In today's climate, surviving is heroic in itself. But several figures and one bold initiative stand out as deserving of special praise for addressing current conditions with creative, dynamic and successful strategies.
David Shanks Leads the Penguin Team
When David Shanks took over the reins of Penguin Group USA from Phyllis Grann in 2001, his colleagues at competing companies included Jane Friedman, Peter Olson, Larry Kirshbaum and Jack Romanos, all of whom have since left their top spots. But it's much more than his last-man-standing status that has made Shanks one of the leading figures in the business in 2008. Since last year's fourth quarter, Penguin has had a stellar run, turning out a record number of bestsellers across all formats. The company has enjoyed particular success in the trade paperback segment: the Oprah-annointed A New Earth dominated lists early in the year, as did several other Penguin megasellers. And even though the recession will mean a difficult fourth quarter, the company will turn in a very solid 2008.
One of Shanks's strengths is his ability to bring in new talent, and he is the first to credit the Penguin team approach for the company's success. “You're only as good as your people are,” Shanks notes. As he sees it, his job as CEO is to create a place where people want to stay and give them a framework to succeed. “My biggest contribution is making sure everyone knows what our goals are and how we expect to get there,” Shanks says.
Shanks's recruitment drive earlier this year brought in former Random House executive v-p Don Weisberg to lead the children's group, even though Weisberg had no previous experience in the children's field. Since Weisberg and children's publishing veteran Barbara Marcus joined Penguin in May, Shanks says, there has been a new energy in the group, and the Weisberg/Marcus team has put together an aggressive budget for 2009 that, Shanks notes, “they believe they can hit.” Next year will not be an easy one, Shanks acknowledges, but he is confident that with good publishing and a sharp eye on expenses, Penguin will pull through. One person who appreciates Shanks's talents is his boss, John Makinson. “David is the most experienced chief executive in the U.S. publishing industry today, and the financial success of Penguin Group USA is a tribute to his experience and acumen. He is an extraordinary leader.”—Jim Milliot
ABA Puts its Faith in IndieBound
Take one revitalization plan for an aging marketing program (Book Sense), add one hip branding firm to capture a younger audience (Brains on Fire) and season with a determination to capitalize on the popularity of shopping locally (Local First). That's the recipe the ABA used to create IndieBound, a movement/marketing program introduced this year at BEA. At the same time, BookSense.com morphed into a social networking site and independent store locator renamed IndieBound.org.
ABA COO Oren Teicher is convinced that the survival of independent bookstores and IndieBound are tied to that of other independent businesses. “Supporting locally owned businesses is all part of what IndieBound is meant to inculcate. In soft economic times, it resonates even more, when people are making each dollar count.”
There aren't any metrics yet to show the effectiveness of IndieBound, although it has attracted nearly 1,650 friends on its Facebook page. Besides, as Teicher notes, “local movements by their definition are gradual.” Among the most ubiquitous IndieBound materials are large red “Eat, Sleep, Read” posters and a Declaration of IndieBound that customers can sign.
“In five months,” says Teicher, “we could not be more pleased with the way stores have embraced this.” He also credits independents—through the Indie Next list (formerly Book Sense Bestsellers)—with contributing significantly to the success of novels like David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and Dennis Lehane's The Given Day.—Judith Rosen
Daniel Halpern and Ecco Press
Ecco Press publisher Daniel Halpern didn't think it could get any better for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, which was already a New York Times bestseller and a Book Sense pick, with a front-page Washington Post review and glowing praise from Stephen King. Then he got the call.
“My entire staff—along with my 15-year-old daughter—was sitting in my office celebrating the success of Sawtelle when Oprah called,” Halpern says. “It was the most memorable moment of my publishing life.”
Quite a statement, coming from a man who has published critically acclaimed authors and rubbed elbows with folks from all levels of society.
Daniel Halpern founded Ecco Press in 1971, with literary patron Drue Heinz. Among the authors he first published was Paul Bowles, whom he met while in Tangier and who first funded Halpern's literary magazine, Antaeus. In the decades following, Halpern built a list that included Louise Gluck, Czeslaw Milosz and Jorie Graham. “Back then,” Halpern says, “I rarely paid more than $3,000 for any book.”
In 1999, his friend Jane Friedman bought Ecco Press for HarperCollins. Halpern gained a larger budget to expand his list of nuanced works that reflect Halpern's interests. Just this year, Ecco signed Anthony Bourdain, Richard Ford and Dave Eggers, as well as Darryl Strawberry and singer-songwriter Patti Smith.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which was acquired by Ecco editorial director Lee Boudreaux, has now sold more than a million copies, according to Halpern. But Ecco, which publishes about 50 titles a year, has had four other books on the bestseller lists this year: Waiter Rant by blogger Steve Dublanica; Philip Norman's John Lennon; and two cookbooks by Mario Batali, Italian Grill and Spain: A Culinary Road Trip.—Mark Rotella
Françoise Mouly: Comics and Reading
How many times can one person impact American reading culture? When it comes to Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director and wife and publishing collaborator of cartoonist Art Spiegelman, at least two or three times. Mouly is also the publisher of Toon Books, a line of skillfully designed book-format comics for children age six and up. Toon books are targeted for prereaders and designed to nurture the act of reading at its most basic level. The books combine the best of comics—enticing visual stories that cue the action of the narrative—with a professional's understanding of vocabulary levels and the fundamental mechanics of reading.
In 1980, as a young French student, Mouly teamed with Spiegelman to launch RAW, an acclaimed anthology series that emphasized experimentalist stories and graphics; it was a powerful influence on the alternative comics movement of the 1980s. In 2000 the two launched Little Lit books at HarperCollins, essentially a series of alternative comics for kids. On her own, Mouly launched Toon Books earlier this year because she believes that comics have a unique pedagogical ability to encourage the very act of reading in a child.
“It's important to catch kids just as they are learning to read,” Mouly says. She met with educators and reading specialists to structure the books and spent many hours in classrooms watching children interact with test copies. Mouly believes that children are born “visually literate. They want to make sense of the drawings in a comic; the words are a complement, but by then, they are already into the book and into the pleasure of turning the page to find out what happens.”
So far, she's published six Toon Books (including one by Spiegelman); teachers and librarians have been “very happy and supportive,” and sales are growing. This time, she may have transformed the way Americans learn to read. “I just want to make kids fall in love with reading and books,” Mouly says. “Comics are the best way.”—Calvin Reid
Windblown Media Builds The Shack
When you sell a million copies of a book with a $200 marketing budget, it's not surprising other publishing professionals scratch their heads and wonder, “Why can't we do that?”
Brad Cummings, president of Windblown Media (pictured at left), says that when he and his two partners, publisher Wayne Jacobsen and author William P. Young, self-published The Shack in May 2007, they performed that feat in the book's first few months. Signing in April 2008 to copublish with Hachette Book Group, which offered to assume responsibilities for sales, marketing, distribution, licensing and manufacturing of The Shack and future Windblown Media titles, helped ratchet sales up to 4.4 million copies. Says Cummings, “We're just a couple of yahoos who sold a book out of our garage.... I think we violated some of the normal rules of publishing.”
No kidding. Cummings says he initially financed the novel by maxing out 12 personal credit cards. It was a big risk: Cummings was a landscaper who stuffed envelopes in the evening, Jacobson was a writer and Young a janitor, sales guy and manager for a friend's manufacturing company who lived in a rented 900-sq.-ft. house with his wife, Kim, and six children in Gresham, Ore.
The Shack, a spiritual tale in which a grieving father is called to a remote shack to meet with his God, is now an international phenomenon, with rights sold in 30 languages. In Brazil, he says, it's been the #1 bestselling book this fall; in China, it is was the rage among university students after the earthquake. In Great Britain, The Shack is the first Christian book to ever be sold in Tesco, the Britain-based grocery chain. Windblown Media has even fielded a request for Jordanian rights.
Also on the horizon are moves to new formats, including The Shack as a one-click application for iPhone (it's already available on Kindle), a daily calendar coming next fall, a The Shack Manga version for British consumers, a Shack thought for the day for cellphones and a Shack film that's tentatively slated for 2010 theater release. As Cummings says, “The Shack has grown legs of its own... it can walk wherever it wants to walk....”—Cindy Crosby