It’s not many publishing companies that can say they beat revenue projections by 40%, but that was the case in the fiscal year ended in March for the U.S. division of the U.K.-based illustrated book publisher Thames & Hudson. “Things really jelled,” said Will Balliett, who was named president and publisher of the American unit in fall 2009 following a 30-year run by Peter Warner.
The main driver of the revenue increase was the publisher’s college textbook list, which has gained more attention under Balliett. T&H’s art history and archeology list has proven to be a perfect complement to that of its longtime distributor, Norton. “We’ve learned a lot about the college market from Norton,” said Balliett. T&H releases about 15 college texts a year, and its art appreciation titles, especially Gateway to Art, have done especially well, according to Balliett. To further strengthen the list, Balliett brought in a U.S. college editor, Nicole Albas, who started July 1. Balliett hopes to get the number of college texts T&H publishes to 30 in about five years.
It wasn’t just college that led to the big sales increase in fiscal 2013. Trade sales were 15% ahead of projections, something “I wouldn’t have bet the farm on,” Balliett acknowledged. A combination of frontlist (Gaudi Pop-Ups, The Advertising Concept Book) and backlist titles (Chanel: Collections and Creations, The Photograph as Contemporary Art) helped to improve trade sales. He also credits the performance of the trade list to the determination of customers who don’t want illustrated books “to go the way of vinyl records. The market is there. The biggest challenge is that there are fewer outlets to show off our titles.”
Not only are there fewer bookstores, but many museum stores are also under pressure from parent organizations to show better returns, which has led them to change their inventory mix. That has made outreach to special markets “a big initiative” for T&H in the current year, Balliett said, pointing to efforts to get more titles into department stores, fashion stores, and home design stores. One approach T&H is taking is to show retailers that “books can help sell other products.” In addition to special markets, T&H will strengthen its efforts to sell into gift stores. To heighten its visibility not only to retailers but to the industry in general as well as to consumers, T&H has upped its social media presence under the direction of Lauren Miller, the new associate marketing director. “We are pushing our brand in the industry to help us see more big illustrated projects,” Balliett explained.
As far as T&H’s approach to the digital market, while sales have increased, they are still small, Balliett said. In both the college and trade areas, T&H’s main digital objective has been to make sure its content is ready when the number of color devices that can do justice to T&H’s books reaches a critical mass, something Balliett estimated is still a few years away.
While the publisher waits for the digital market to ripen, T&H is developing more projects in the U.S. rather than relying solely on titles from its U.K. parent. By 2015, Balliett hopes that six to 10 of the 110 books it markets annually will come from the U.S. To oversee these U.S. acquisitions, Balliett hired Christopher Sweet as editorial director; the U.S. staff now numbers eight.
Despite tough comparisons with last year, fiscal 2014 is off to a good start, led by The Conquest of Everest and Things Come Apart. “We think there is still room for growth,” Balliett said.