said, "Reviews are really driving e-book sales," noting that e-book sales were 15% of total Pegasus revenue over the past quarter, "and even higher for fiction." Pegasus also primes e-book sales with periodic discounts on its backlist e-titles, listing them at $2.99, which can lead to an "explosion of sales for short time spans of a week or a month. We've done a pretty good job of adjusting to digital," Hancock said.
Pegasus hit a sweet spot licensing the reprint rights (print and digital) to the prolific Ira Levin—almost every book Levin wrote was made into a movie, among them Rosemary's Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and A Kiss Before Dying. Pegasus has five Levin titles in print and has sold about 5,000 copies of each. In addition, Hancock has licensed 14 out-of-print James Bond titles (print rights only), written by the late John Gardner, from the Ian Fleming estate. Pegasus has already published six reprints of the James Bond series (these written by Raymond Benson) as two omnibus editions (three volumes in each) that have sold 10,000 copies each. "We've had a great response," Hancock said, and Pegasus will begin publishing the Gardner/Bond reprints three at a time each season beginning in October.
This fall the house is venturing into literary historical fiction with John Smolen's The Schoolmaster's Daughter, a murder mystery set during the American Revolution, in a 10,000-copy first printing. "We're thrilled to have a writer of his cachet on board," said Case. "It's one of our rarer forays into the literary historical genre." And in January a new work of serious nonfiction, Silver Like Dust: One Family's Story of America's Japanese Internment by Kimi Cunningham Grant, will be an Open Road e-book complete with an aggressive plan for social media promotions focused on Japanese-American groups and those interested in the history of internment camps.
"It's been a wild five years," Hancock said, "but with the industry in flux, an independent has a real opportunity to flourish.