Two and a half years after Jonathan Eaton and Tristram Coburn purchased Tilbury House, the Maine-based press has begun to thrive. The co-owners, each of whom has an extensive background in publishing and founded Cadent Publishing a few years earlier, began by ramping up Tilbury’s list from three to four titles a year in 2013 to 24 in 2014.
“That’s a lot of investment in inventory,” Eaton said. “It’s all been necessary to bolster the backlist, [which] had been dwindling.” The press, which was founded 40 years ago, now has 141 active titles on its backlist, and counting. Tilbury will publish another 24 titles this year, but will reduce the list to 16 in 2016, which Eaton regards as a more “sustainable” figure. The press has also begun publishing e-books for the first time. Its digital children’s books are now available through subscription services like Epic! and Scribd.
Along with the increase in Tilbury’s title base has come a jump in sales. During their first year at the press, Eaton and Coburn grew sales at Tilbury by 16%, followed by 42% in 2014. They anticipate holding on to that gain this year. But it hasn’t necessarily been easy, as Coburn acknowledged, to generate such rapid growth. “To turn a tiny company into a small company takes a lot of effort,” he said.
A significant part of Tilbury’s growth comes from Eaton and Coburn’s commitment to children’s books. They have already begun to raise the children’s book count and to devote two-thirdS of their list to kids’ titles. At the same time, they want to move away from publishing scholarly adult titles and focus on trade-oriented books, like Queen Bee, Phyllis Austin’s newly released biography of Roxanne Quimby, the woman behind Burt’s Bees.
One of the strategies the press is using to grow its list and sales is to get what Coburn refers to as “A-list help.” That has meant signing authors like National Book Award winner Philip Hoose to edit the press’ new History in 50 series. The first two books, which explore history through thematically linked stories for ages 12 and up, will be published in November: Gale Eaton’s A History of Civilization in 50 Disasters and Paula Grey’s A History of Travel in 50 Vehicles. Last year Tilbury published Caldecott-winning illustrator Mary Azarian’s Before We Eat, written by Pat Brisson, which received a Moonbeam Gold Award and a 2015 Growing Good Kids Award from the American Horticultural Society. And Jennifer E. Morris, whose May I Please Have a Cookie? has sold over one million copies, illustrated Licia Morelli’s The Lemonade Hurricane: A Story of Mindfulness and Meditation, which came out in August and has already gone back to press.
Part of Tilbury’s growing pains have resulted from the new owners’ decision to give the press, which is well-known locally and was named publisher of the year in 2009 by the New England Independent Booksellers Association, a greater national presence. “Tilbury has been so sequestered up in Maine, the knee-jerk reaction is that we’re a regional press,” said Coburn. To broaden its reach, he and Eaton are launching a revamped website aimed at consumers with free content for educators, including readers’ guides. The press offers free shipping, but it recommends on its homepage that shoppers look first at their local bookstore. With the addition of a commission sales force to provide representation across the U.S. and Canada, more and more stores will have access to Tilbury titles.
Although Coburn and Eaton have instituted a number of changes, including relocating the offices from Gardiner to Camden, they are determined to maintain Tilbury’s commitment to diverse books. Long before WeNeedDiverseBooks, Tilbury published Talking Walls (1992) and Talking Walls: The Story Continues (1995) by Margy Burns Knight and Anne Sibley O’Brien, which introduce young children to diverse cultures through walls that really do talk. “Our emphasis has been to build on that [by] making them ‘more tradey’ and not sacrificing the values they have,” Coburn said. Last year, the press reissued both Talking Walls volumes in a combined and updated edition. In May, Tilbury published a children’s story about Ramadan, Reem Faruqi and Lea Lyon’s Lailah’s Lunchbox.
Tilbury also plans to move into new kids’ categories and formats. In November, it will publish its first YA title, Geri Vistein’s I Am Coyote, which combines science and storytelling to describe a coyote’s 500-mile journey to find a mate and a home of her own. And in 2016, the press will publish its first two graphic novels.