Agate Publishing, founded in 2003 with the release of a single novel, Sexual Healing by Jill Nelson, has found success in a volatile industry by publishing nonfiction and fiction for a variety of distinct niche markets. The Chicagoland press currently publishes about 20–22 titles each year across three trade imprints: Surrey Books (cookbooks and lifestyle), Bolden Books (African-American interest), and B2 Books (business). By the end of 2013, the company expects to publish 25–30 titles annually across four trade imprints. Agate's Midway Books imprint, which will specialize in Midwestern topics by Midwestern authors, with an emphasis on Chicago, will launch in spring 2012 with three or four releases.
"Having a diversity of focused niche imprints allows us to take advantage of the expertise we're able to develop in each area, while still giving us a greater breadth of different sorts of things in the marketplace," noted Doug Seibold, Agate's founding publisher
While Seibold declined to provide numbers, he said that Agate's gross revenues more than doubled in 2010 over 2009, with 2009 up 20% over 2008's gross revenues. The company, which currently has 12 employees—triple the number of employees a year ago—had to move its offices in June 2010, from the basement in Seibold's home to a storefront location, to better accommodate its expanding operations.
While Seibold admits that "a lot" of the company's growth in recent years can be attributed to its ProBooks division, which provides customized textbooks to textbook publishers and for-profit education companies, the bottom line has also been buoyed by a "dramatic" drop in returns across the company's three trade imprints in 2010. Although Agate has released e-books simultaneously with print books since 2009, e-books represented roughly 5% of its total trade book sales last year; Seibold says it's a steadily growing part of the business, but won't exceed 10% of the company's total trade book sales next year.
"Unfortunately, I haven't published any bestsellers, the sorts of books that the people who are early adopters of e-books have really embraced," Seibold said, emphasizing that digitization remains an important component of his marketing strategy.
Surrey Books, which was acquired by Agate five years ago, is currently the company's largest and most successful imprint. Almost half of Agate's releases each year are Surrey titles, many of them niche cookbooks for vegetarians, diabetics, and others with special dietary needs. Agate's bestselling title remains Gluten-Free Baking Classics by Annalise Roberts, originally published in 2006, with a second edition in 2008, a third edition scheduled for 2013, and more than 50,000 copies sold to date. "By being very, very specialized, we can find significant readership that, with our scale, can help us be successful," Seibold said, noting that Indian Slow Cooker by Anupy Singla, "a book that seems to have a very prescribed market," has sold 30,000 copies in six printings since its September 2010 release.
Seibold hopes that, by tweaking the B2 and the Bolden imprints to make them as niche-oriented as the Surrey imprint is, he will publish more hits. Thus, B2 will focus on business-coaching books rather than "big ideas" like globalization and economics.
Agate is also launching within the Bolden imprint a line of autobiographies and memoirs by African-American writers called Bolden Lives. The first Bolden Lives titles will be released in fall 2012.
"With Bolden, we've always had more success with serious, narrative-oriented work than with pop-oriented stuff like advice books or relationship books," Seibold said. "All of the bestselling books we've done under the Bolden imprint have been literary novels." Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas, the imprint's bestseller, sold 12,000 copies in hardcover before the paper rights were sold to Pocket Books.
"My hope is that, of the nonfiction books I do under the entire imprint, the majority of them will be Bolden Lives. We're acquiring with that in mind," Seibold said. "I've had more success in following my own instincts to do work that's strongest in literary terms. My aptitude for popular appeal is pretty dismal."