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A web-exclusive list of 2005 gardening titles

Ask folks in the gardening book business where their customers are buying books and the answers run the gamut. Maria Arambula, backlist buyer at Denver's Tattered Cover, says that Home Depot is their biggest competitor. Denise McGann, editor-in-chief of Bookspan's Homestyle Books (which include gardening), says it's not just the home center stores; it's also Amazon and the other online discounters. And for Aqua-Mart Inc., a mail-order water-gardening supply store in Orlando, Fla., competition is all over. "Everyone and his brother is selling water-gardening books," says company v-p Jeff Gimbel.

As in all areas of bookselling, sales venues have proliferated, with box stores and online sites the big growth areas, often to the detriment of more traditional outlets. Unfortunately, sales channel information is proprietary and closely guarded, and neither Home Depot, California's Orchard Supply Hardware chain, Costco, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders or Timber Press, to name just a few companies, would talk about sales, unit movement or volume, so the following report derives necessarily from hearsay, anecdotal information and observations on recent changes from players in the field.

The big picture is of a fertile, flourishing market, but momentarily lying fallow—at the publishing end, at any rate. The vast majority of Americans profess an interest in gardening, according to a survey conducted by the Garden Writers Association, but book sales are flat, with shelf space shrinking at the retail level. Publishers have pulled back, for a variety of reasons, to the dismay of avid buyers in such dedicated gardening bookstores as Bell's Books in Palo Alto, Calif., and Powell's Cooks and Gardeners in Portland, Ore., where buyers are lukewarm about the titles they're seeing.

"There's a real dearth of good books except for those from Timber Press," says Susan Crittenden, Powell's manager and frontlist buyer. "There's nothing out there. It's a lessening, a sharper drop than last season. It's odd. There are very few practical gardening books this spring. There are some historical and coffee-table books for gift giving, but with one or two exceptions publishers are finding it difficult to promote gardening books. At this point, we'd take bad gardening books."

"We are not flooded with important things this year," says Barbara Worl at Bell's Books. (Worl developed the store's garden section 55 years ago and has been tending it since.)

No one seems able to pinpoint the reasons for the sluggish market. While some players mentioned developments that could fuel book sales—newly awakened interest in and respect for native plants, soil studies that are yielding useful information—these aren't sufficient to dispel the blah landscape. One interesting explanation for poor bookstore performance is that gardeners have long used catalogues for mail-ordering seeds and bulbs and thus were early adopters of online buying.

At Aqua-Mart, termed by Gimbel "the Home Depot for do-it-yourself water-gardening supplies," only those titles that pull their weight are left in the paper catalogue—30 this year, down from 40 last year. (More appear on the company's Web site.) "It's very expensive to print and mail a catalogue," Gimbel says, explaining that it goes out first class mail because, he says, "the first catalogue to arrive gets the orders." However, books sales are a small part of Aqua-Mart's business. "With the Web people can get the same information [that's in books] without paying for it," says Gimbel.

Where Have All the Gardeners Gone?

It's clear to everyone that garden enthusiasts abound. The challenge, says Clarkson Potter's publisher, Lauren Shakely, is to find them: "I am worried that they're not in bookstores anymore." Add to these concerns the plentitude of information readily available on the sites of many nurseries and big box stores—for free—and the picture is not a rosy one for traditional book retailers.

And then there are the home centers. With the trend to treat gardens as extensions of the house, home centers offer a one-stop advantage to shoppers. According to Eamonn Murtagh, who buys gardening and home maintenance books for the 82 branches of the San Jose, Calif.—based OSH chain, the titles they carry have a prime value as sales tools. While the stores don't stock an extensive selection—the focus is on how-to paperbacks from Sunset, Ortho and Better Homes and Gardens about landscaping, deck care and spa maintenance—"the books inform customers and help them understand what products on the shelves they need." Top questions pertain to landscaping and the kinds of plants that work in certain geographical areas. "People want to know what works best in their environment," Murtagh says. The top-selling title across the chain is Sunset's Western Garden Book, the Bible for avid gardeners, along with The Old Farmer's Almanac.

At Home Depot, books also empower and inspire customers, as do resources such as free in-store clinics, and project information and home improvement advice on the store's Web site, says a company spokesperson. Under its own imprint—Home Depot Publishing 1-2-3 Books, tailored via regional editions to different growing zones (Landscaping 1-2-3is available for colder climates, warmer climates and hotter climates)—the store is able to provide one-stop shopping for its customers in its more than 1,500 outlets. "The Home Depot strives to have the right product selection in any given store along with the right book selection," the company reports. "Titles and space will vary from region to region."

The big-store model contrasts sharply with dedicated gardening venues, where book selection is more specialized, information more advanced and enthusiasm more evident. As at OSH, the top gardening seller at the family-owned Molbak's near Seattle is the Western Garden Book, but Molbak's carries anywhere from 100 to 200 titles in its gift shop, and book sales from store visitors is a money-generating part of the business, according to marketing director Peggy Campbell. "In early January we redesigned the store and made the books area more inviting, with tables and chairs so people could pore over titles," Campbell says. "Sales have gone up." They are constantly trimming titles from their list and adding others, Campbell says. "The focus is to make certain we have titles that sell well. Within the last five years, we went back to mainstream books and that was a mistake. Local garden writers—that's what works for us."

Among Molbak's top-selling books are Sunset's Western Garden Book; Roger Holmes and Don Marshall's Home Landscaping: Northwest Region (Creative Homeowner Press); The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide: Planning Calendar for Year-Round Organic Gardening (Seattle Tilth Association); and Your First Orchids and How to Grow Them (Oregon Orchid Society). "We decided to get rid of more broad-based titles," Campbell says. "They can be inspiring, but people want specific information on how to accomplish their garden."

At the bookstore of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, Calif., bookstore and visitor services manager Janet Crockett, stocks 23 orchid books and more than 20 bonsai books among nearly 500 gardening titles. Sales, says Crockett, are heavily influenced by scheduled events and what's on display in the gardens. "When roses are blooming, rose books sell. When there's a water-garden lecture, books on water gardens sell." Not surprisingly, bestselling titles include books about the gardens, such as Walter Houk's TheBotanical Gardens at the Huntington (Abrams); and TheHuntingtonBotanicalGardens 1905—1949 (University of California Press) by William Hertrich, who was head gardener at the time the grounds were designed. Also popular are books by the gardens' curators (Clair Martin's 100 Old Roses for the American Garden, from Workman; and Desert Gardens by Gary Lyons, from Rizzoli) as well as books that reflect local interest.

"Customers are looking for techniques," Crockett says. "They want to know how to make this happen at their house." Coffee-table books are not popular among her customers. "They get shopworn, and they have to be perfect for people to buy them."

Distribution and the Net

Joanne Klappauf is founder and president of the Asheville, N.C.-based gardening distributor Common Ground, which caters to specialty retailers such as arboretums, garden centers, botanical gardens, historical sites, Audubon Society stores, natural history stores, Internet dealers, several bookstore chains and catalogue companies. With an upscale book list—mostly hardcovers, Klappauf explains, because they hold up better to the moisture conditions present in many of her clients' environments—her toughest competition comes from publishers themselves, who sell directly to her customers at very good terms. "They offer discounts that we can't," she says, lamenting the truism that there's no protected territory in the book industry.

A growth area, says Klappauf, is the home accessory market, which is particularly receptive to books about the backyard and attracting birds to the garden. "Crossover is wonderful when it happens," Klappauf notes, adding that furniture stores, surprisingly, are great venues. "The bread-and-butter books are being taken away from everybody by the big box stores and the online discounters. Wholesalers as well as retailers are drying up." But, she notes, nurseries and garden centers have not yet been affected by the kind of consolidation that has transformed other arenas into just a few leading players: it's still a big and diverse group.

Certainly the browsing public benefits from the diversity available to them, from the big chains as well as family-owned stores like Molbak's or Hicks Nurseries offering plenty of online "how-to" help. ("Growing Figs on Long Island," for example, is available via an Adobe Acrobat Reader download from Hicks.) But this kind of tailored information, and the ability to provide it, feeds into another important development: an emphasis on the regional.

Location, Location, Location

"We're getting further and further away from the idea that you can grow anything anywhere," says Timber press executive editor Tom Fischer. "Local plants and exotics that are harmonious with the environment are what people are pursuing." Timber's Sharp Gardening by Christopher Holliday (Mar.) looks at how spear-like leaves can add drama to a garden. Judy Glattstein's Bulbs for Garden Habitats (May) is about matching plants to conditions you can provide for it. "That we can do a whole book about spiky plants says something about our buyers," says Fischer.

The top-selling title at Bell's Books, reports Worl, is Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region, published last year by the East Bay Municipal Water District. Tom Whitson's Weeds of the West (Western Society of Weed Science) sells briskly at Powell's online. At Tattered Cover, Xeriscape Colorado by Connie Lockhart Ellefson and David Winger (Westcliffe Publishers) is one of the all-time bestsellers, along with John Cretti's Rocky Mountain Gardener's Guide (Cool Springs Press). "Local titles get excellent coverage in the local press, and people come in and ask for them," says Arambula.

Store buyers often first hear of new titles of local interest from local garden writers. "Networking and word of mouth are important," says Campbell at Molbak's. "Local publishers sometimes fail to see the value of sending an author to public events. Then sales languish. If publishers get the author out, sales follow suit. If a book is launched in synch with the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in February, with 80,000 people in attendance, the author can speak and get 500 or 600 people to attend." Campbell says that 10 years ago, there were no books available for Washington State's particular weather of dry summers, wet winters and low light conditions. "There was lots of translation that the gardening public had to do. But now there are terrific publishers who are meeting the area's needs."

B&N buyer Sal Cordaro says his customers are also looking for books tailored specifically to their regions. "Our gardening customer has become more knowledgeable and discriminating as regards to what is often a passion," he says. "We offer a large assortment of titles that are designed for the specific zone in which they live." General gardening titles are a declining part of the business, he says, but they often have a long life in the store as backlist. One spring title Cordaro says the stores will be promoting is Gayla Trail's You Grow Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening (Simon & Schuster, Mar.), which is aimed at 20-somethings who want to learn to garden, but may have access to as little space as a fire escape.

Books for the younger generations are of special interest to Robert LaGasse, executive editor of the Virginia-based Garden Writers Association (2,000 members). He describes the typical garden book buyer as "an older person" with money to spend on books, but he's intent on bringing kids into the picture. "They need to be educated on the art of gardening and the benefits of slowing down and smelling the roses," he says. "It's a great genre, but the penalty is that the books are not cheap for the publisher to produce or the retailer to sell." LaGasse worries that publishers, increasingly concerned about the bottom line, have cut back on gardening titles.

Not One Big Book

Old or young, the question arises: How many gardening books does the average gardener need? Apparently not very many. "People are still very interested, but there's a limit," says McGann of Homestyle Books. In light of this, the club has turned its focus to "hardscaping," with books on subjects such as fences, gates and gazebos. "Club members are house proud and treat their gardens like another room. Hardscaping is what they are after. They don't need another rose book," she says.

Publishers, it seems, are thinking the same. For the past three or four years the focus at Taunton Press has been away from gardening per se in favor of landscaping, says publisher Jim Childs. Titles such as Front Yard Idea Book and Deck and Patio Idea Book provide less how-to information and, hopefully, more inspiration. "We have found the landscape focus to be more successful," Childs says. The size and reach of home improvement stores like Home Depot, Lowe's and Menard's, he adds, help support the sales of Taunton's books, which "appeal to people who want to dress up the exterior of their houses."

Clarkson Potter, too, has downsized its garden line, with only two gardening "stars" left on its plate: Ken Druse and P. Allen Smith. (Smith's latest, P. Allen Smith's Container Gardens: 60 Container Recipes to Accent Your Garden, has just hit the stores and was ranked at 381 on Amazon the same week Sunset's Western Garden Bookwas ranked 2,165.) "We're always looking for a breakout author, like the Victory Garden author so long ago," says Shakely, "but it's harder to break out a garden title than it is a cookbook." She says Potter expects to do well with Smith's latest, "but not as well as a cookbook could do with similar effort." The growth in gardening, she says, is in hardscaping.

According to Shakely, the challenge for garden book publishers is to make it clear that gardening "is not about heavy labor, that it isn't a forbidding investment of time and money, but an aesthetic pursuit." And yes, she says, the cost per book does factor in to decisions about what to publish. "There is a threshold below which it would be impractical to publish a book."

Despite various problems and pitfalls, Klappauf at Common Ground remains enthusiastic She glories in the fact that there isn't just one book that does it all: "And a good thing, too. Gardeners tend to be collectors and have many books. That's the whole secret to specialty sales. There is not just one big hitter, not even a handful, but a whole big field, which is very healthy and the reason we're still here and thriving. The garden market has grown and is steadily growing."

For a listing of forthcoming gardening titles, click here.