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|
In 2009, Square One had a hit in the trade market with Taking Woodstock, a memoir by Elliot Tiber, which was made into a movie directed by Ang Lee. Square One released a second title by Tiber last year, Palm Trees on the Hudson, plus comedian Pat Cooper's memoir, How Dare You Say How Dare Me! Despite being released in November, the book, helped by strong pre-pub orders, made a solid contribution to sales and encouraged Shur to do a few more titles aimed at the trade with a true crime book, tentatively titled The Mysterious Tour of Dr. Doyle, set for release later this year. The acquisition of Safe Good Publishing in the year added 40 titles to Square One's backlist (such as Prevent Cancer, Strokes, Heart Attacks & Other Deadly Killers). Square One is moving slowly into digital, with some titles on Kindle. Shur says many of his titles work best in print, and he is looking for better terms from digital booksellers before moving more aggressively.
Cleis Press followed up a 56% sales gain in 2009 with a 10% increase last year, with sales up in all areas: retail, online, digital, special markets, and subsidiary rights. Digital sales doubled in the year as Cleis expanded its e-book offerings beyond the Kindle to include most major formats. The move, says associate publisher Brenda Knight, gave a strong boost to Cleis's GLBT books led by Best Gay Romance 2010 and Best Gay Erotica 2010. Cleis's print and digital sales benefited last year from active promotional efforts from both its editors and authors. Editor Violet Blue appeared on a host of television talk shows and was interviewed by dozens of magazines where she promoted her Best Women's Erotica series, whose books have sold more than 300,000 copies. Books that did well in 2010 include Wordcatcher, which sold 3,000 copies in one day after NPR's Susan Stamberg declared it a "must read." Live Life as a Thank You by Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons finished the year on a strong note, selling 12,000 copies between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Live Life and The Courage Companion, also by Lesowitz and Sammons, have both sold well in Christian and Mormon markets as well as in New Thought churches, and Cleis's Viva Edition imprint has created reading group guides for the two books.
Knight is expecting a good reception to Lesowitz and Sammons's next book, The Gratitude Power Workbook, out later this spring with a first printing of 10,000 copies. This past Valentine's Day, Cleis introduced its first app and book combination for Blue's Total Flirt: Tips, Tricks & Techniques Every Girl Needs to Get the Guy.
Red Wheel Weiser Conari president Michael Kerber readily admits that 2010 was shaping up to be a flat year until Oprah picked Conari's The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo as one of her "ultimate favorite things." After several trips back to press, Red Wheel has about 272,000 copies of Awakening, first released in 2000, in print. The success of Awakening validates Red Wheel's commitment to its backlist, with the company routinely keeping titles in print for 20 years or longer. Red Wheel is able to keep an active backlist because it augments sales through traditional bookstores with sales to alternative channels, both bricks-and-mortar and online. To expand its reach into new areas, Red Wheel has added more commissioned gift reps and is increasing its online marketing and advertising budget.
The house's digital program took a significant leap forward last year, with revenue jumping 568% albeit off of a small base in 2009. The increase was due to a combination of Red Wheel converting more of its titles to e-books and adding more platforms as well as strong e-book sales of Awakening. Kerber notes that with Red Wheel still benefiting from Awakening, e-book sales in January were just short of what the company generated in e-book sales for all of 2010. He is hopeful that e-book sales will increase enough in 2011 to offset whatever sales Red Wheel loses from Borders.
When Todd Bottorff decided in 2006 that he wanted to move Turner Publishing from a trade and specialty publisher to a house focused solely on trade, he had about 20 trade titles. At the end of 2010, Turner's backlist, built by internal growth and three acquisitions, now stands at approximately 1,000. In developing the foundation of the house, Bottorff concentrated on acquiring solid backlist titles. "We didn't want to bet on big books," Bottorff notes. His backlist strategy was enough to increase sales by 14% in 2010, and he's now ready to get a bit more aggressive in expanding a more robust frontlist.
To that end, at the beginning of 2011, Bottorff overhauled both his editorial and sales and marketing operations. Frankie Danly, formerly with Random House, was named to head the editorial staff, and veteran New York editor Diane Gedymin was appointed head of title acquisition, operating out of New York. On the sales side, Bottorff hired five independent rep groups to call on indie bookstores and specialty accounts. In addition, three new positions were added to enhance Turner's digital sales and marketing teams. "We want authors to pick us because we do the best job of advancing their careers through marketing and communications," Bottorff says. While the staff has been reorganized, Bottorff has firmed up the areas he will focus on in the future—business, history, politics, and lifestyles. He believes that because of profound economic changes, there will be a "robust national debate" about these topics well into the next decade.
E-books did not contribute significantly to Turner's sales in 2010, and Bottorff is not counting on digital being a meaningful part of Turner's business until 2012. He has established relationships with big players like Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble and is putting all new books in digital formats while adding backlist as quickly as resources will allow.
Growth at North Atlantic Books over the past couple of years has been driven by the raw food movement. Five titles released by the company—Green Smoothie Revolution; Green for Life; Superfoods; There Is a Cure for Diabetes; and Raw Family Signature Dishes—have combined to sell over 225,000 units. In the areas where it publishes—alternative health, martial arts, and spiritual titles—North Atlantic has had success using social media to promote its authors' works among the different communities, says online marketing and publicity coordinator Talia Shapiro. North Atlantic hopes to tap into the community approach again this fall when it launches Evolver Editions, which it is doing in collaboration with Evolver LLC, which publishes the online magazine Reality Sandwich. Evolver will publish books by writers well known in the spiritual counterculture, with Daniel Pinchbeck, Jose Arguelles, and Charles Eisenstein signed on as early authors.
North Atlantic also expects its digital program to evolve in 2011. The company didn't do its first e-book until 2009, when it released eight, and added another 37 in 2010. Beginning this year, North Atlantic is publishing almost all of its frontlist in print and e-books simultaneously and hopes to have all of its 900 backlist titles converted to e-books.
The decision by C&T Publishing to launch the Stash Books imprint last April proved a boon to the company. The imprint, aimed to appeal to a younger audience than C&T's typical quilting market, "broke all sales projections," reports publicity manager Megan Scott. The first four titles in the imprint—Socks Appeal; Little Birds; The Practical Guide to Patchwork; and City Quilts—went back to press a combined 14 times. The launch of Stash increased C&T's sales through bookstores with revenue through the trade up 47% in the year.
In addition to starting Stash, C&T aggressively jumped on the digital bandwagon. In 2008, C&T had one e-book, but by the end of 2010 it had 295 e-books and had created four apps. Sales of apps, available at $3.99, exceeded expectations, Scott says, helped by Apple naming C&T's first app, Quick & Easy Quilt Block Tool, a "hot pick." Overall, digital sales contributed about 1% of total sales, but C&T expects that number to increase this year. C&T was encouraged enough by the digital market that this spring it is launching PatternSpot, an online marketplace where pattern designers can upload and sell their downloaded designs directly to quilters and sewers. C&T will take a slice of the sale.
Overlook Press has long relied on its strong backlist and a couple of hits to drive the house forward. In 2009 the recession and a lack of bestsellers resulted in a slump at the company, but an improving economy, digital sales, and a later arriving hit in the form of True Grit provided a bounce back for Overlook, positioning it for its best year since it introduced sudoku in 2005. "2010 was a prelude to the great year we are having in 2011, with the runaway success of True Grit and all the Charles Portis backlist," says president and publisher Peter Mayer.
Overlook saw a boost in Grit sales in November, when Paramount Pictures began a marketing blitz for its film, and the book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two months, with 340,000 copies in print. Similar to Red Wheel's success with Awakening, which was a backlist staple before becoming a hit, True Grit and other Portis titles have been on the Overlook backlist for over 10 years. Other backlist titles that did well in 2010 included The Secret History of the World by Mark Booth, plus titles by what Mayer calls "perennial Overlook favorites" Penny Vincenzi and Susan Hill. And one of Overlook's bestselling titles in any format was Knife Music, a medical thriller by David Carnoy, which sold over 35,000 e-books. Overlook is expecting more digital gains in 2011, but its greatest increase will come from Grit, and Mayer estimates that sales could increase by 50% for the company this year.