In the early days of the digital revolution, most independent publishers were moving slower than the larger houses in getting on the e-book bandwagon. That period has clearly passed. With only a couple of exceptions, the publishers that made it onto this year’s edition of PW’s fast-growing small press list cited the increase in e-book sales as key to their success in 2011.

In a year in which sales of print books through bricks-and-mortar bookstores suffered because of the collapse of Borders, it was sales of e-books that provided the foundation for boosting revenue. When news of Borders’s bankruptcy filing was announced last February, Cleis Press had just received its e-book sales report for December 2010, and according to Cleis associate publisher Brenda Knight, the jump in digital sales in the month made up the loss in Borders’s sales in the fourth quarter almost to the dollar. At that time, Cleis had 175 titles in digital format; it now has 276. At Red Wheel Weiser Conari Press, president Michael Kerber says the company’s digital initiatives “more than made up for the loss of [Borders] sales.” E-book sales at Red Wheel rose 160% in 2011. Digital sales were just under $962,000 at Berrett-Koehler Publishers in 2011, an increase of 214% over 2009.

While sales gains to date have been impressive at these indie presses, more increases are ahead. Doug Seibold, president of Agate Publishing, notes that his company has launched Agate Digital, a direct-to-digital imprint, this year. The imprint, which released its first title, Newcity’s Best of Chicago 2012 in December, will focus on a range of original works that will vary in length and price, and will look to form partnerships with content companies like the one Agate just signed with the Chicago Tribune to develop e-books based on Tribune content. Seibold hopes that the first six of the Tribune e-books will appear in April and May. Altogether, Seibold hopes to have 20 Agate Digital projects done by the end of April and about 50 for the year.

Agate posted the largest increase among the presses on our list this year with a two-year sales increase of 172%. The gain was sparked by its first New York Times bestseller when I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words hit the list in late 2011 and stayed there for nine weeks. Sales in its Bolden Books imprint, which is devoted to African-American authors, received a boost when Jesmyn Ward won a National Book Award for Salvage the Bones (published by Bloomsbury)—Agate had published her debut, Where the Line Bleeds, in 2008. Agate’s Surrey Books imprint—food, dining, nutrition health—has grown with the ongoing success of niche food titles (Gluten-Free Baking Classics and The Indian Slow Cooker) plus the kickoff of Agate’s new 101 series of cookbooks. The company’s ProBooks Business unit, which develops custom content for textbook publishers and for-profit education companies, also had a good year. In addition to the launch of Agate Digital, Seibold will start Midway Books this year, an imprint devoted to Midwest regional titles, with two titles set for both the spring and fall.

Expansion into a number of new categories helped Fox Chapel Publishing overcome the collapse of Borders last year. The diversification was led by the purchase of three companies—Heliconia Press, Design Originals, and Plain White Press—that added 500 titles; according to v-p of sales Paul McGahren, this “put us right in the middle of the outdoor and recreation, and craft categories.” The new titles, coupled with a broadening of its own publishing program, allowed Fox Chapel to sell into more than 200 new specialty accounts in the year. Fox Chapel also published a new line of beer and wine titles, a selection of cookbooks, and a line of DIY titles drawn from 16,000 pages of material acquired from Time Life several years ago. To reach a younger audience, Fox Chapel also developed a series of backyard farming titles, plus a book on cigar box guitars and The Art of Steampunk, one of Fox Chapel’s top-sellers for the year. Within its core woodworking segment, Fox Chapel partnered with leading magazines in the field, agreements that resulted in a number of strong-selling book titles.

Since most of Fox Chapel’s titles are in full color, the company has generated little digital revenue to date, but as the number of color devices increases, McGahren says, Fox Chapel’s goal is to have digital sales account for 10% of revenue in 18 months.

BenBella Books lost more than just a place to sell its titles when Borders closed last year; it lost an account for which it did 12–15 custom titles over two years, publisher Glenn Yeffeth says. But strong growth of its print titles through the trade as well as a significant gain in e-book sales pushed total sales up 68% in 2011 over 2009, with the trade up 41% in 2011 alone. E-book sales accounted for more than 20% of BenBella’s revenue last year.

The company’s all-time bestseller, The China Study (about nutrition), crossed the 750,000 copies sold milestone in a combination of hardcover and trade paperback in the year, and BenBella just signed author Colin Campbell to a sequel that will examine the science behind China Study.

BenBella also did well with its Smart Pop & Popular Culture line, which was led in 2011 by The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook. The Happy Herbivore Cookbook was another steady seller for BenBella last year. During the year, BenBella added staff to its marketing department, giving the company the resources to devote more promotion to all of its titles, a strategy that remains a priority for 2012.

Success with digital editions of its print books spurred Cleis Press/Viva Editions to release its first e-book exclusives last year, and two of those titles, Soaking Wet and Hot Rods, were the publisher’s top-sellers on the Apple platform. To complement its e-books, Cleis entered the digital audio market in last year’s fourth quarter, putting more than 100 titles on Audible with ACX.

Beyond the digital market, Cleis put more resources toward independent bookstores. A title the publisher promoted at the ABA’s 2011 Winter Institute, Arthur Plotnik’s Better than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives quickly sold out its first printing. Alan Kaufman’s Drunken Angel was the house’s first big hardcover memoir, and sales were boosted by Kaufman’s tour, which took him to indies on both the east and west coasts. Other indie favorites included Cleis’s first literary fiction title, Paul Russell’s novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, and Gerald Nicosia’s beat biography, One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road.

In 2012 Cleis will again emphasize the indie market. On Mother’s Day, Cleis will publish Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by mothers of transgender and gender variant children, edited by Rachel Pepper. And in September, spirituality blogger Polly Campbell comes out with Imperfect Spirituality: Create the Life You Desire from the Live You Have, from Viva Editions.

Ulysses Press publishes in a number of genres, but, says publicist Kourtney Joy, Ulysses’ success is in not being wed to specific themes within genres. “Rather, we are constantly mining the Internet to uncover new online communities and trends,” she says. “This past year we identified a number of growing subcultures.” One new market it unearthed was the “prepper” community, whose goal is to survive the next natural disaster. To meet its members’ interest in collecting resources to protect themselves and their families, Ulysses published The Prepper’s Pocket Guide and is working on follow-ups with books on prepper fitness, home defense, and survival medicine. Another active online community found by the company is baking bloggers, specifically cooks who are “reinventing” pies, cakes, and pastries. Ulysses has released two titles in the niche, Mini Pies and Crazy for Cake Pops, and will publish Muffin Tin Chef this year. Also set for this year is the company’s first title for endurances races, Obstacle Race Training.

The press accompanied its move into new areas with more online marketing efforts that included a redesigned, easier to use Web site and more promotion on Twitter and Facebook, all of which led to a significant gain in e-book sales, which accounted for nearly 25% of sales last year.

Red Wheel Weiser Conari Press’s gains came from new and old sources—a 160% increase in e-book sales and the power of Oprah Winfrey, whose choice of The Book of Awakening as one of her “Ultimate Favorite Things” in 2010 led to solid sales for the backlist title. The jump in e-book sales, notes president Michael Kerber, reflected the company’s efforts to convert all of its backlist titles for all major e-book platforms. In addition to Awakening, titles that sold well in print included The Seeker, the Search and the Sacred by Guy Finley (12,000 copies sold), Breast Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do by Greg Anderson (11,000 copies), and Follow Your Passion, Find Your Power by Bob Doyle (9,000 copies). Backlist titles that did well included Conversations with God, books 2 and 3, by Neale Donald Walsch, Introducing NLP from neuro-linguistic programming trainer Joseph O’Conner, and Learning the Tarot by Joan Bunning.

Kerber says that in 2012, Red Wheel will focus its marketing efforts on social media and collaborations with authors and online businesses along the lines of a book it released at the end of 2011, Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life’s Hard Questions by Lori Deschene, founder of Red Wheel publisher Jan Johnson signed Deschene after meeting her at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in 2010 and was struck by her online marketing savvy and content of her daily wisdom posts. The book is a collection of quotes, stories, and inspiration from Deschene and some of her 250,000 Twitter followers. Following a prelaunch online campaign and a national Twitter party launch, there is ongoing online promotion for Tiny Buddha, pushing sales to 8,000 copies in the first few months of publication.

To add to its e-book line, the company has developed multiple digital-only book collections such as Magical Creatures from the Weiser Books imprint. And the company is moving ahead with Turning Stone Press, its self-publishing service for authors.

Augmenting Berrett-Koehler Publishers’ 214% increase in digital sales in 2011 compared to 2009 was an 11.8% increase in print sales and a 5.8% gain in sub rights revenue. Higher print sales came from a strong frontlist program, including two bestsellers, and solid backlist sales, says Steve Piersanti, BK president and publisher. The company’s top three all-time bestsellers, Eat That Frog!, Leadership and Self-Deception, and Confessions of an Economic Hitman, have combined to sell over three million copies.

Piersanti cited several reasons for the growth in digital revenues: BK’s long-term investment in digital publishing—including creating a digital community-building function in 2007; bringing out all of its new publications in recent years simultaneously in multiple digital formats at the same time they were released in print; converting most of BK’s backlist to digital formats; bringing out a variety of enhanced e-books and digital apps; and establishing a network of more than 30 digital distributors around the world.

The launch of C&T Publishing’s Stash Books imprint in early spring 2010 was a key factor in driving up sales at the Concord, Calif., craft and quilting book publisher last year, says Megan Scott, publicity manager. Aimed at a younger audience than C&T’s usual customers, Stash was led in 2011 by Fresh Fabric Treats and The Practical Guide to Patchwork. The launch of Stash increased C&T’s appeal to the book trade, and sales there were up 29% after a 47% increase in 2010. The company has been producing a variety of digital products for several years, and digital revenue in 2011 rose 24%. In addition to about 300 e-books, C&T has four iPhone/Android apps and is expanding its print-on-demand sales. Its biggest initiative launched in 2011 was, an online marketplace for pattern designers to upload and sell their downloadable designs.

The sale of patterns directly to consumers is part of C&T’s overall strategy to add more nonbook items to its mix. The company’s gift line now includes postcards and notebooks, journals, calendars, and bags.

E-book sales jumped 79% at Chelsea Green Publishing last year and 473% since 2009, accounting for 6% of net revenue in 2011. The increase was due in part to Chelsea Green converting all of its backlist to EPub last year, says president and publisher Margo Baldwin. She expects digital sales to continue to grow at a solid clip in 2012 as the company makes its titles available on the Nook and Kobo devices as well as various library platforms. Chelsea is also experimenting with enhanced e-books for its how-to titles and has been investing in a lot of video to incorporate into those titles, says Baldwin.

The company has been a pioneer in consignment/branded sales, with overall sales to participating independent booksellers up about 300% compared to before the program started. Chelsea is also focused on growing its direct-to-consumer sales, especially on its Web site, and over the past two years the company’s e-mail list has grown by 122% and direct sales by 52%.

Aside from new formats and sales channels, Baldwin notes that Chelsea Green upped its title count by six last year and had a stronger list. “Basically, we’re trying to focus on the content and not get too distracted by all the changes in the industry and latest technology,” says Baldwin.