Colleen Bates, publisher of Prospect Park Books in Pasadena, Calif., gave herself a practical exercise 10 years ago: in order to learn about book design, sales, and distribution, she would self-publish a book. The experiment was enough of a success that in 2006, she founded Prospect Park Books.
A former freelance writer, editor, and the author of two previous books, Bates’s first title at PPB was Hometown Pasadena. “I was so naïve,” said Bates, “that I thought the initial printing of 5,000 copies would last me two years. It sold out two months later.” That blunder never happened again, and the books Bates published in the first three years of business remain steady sellers. Lian Dolan’s novel Helen of Pasadena made the Los Angeles Times bestseller list in 2010 and spawned another successful novel by Dolan, Elizabeth the First Wife. Helen has sold 22,000 copies to date, and Elizabeth has sold about 19,000 copies. The performance of the Dolan titles gave a financial boost to Prospect Park Books. “I started thinking, ‘Okay, this could be bigger,’ ” reflected Bates. And it all happened at a propitious time for her—she had ended cancer treatment and found herself with new burst of energy.
Prospect Park’s output grew from two books a year to nine in 2013. Besides regional titles, Bates began publishing cookbooks; Celebrating with Julienne won the nonfiction book prize from the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association in 2011, and the Eat: Los Angeles restaurant guide is now in its fourth edition. Drink: Los Angeles will come out this year. By the time The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions was released in 2012, Bates was ready for a business partner.
Enter Patty O’Sullivan, with whom Bates became friendly through their children’s school. A former film story editor, O’Sullivan returned to college to get an M.B.A. from the Drucker School. She later worked as a consultant in market research for several corporations, and was hired by Bates in 2012 as a freelancer to help with The Neurotic Parent. They worked so well together that they decided to become partners. “When I came along, it was about figuring out this big growth plan and executing it,” O’Sullivan said. “How can we go from doing three or four books a year to 12 without hiring 20 people or becoming an imprint of Random House?” The biggest change came in Prospect Park’s deeper commitment to fiction, and the hiring of a marketing and editorial associate and a production and design associate.
Some of the novels scheduled for this summer and beyond include Karen Rizzo’s Famous Baby, about a mommy blogger (July), and Alan Hruska’s legal thriller Pardon the Ravens (Feb., 2015). The press released five works of fiction in 2013 and will publish four this year.
“We’re focusing on a few different plans now,” said O’Sullivan in Prospect Park’s Pasadena offices. “Custom publishing, which we’ve done before, will become more important. We’re also applying for the Women-Owned Small Business certification, helpful because municipalities and corporations are often looking to use small vendors.” In addition, the partners are researching international rights; for the first time, O’Sullivan attended the London Book Fair, and Bates plans to go to Frankfurt. “We’ve also been doing a lot more advertising, which is a big step for us,” Bates said.
A large part of Prospect Park’s identity stems from being based in Los Angeles and targeting local authors and subject matter, although with the recent inclusion of out-of-state authors, that is changing. “Los Angeles, while it keeps us out of the mainstream of New York publishing, offers the advantage of having the whole entertainment industry at our doorstep,” said Bates. “There are opportunities with agents and studios here, and for finding great writers.” To bolster its commitment to fiction, Prospect Park, which has been distributed by Consortium since January 2013 after leaving SCB Distributors, recently contracted with freelance publicist Molly Mikolowski to be its dedicated fiction publicist. “We want to build our authors’ careers at the press,” O’Sullivan said. Besides Dolan, mystery writer Naomi Hirahara also has two titles out with Prospect Park Books and a third is in the pipeline. In February, Bates acquired the debut novel by journalist Christopher Noxon. His Plus One follows a marketing executive who, when his wife breaks through as a TV comedy writer, quits his job to become a house husband. Noxon is the husband of Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan. Plus One has also already gone into development as a TV series with Gaumont International Television (the U.S. division of the French production company). Prospect Park plans to release the book next spring.
Sales for the company doubled in 2013 over the previous year, and Bates projects another increase this year when the press will release 12 titles. So what makes Prospect Park Books successful? “We combine personal service and long-term focus with the commercial sensibility of a bigger imprint,” said Bates. “We cast a wider net than many small presses, too, to reflect our personal interests and expertise: fiction, cookbooks, and gift. We are a commercial press, looking for books that appeal to a wide range of readers. There’s a sweet spot where quality and commercial meet, and that’s where we’re trying to be.”—