The ability to seize opportunities quickly and to operate more efficiently in the face of extremely difficult market conditions was key for the independent presses that made PW’s annual fast-growing list this year. No company moved faster in 2009 than Quirk Books, whose 15-person staff worked together to fan the flames for its breakout hit, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Once the book began to pick up momentum, Quirk was able to keep generating media interest in the title, helping to keep it on the bestseller list for 43 weeks. “It was a real tribute to the staff to sustain interest in the book,” says president David Borgenicht.

With money tight last year, Square One Publishers founder Rudy Shur decided to stop doing business with some accounts that were not paying their bills on time. “We want to focus on doing business with companies that want to work with us,” Shur says. Rising costs led Morgan James founder David Hancock to move his Virginia office to smaller space and trim his staff; Hancock hired back a number of employees as freelancers, a move that helped cut labor costs.

With more than one million copies in print of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and 375,000 copies of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, 2009 easily topped all expectations for Quirk Books. “It was very gratifying,” says Borgenicht of the success of the two titles. Since the launch of Quirk in 2002, Borgenicht has specialized in developing hybrid titles that combine such topics as reference and humor. PPZ was Quirk’s first foray into fiction and Borgenicht says it was highly satisfying “to see the power of a great idea and terrific marketing result in a bestseller.” The success also proved that Quirk’s crossover books could work “in a huge way and opened the doors a little wider for us at some accounts.” Even without the two bestsellers, however, Borgenicht says 2009 would have been a successful year. After doing some restructuring in 2008, the company’s core business “did a little better than expected,” he says. Quirk’s Stuff Every Man Should Know series continues to grow nicely, Borgenicht says, and backlist titles sold well.

Borgenicht will use the windfall from PPZ and SSM to pay down debt, he says, and to “take a little breather to understand what we do best.” He says he has no intention of greatly expanding the Quirk list, although the publisher will continue to “play with more genre fiction,” with Pride and Prejudice: Dawn of the Dreadfuls due out later this month. Some funds will also go toward investing in e-books, with plans to do all frontlist titles in various digital formats. Mostly, Borgenicht says, Quirk will use the money “to create more buzz-worthy books. We want to be a great publisher, not a huge one.”

Bill Wolfsthal, associate publisher and director of sales and marketing, describes Skyhorse Press as “a niche publisher that is in a lot of niches.” Since it was launched in 2006 by Tony Lyons, Skyhorse has not shied away from publishing a large number of titles annually, and that strategy continued in 2009. The range of titles is reflected in the publisher’s top 15 sellers for last year, which included three humor books, three sports books, two history books, as well as titles on politics, history, personal business, reference, games, home, military tactics, and self-help.

According to Wolfsthal, Skyhorse looks for areas that larger publishers don’t emphasize any more. He said “no one thing” drove the big sales gain last year, although he noted that the publisher’s price points and packaging have played important roles in boosting sales. Skyhorse is also willing to invest in a book for the long-term. “We publish lots of books that become instant backlist,” he explains, noting that many of Skyhorse’s titles sell as well, or better, two years after they are released than in the year of publication. That concept led Skyhorse to a new niche—publishing older books that have either gone out of print or had their rights revert to the author. Skyhorse has published books that were released anywhere from the 1950s through the 1990s, acquiring rights from agents, authors, and publishers. “It’s remarkable the number of people that come to us,” he says. Skyhorse’s digital operations have been modest to date, with just a few titles available for the Kindle; Wolfsthal is in discussions with other potential partners.

Having founded Blue Apple Books in 2003, publisher Harriet Ziefert credits her company’s recent success to growing brand awareness and a backlist that is now at “critical mass,” with more than 120 active titles. Building a relationship with its distributor, Chronicle Books, has also been “hugely important,” Ziefert says, noting that the Chronicle reps now have a good understanding of Blue Apple’s product line. The Blue Apple list is focused on what Ziefert calls “modern books for modern kids” in the infant to age 10 range. The company has done well recently with a license from DwellStudio, which designs graphically rich bedding and other products for young children; based on DwellStudio’s images, Blue Apple publishes in a variety of formats such as board books and touch-and-feel titles as well as such items as bibs and placemats. “You have to move beyond picture books,” Ziefert notes. “There is too much competition, and the market is flat.”

Ziefert believes the Blue Apple name has gained credibility among consumers because they know that the books are age and grade appropriate. About half of Blue Apple’s sales are to the trade and institutional market, with the other 50% to specialty sales, mass merchants, and exports, and sales have grown steadily through all channels. Although Ziefert says Blue Apple is not dependent on one title to make its year, the company has had some hits. AlphabeastiesandOther Amazing Types did well last year as did two “celebrity books”: Bernadette Peters’s Broadway Barks and Lights on Broadway by Brian Stokes Mitchell. A new Peters book, Stella Is a Star, is due out later this year, and Ziefert says she is close to signing a deal with another Broadway star for a book she hopes to release in 2011. Blue Apple’s office is designed along a studio model with lots of open space, something Ziefert believes fosters collaboration among the staff, allowing them to move quickly when an opportunity presents itself. Blue Apple’s strategy has continued to pay off in early 2010 with sales in January and February up 40% and 68%, respectively.

Morgan James founder David Hancock admits he was “nervous going into 2009, but tickled with how we finished.” The struggling economy prompted Hancock to lower his cost base as well as move more of the publisher’s titles from hardcover to trade paperback. For the most part, Hancock says, “hardcovers just sat there,” which led him to reprint a number of MJ’s titles in trade paperback within a few months rather than wait a year. In 2010, many of the company’s new titles will originate as trade paperback. Last year also saw MJ curtail its involvement in the spiritual and Christian market, while opening a new sports imprint with Rick Horrow, president of Horrow Sports Ventures. Return of the Gold, the first title from the Sports Professor imprint, was MJ’s third bestselling title last year, following Outrageous Advertising That’s Outrageously Successful and How I Made My First Million on the Internet and How You Can Too!

Hancock says that in 2010 he will keep the list focused on business and sports. The current year will also see MJ move more aggressively into the digital arena. The company’s titles are distributed by Ingram Publisher Services, and Hancock is using Ingram to convert 10—15 titles per month to digital formats that can be used on different platforms. Through the early part of 2010, business continues to grow steadily for MJ, with units up by more than 11,000 and returns cut in half. “We are very excited about 2010,” Hancock says.

Springer Publishing Company continues to enjoy a growth spurt that began when the professional and academic publisher was acquired by the Mannheim Trust in 2004. Like its counterparts on the trade side, Springer has thrived by filling voids. “We find niches abandoned by the big publishers,” says president Ted Nardin. For the most part, that means publishing for advanced levels in college and for graduate schools in the nursing and social science areas. Nardin says a variety of factors led to gains last year, including the release of more market-focused books and more aggressive marketing.

The company has 28 full-time employees, a figure that Nardin acknowledges is high for its sales base, but represents Mannheim’s commitment to growing the business. At least some of that growth will come from digital products, where sales tripled in 2009. In addition to all of its journals being online, all of Springer’s textbooks are also available as e-books, but Nardin knows the company needs to do more in the digital space. “We are exploring our options,” he says, explaining that one way to go may be with online test prep products. But even as he looks to expand Springer’s digital offerings, the company continues to grow in both print and digital with the publisher having its best January ever and a very strong February.

2009 was a challenging year for Turner Publishing as the company completed its transition from a specialty and trade publisher to one fixed solely in the trade book market. As part of that process, owner Todd Bottorff bought 431 titles from Cumberland House and continues to put more focus on publishing titles with a national appeal. During last year, Bottorff also moved Turner’s distribution center to a more modern facility, something he believes is crucial as more sales move through online channels.

Despite the distraction of moving its inventory, Turner was still able to increase sales by just under 10% in 2009. In addition to the Cumberland titles, sales were aided by the continued growth of Turner’s historical photos series and its newer Good Things to Know line. Virtually all of Turner’s sales came from print books; Bottorf explains that while Turner is “locked and loaded to move to digital distribution,” he won’t take the plunge until “terms are more acceptable,” something he thinks will happen this year. Bottorff says he is very excited about prospects for 2010. The publisher will launch a new series, Remembering, which is along the lines of its historical photo series but released in trade paperback, and Bottorff expects to announce another major project soon.

A small purchase and a movie tie-in helped Square One Publishers boost sales 19% in 2009, the publisher’s 10th year in business. Taking Woodstock by Elliot Tiber was released as an Ang Lee film last year, giving a boost to the title as well as continuing to generate foreign rights interest in the book. Publisher Rudy Shur has recently signed Tiber for a new book, Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland, and Interior Decorating, which Shur describes as a prequel memoir to Woodstock (which among other aspects of Tiber’s life included his role in helping get the festival off the ground). While Woodstock provided a shot in the arm to Square One, the publisher also had solid growth in its core health areas led by What You Must Know About Vitamins, Minerals, Herbs & More, What You Must Know About Women’s Hormones, and Suicide by Sugar. The company also picked up three health titles from InnoVision Health Media and the rights to develop a number of other projects.

Square One’s health titles do very well in alternative health stores, and sales outside of the traditional trade channels continue to be important for the publisher. Square One scored a special sale when it published Macy’s: The Store. The Star. Among other deals, Square One arranged a special discounted price for all Macy’s employees, which was successful enough that the offer was extended through February. Even the high unemployment rate contributed to Square One’s growth as those out of work turned to the publisher’s Urban Treasure Hunter as a way to find buried treasure. Plans are underway to develop a new treasure hunter line. Health will continue to be a prime focus for Square One this year with Big Yoga and Intimacy After Breast Cancer, and Shur is excited about Your Time to Cook by Robert Blakeslee, a cookbook for newlyweds that has just been released; Square One will also publish Blakeslee’s Your Time to Bake this summer.

Growth has come from a number of different areas for Prufrock Press, a publisher of titles for parents of children with special needs as well as gifted learners. The company made two niche acquisitions over the past three years, acquiring 11 titles from Zephyr Press in 2008 and 43 classroom titles from McGee-Keiser Academic Enrichment Programs in 2007, while gradually increasing its own title output. The special needs area is the newest for Prufrock and had the greatest growth in 2009, says publisher Joel McIntosh, as the company began to market those titles more aggressively.

McIntosh attributed the recent strong gains by the publisher to its decision to adopt a more market-driven approach to its publishing program, one in which the publisher identifies areas that lack books and then finds the authors to write them. That approach was due in part to the advice of Dominique Raccah, president of Sourcebooks, which distributes Prufrock’s titles to the trade. The trade accounts for about one-third of Prufrock’s sales, and education two-thirds; both sides grew at about the same pace last year, McIntosh says. The company’s top seller in 2009 was Math Dictionary for Kids, which did well in both the trade and education markets, as did Science Dictionary for Kids, which was third in both markets. (Free College Resource Book was second in trade and the Jacob’s Ladder Reading Comprehension Program series was second in education). Prufrock has also had strong gains from books sold directly from its Web site, with sales rising from $360,000 in 2007 to $575,000 last year. Beginning later this year, Prufrock will begin selling digital editions directly from its site and is close to signing with a company to act as a digital distributor for all of its titles.

Much like Prufrock, Ulysses Press attributed much of its growth to finding niches that are underserved and then signing authors to fill the void. That approach has taken Ulysses to a number of different areas in both fiction and nonfiction. Patriots, a thriller about the collapse of American society, was one of the publisher’s top-selling titles last year, selling more than 46,000 copies, while I Love Trader Joe’s Cookbook sold over 13,000 copies and 365 Sex Positions sold over 11,000 copies. Ulysses has also been publishing various books related to Jane Austen and released Vampire Darcy’s Desire last fall, a title that may have benefited from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

According to publicist Karma Bennett, the “auteur” strategy has helped Ulysses develop a deep backlist, which has provided consistent growth. The only time sales have fallen in recent years was in 2008, the year after the company had its biggest bestseller ever with’s What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7. Even without a hit of that magnitude last year, sales in 2009 easily topped sales in 2007, and sales in the first seven weeks of 2010 were up 30% over 2009.

Red Wheel Weiser Conari made one of the most innovative deals in 2009, taking over the distribution as well as back-office functions for Hampton Roads Publishing in June. The additional income helped to lift total sales for the company in what president Michael Kerber acknowledges was a tough year. “The deal gave us the growth we need to move ahead with our bigger plans,” says Kerber. Sales of Red Wheel’s core product line in New Age, self-help/recovery, and alternative health were down slightly, although several frontlist titles did well, among them The Great Shift: Creating a New World for 2012, The Astrology of 2012 and Beyond, Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore, and A Better Brain at Any Age. The Hampton Roads imprint scored with When Everything Changes, Change Everything and The Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Wisdom.

Red Wheel limited its involvement in the digital area to producing 200 titles for the Kindle, and while revenue increased significantly, it still represents only a very small portion of total sales, Kerber notes. In 2010, Red Wheel will up its e-book involvement with plans to make about 400 titles available for the Nook and Sony Reader. Kerber says until his concerns about piracy are allayed, he will focus on making content available only on dedicated e-readers. On the print side, Kerber will shortly announce plans to move into a new fiction area this fall. In Red Wheel’s traditional categories, new books include Transition Now: The End of Duality, 2012, and Beyond and If I Die Before I Wake: A Memoir of Drinking and Recovery, plus the paperback edition of Happier than God by Neale Donald Walsch.

Backlist drove sales gains at Chelsea Green Publishing, says president and publisher Margo Baldwin, while frontlist rose slightly. For this sustainable living publisher, the food and garden category was the star of the year, Baldwin says, led by the Winter Harvest Handbook, whose sales increased throughout the year. Chelsea finished 2009 with solid gains led by strong online sales. Most Chelsea titles are now produced as e-books for the Kindle and Sony Reader, and e-book sales jumped last year, albeit from a very small base, Baldwin says. After attending both Digital Book World and Tools of Change, Baldwin says she intends to do more in the digital space, including more iPhone apps and enhanced videos, but is looking for a digital distributor she can partner with. Although business has started a little slow, Baldwin is looking for an uptick in the next few weeks when Robert Kuttner’s A Presidency in Peril, a progressive critique of the Obama administration, releases with a 25,000-copy first printing, and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz hits store shelves.

PW’s Small Publisher Standouts

Sales Growth (%) 2007—2009 Titles 2007—2009 Employees 2007—2009
Source: Reed Business Information
Quirk Books Philadelphia, Pa. 165% 33 29 16 15
Skyhorse Publishing New York, N.Y. 159 114 159 9 14
Blue Apple Books Maplewood, N.J. 117 37 39 5 9
Morgan James Publishing Garden City, N.Y. 93 107 163 9 15
Springer Publishing New York, N.Y. 36 60 88 28 28
Turner Publishing Nashville, Tenn. 32 54 44 21 15
Square One Publishers Garden City, N.Y. 28 26 20 8 8
Prufrock Press Austin, Tex. 21 28 35 10 12
Ulysses Press Berkeley, Calif. 16 41 49 6 7
Red Wheel Weiser Conari Newburyport, Mass. 11 48 51 20 20
Chelsea Green Publishing White River Junction, Vt. 10 27 29 19 20