Despite a roiling economic climate, over the past decade 35-year-old Inner Traditions in Rochester, Vt., has more than doubled in size. "While 2008 was bad for all publishers," said founder and president Ehud Sperling, "in 2009 we started crawling back." Part of the reason Inner Traditions was positioned to recover lost ground is that its list not only focuses on books about spiritual, cultural, and mythic traditions around the world, but the press finds and sells those titles globally.
"About 25% of our list is translation," said Sperling, who launched the house in New York City in 1975, after a five-year stint as a bookseller at Greenwich Village's occult bookstore, Samuel Weiser's. Twenty-five years later he acquired Bear & Company, which publishes books to celebrate and heal the Earth, and has added imprints along the way, including Bindu Books for teens. However, many of the company's bestsellers are works in translation, like Christopher Vasey's The Acid-Alkaline Diet for Optimum Health, originally published in France, which has sold 125,000 copies, and T.K.V. Desikachar's The Heart of Yoga, which includes a translation of the yoga sutras of Patanjali and has sold 150,000 copies.
Many translations on Inner Traditions' backlist of roughly 1,500 titles originally came out in European languages. In turn, countries with native speakers in Spanish and German have provided fertile selling ground for translations of its English-language books. In fact, all of Inner Traditions' books have been published in German, said Sperling. Germany has become such an important market that he is looking to create an Inner Traditions imprint there by partnering with another publisher much like he did in 1993 to form Inner Traditions en Español. He started the latter in conjunction with Lasser Press of Mexico, which distributes Spanish-language editions of Inner Traditions books throughout the Americas; for the past decade, Lasser Press has also published four books a year in Spanish in the U.S. In 1995, Sperling launched Inner Traditions India, which prints in India for the English-speaking market there. And last year it started Inner Traditions Canada, which distributes its books as well as those of Red Wheel/Weiser, Tuttle, and Career Press/New Pages.
In addition, Sperling has begun experimenting with ways to meet what he regards as one of the press's biggest challenges: "continuing to publish the serious and slower-filling titles at a time when the market wants faster-filling books." As part of that effort, he has begun exploring other retail models. This fall, Inner Traditions began selling books on consignment at Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vt. "What I'm trying to do is go back to the future with rack jobbing," he said, referring to the way wholesalers service supermarkets and drugstores by filling their racks. The store then pays for the merchandise it sold less a commission. So far rack jobbing/consignment is working out. Sales at Northshire have gone up 10 times.
Sperling is also reaching out to customers directly through grassroots marketing. The press took booths at the Miami Book Fair, the Los Angeles Book Fair, and various green festivals. "It's an opportunity to meet our fans," said Sperling. "It's physical social media."
Not that the company is neglecting more conventional pushes. One of the press's top-selling books, Rick Strassman's DMT, published a decade ago, now has 80,000 copies in print, and the release of the documentary The Spirit Molecule was screened at the Austin Film Festival in October and is now available on DVD. "I published the book because it was such a great book," said Sperling. "But I never thought it would take off. A book about a molecule?!" That book is now #1 in psychopharmacology on Amazon.
Looking back at how the company has made it through its first three and a half decades, Sperling said, "It's about being devoted to a subject area, not just the latest flavor. To build a list like ours takes 35 years. You just can't do it faster."