Finding a niche and sticking to it is considered the golden rule for an independent publisher to have long-term success. And while that was evident again among the 10 indies who made the cut in PW's annual look at fast-growing small presses, every house plots its own particular path. That is seen most clearly in each one's approach to the digital market.
While many publishers have enthusiastically embraced the new formats, others have adopted a more cautious approach, allocating resources to other areas such as acquisitions or marketing. But as shelf space at bookstores shrinks, indies will be looking to e-book sales to fill the gap while turning even more to another small press strength, finding alternative channels to market their titles.
Two bestsellers coupled with an array of strong-selling niche titles put Skyhorse Publishing atop PW's list. Sales were led by Jesse Ventura's American Conspiracies, which Skyhorse president Tony Lyons says sold 120,000 copies, followed by Poor Richard's America. Skyhorse publishes in a variety of niches, and one of the hottest in 2010 was what Lyons calls "living off the land," which featured such titles as Homesteading and Self-Sufficiency. The trend of people wanting to become more self-reliant was accelerated by the recession, Lyons surmises in explaining growing interest in the topic.
Unlike many independent presses, Skyhorse depends heavily on bookstores for sales, with that channel accounting for about 70% of revenue. "I've always felt Barnes & Noble was great for small presses," Lyons says. E-book sales accounted for 3%–4% of Skyhorse revenue last year (Conspiracies sold about 2,000 e-books), and Lyons says a major initiative for 2011 is to put about 750 backlist titles into e-book formats for all platforms (Skyhorse currently has about 450 e-books). Lyons has added an e-book sales manager to help oversee the project, anticipating that e-book sales could represent 5%–6% of sales in 2011.
The current year should also receive a big push from the three acquisitions Lyons made in 2010. The Arcade Publishing deal closed in the fall, and books from the imprint will begin shipping soon. Lyons has hired Jeanette Seaver as a consulting editor to acquire books for translation and to help lend continuity to Arcade, which Jeannette started with her late husband, Richard. Allworth Press titles, bought at the end of 2010, are also now shipping, and new Sports Publishing titles, whose assets Lyons bought late last year, will ship in the fall, when Skyhorse's children's imprint, Sky Pony Press, also is slated to launch.
Blue Apple Books' publisher, Harriet Ziefert, says her children's publishing house continued to benefit from growing brand awareness in 2010, citing as one example the higher number of unsolicited manuscripts the company receives—20 a day compared to 20 a month when the company launched in 2003. That brand awareness has helped Blue Apple get into a diverse number of sales channels. "We've proven our products will sell at high-end specialty stores as well as mass merchants," Ziefert notes. Although Chronicle has helped Blue Apple expand, beginning July 1 the company is moving its distribution to Random House. "It's something we felt we needed to do as the next step in our growth," Ziefert says. The move allowed Blue Apple to hire one of its former reps, Rob Schaefer, as sales manager.
Blue Apple's big hit last year was placemats that feature activities that kids can doodle over. At the other end of the spectrum, Blue Apple has already developed several enhanced e-books and has hired a digital consultant to help create apps around some of its brands. The company has what it hopes is a strong new series that kicked off in 2010 with Bear in Underwear. The novelty title was a strong seller at Target over the 2010 holidays, and Bear in Pink Underwear is set for release this year, Bear in Long Underwear next year. Another title that did well last year was How the Sphinx Got to the Museum, with How the Dinosaur Got to the Smithsonian set for this year. Titles developed under the Dwell Studio license also sold well in 2010.
Ziefert's goal for the next several years is to increase sales at a 25% annual rate without significantly adding to the number of print titles. "We'll stick to what we do best," Ziefert says, which is fiction and nonfiction books for infants through ages eight to nine. "We're not chasing trends. No vampires."
Ulysses Press credits its growth to its ability to quickly publish titles about emerging trends. "We are market driven and fast. People want it now, so we publish it fast," says Bryce Willett, v-p of operations. To meet its goals, Ulysses participated in the beta test of Perseus Book Group's Constellation program and now makes all of its titles available as e-books. "We use all aspects of Constellation," notes Karma Bennett, Ulysses publicist, including the print on demand option. Partly because of its commitment to digital, Amazon became Ulysses' largest account for the first time last year. The company has also brought on board an online marketing person to help it expand into more nontraditional markets.
Ulysses' editorial focus continues to be identifying underserved hot categories and finding authors who can write knowledgeably about the topic. With Ulysses editors seeing that the cupcake market had more than its share of books, they created a cookbook on macarons, and Macarons: Authentic Cookie Recipes from the Macaron Café was one of the house's strongest sellers last year despite being released late in 2010. Survival guides remain hot—Bug Out: The Complete Plan for Escaping a Catastrophic Disaster Before It's Too Late was a strong seller. So, too, was the follow-up to a book on Trader Joe's, The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook. The first book in a new Dirty language series—Dirty Japanese: Everyday Slang from What's Up? To F*%#k Off!—sold well in 2010, and Ulysses is adding more languages and also workbooks beginning with Dirty Spanish Workbook: 200 Fun Exercises Filled with Slang, Sex and Swearing. Another new title for 2011 is in the survival category, acquired from a self-published author, American Apocalypse: The Collapse Begins.
Strong gains through nontraditional retailers, growth in the trade market, and an acquisition all contributed to a sales increase of 21% in 2010 at Square One Publishers. "We remain lucky to have found strong repeat business in a slew of nontraditional and newly emerging markets where large quantities of physical books are still purchased," explains company founder Rudy Shur. Although the company has broadened its list in recent years, its core remains the alternative health area led by such titles as Suicide by Sugar by Dr. Nancy Appleton, whose upcoming Killer Colas Shur expects to do well this year. Pea in a Pod, a pregnancy title, sold well last year, and Square One is working on a full-color second edition that Shur hopes will challenge What to Expect When You're Expecting in the parenting category.
Small Publishing Standouts
|Publisher||Sales Growth 2008–2010 (%)||Employees 2008||Employees 2010||Titles 2008||Titles 2010|
|Skyhorse Publishing, New York, N.Y||127%||12||22||143||210|
|Blue Apple Books, Maplewood, N.J.||87||8||9||35||38|
|Ulysses Press, Berkeley, Calif.||65||10||11||53||51|
|Square One Publishers, Garden City, N.Y.||44||8||8||20||22|
|Cleis Press, San Francisco, Calif.||44||4||6||36||43|
|Red Wheel Weiser Conari, Newburyport, Mass.||32||20||22||46||39|
|Turner Publishing, Nashville, Tenn.||25||21||15||47||142|
|North Atlantic Books , Berkeley, Calif.||14||26||25||91||85|
|C&T Publishing, Concord, Calif.||9||44||43||81||89|
|Overlook Press, New York, N.Y.||7||17||18||99||92|