It’s been six years since the privately held Swedish media company Bonnier acquired Weldon Owen, the San Francisco company known for its packaging program built for retail clients as diverse as Williams-Sonoma and Hallmark. In that time, said Terry Newell, CEO and president of Weldon Owen—now the American subsidiary of its parent—the internal energy and changes have made it feel like being part of a “25-year-old startup.”
In the past couple of years, Weldon Owen has built on its success as a packager that specializes in branded books to publishing its own branded books. The company will release 50 titles this year and has more than $10 million in trade sales, about half of its current business and an area of sales it wants to double by 2014.
To do this, Weldon Owen signed with Simon & Schuster for distribution in 2010. It also partnered with the Bonnier magazine group to create books—often in new niches for the company—without abandoning those categories (food, education, and parenting) where it has long seen success.
“We got lucky,” said Newell, about having been acquired by Bonnier, which has 50 magazine titles, including Field and Stream and Outdoor Life. Working closely with its magazine colleagues to develop content for outdoor readers, in December 2011 Weldon Owen rolled out its first Field & Stream title, The Total Outdoorsman Manual. In May it followed with, from Outdoor Life, The Ultimate Survival Manual, and this month, from Field & Stream, it will publish The Total Gun Manual.
While The Total Outdoorsman Manual was planned as a stand-alone book, Gonzalo Ferreya, director of marketing, said its success (200,000 copies sold through the trade and 50,000 direct to consumer) revealed a publishing program with room for expansion. With built-in audiences in 50 magazine niches, Ferreya said, Weldon Owen realized “the sky’s the limit” in creating books for such audiences. “The vision is to do one of these manuals for every interest group,” said Newell. Following the Total Outdoorsman model, the program will feature a $31.95 hardcover, promoted through appropriate Bonnier magazines a few months ahead of publication to the general trade, as well as a $25 flexi-bound paperback edition. Nine to 12 months later, Weldon Owen will publish smaller titles—Camping Guide and Fishing Guide in the case of Outdoorsman—which isolate information from the original book and are priced at $10. E-book editions are released simultaneously with the trade editions at prices usually 50%–60% off the suggested retail price.
Carolyn Reidy, CEO of S&S, said Weldon Owen has done a “superb job” making the transition from packager to publisher because “they are good at identifying what is the essence of a brand.”
In the food area—where Weldon Owen has been successful with its packaging partners—the company is spicing up its own publishing program with books by rising culinary stars. On its recent lists are Volt ink.: Recipes, Stories, Brothers by Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, who have brought sibling rivalry to new heights on Bravo’s Top Chef; This Is a Cookbook: Recipes for Real Life by Max and Eli Sussman, brother chefs from two of New York’s hippest eateries (Brooklyn’s Roberta’s and the Mile End Deli); and Beginnings: My Way to Start a Meal by Chris Cosentino, chef at San Francisco’s Incanto, who recently won the title Best Chef in History on ABC’s Time Machine Chefs. These titles were produced by the Olive Press imprint, which is a joint partnership with Williams-Sonoma.
Cosentino said he signed on with Weldon Owen because the publishing team helped him create a book that sounded like him. “How many books fall into a mold that’s sellable?” he asked. “What’s great about Weldon Owen is that they let it fall into the mold of the author.”
The press’s ability to let books find their mold is partly what brought the Disney family to Weldon Owen. But as Newell pointed out, the Disney family—which has a museum in San Francisco’s Presidio—also valued working with a local company to create beautiful books for a national audience. In October, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the film, Weldon Owen publishes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney’s Classic Animated Film and The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, both by J. B. Kaufman. The two books represent the publisher’s commitment to quality four-color work that the 25-year-old startup has been perfecting since its packaging days.