Higher e-book sales, expansion into new markets, and leveraging the wild popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey were some of the ways the publishers that made this year’s list of PW’s fast-growing independent publishers prospered in 2012.

Back-to-back years of solid gains gave Soho Press a 96% sales increase last year, compared to 2010. The company’s marketing and publicity manager Meredith Barnes attributed the strong performance to gains across the Soho list, which now ranges from crime titles to literary fiction. The press did have one New York Times bestseller with The Boy in the Suitcase, and 2012 was a breakout year for Stuart Neville and the company’s longtime star, Cara Black. Digital publishing was a big part of Soho’s success over the last two years, and e-books accounted for 55% of total sales in 2012, with the format representing 43% of sales for its literary titles and 67% of Soho Crime. The company also put more resources behind marketing and publicity, which was another factor in driving the increased sales. Soho upped its budget for promotion by 47% since January 2011 and added two new employees to the marketing and publicity team, Barnes explains. In addition to ad buys in traditional media, Soho put more focus on social media, including Twitter and Facebook. Another key to the company’s growth was the January 2011 move to Random House Publisher Services for distribution, a switch that put Soho titles into new markets, especially overseas. Soho’s title count, which rose from 56 in 2010 to 64 last year, will grow by 12 in 2013 with the launch of Soho Teen, the company’s young adult imprint, which released its first title in January.

Other Press’s 95% increase in sales between 2010 and 2012 was largely due to growth last year, when revenue jumped 69%. Publicist Sarah Reidy says Other benefited from several strong sellers and higher e-book sales. Among its top titles were How to Live by Sarah Bakewell, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography; Man Booker finalist The Glass Room by Simon Mawer; and The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker. Total e-book sales increased to the point where they accounted for more than 40% of the house’s sales in 2012. The growth in e-books also helped Other’s bottom line, since e-book sales are more profitable than print book sales, Reidy notes. The creation of a fulltime, in-house publicity department that includes a person dedicated to online publicity and marketing helped drive growth in both print and digital sales. And while e-books spurred growth last year, Other remains committed to selling print books through bricks-and-mortar bookstores with a focus on independents that the house supports by participation in the ABA Winter Institute, as well as through holiday catalogues and testing different sales incentives.

BenBella Books had its best year ever in 2012 due to a combination of more titles, bigger projects, and higher e-book sales. The company’s Lindsay Marshall notes that its biggest bestsellers were all published over the last three years and were a mix of business and pop culture titles. In its business books category, Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life and Custom Nation: Why Customization is the Future and How to Profit from It were among the top sellers, while Presumed Guilty: Casey Anthony, the Inside Story, and What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter, and Me by Rielle Hunter led the way in its popular culture line. In addition to producing its print titles as e-books, BenBella also created some e-book-only projects, including The Brain in Your Kitchen by David DiSalvo and The Twelve by William Gladstone. It also paid more attention to its growing backlist and focused on putting resources behind titles that have the greatest sales potential. In 2013, BenBella will be expanding its cookbook offerings, releasing such titles as Food over Medicine, The China Study Cookbook, and Happy Herbivore Light & Fit.

Smithsonian Books went through a number of incarnations before it settled in as the trade book arm of the Smithsonian Institution in 2010. That was the year the Smithsonian and HarperCollins parted ways and the institution decided to return its trade efforts to an in-house program. Carolyn Gleason, who served in a number of roles in past Smithsonian Books ventures, has served as director since 2010 and says that sales for the new house have been better than expected. The press is publishing 12 titles a year in the areas where the Smithsonian has its greatest expertise, such as science, technology, and history. About half of its new titles are drawn from authors who have some connection with the institution, while the other half come from outside of the Smithsonian’s ranks. The lists continue to have a large share of illustrated books. Recent strong titles include Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut Journey’s to the Moon, How the States Got Their Shapes Too: The People Behind the Borderlines, and the Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition.

Smithsonian Books has about a 300-title backlist that includes Joy Hakim’s Story of Science series, which Gleason says is a steady seller. The press is also in the process of digitizing its backlist, though it is being cautious in moving illustrated titles to digital until there is more demand, Gleason says. Random House Publisher Services has been Smithsonian Books’ distributor since the press moved backed in-house. “They’re a great match,” Gleason says, noting that RHPS not only reaches the traditional trade accounts “but also knows how to sell illustrated books.” Now that Smithsonian Books is firmly inside the Smithsonian Institution, Gleason is optimistic about the publisher’s future. “There is so much we can do with the brand,” she says.

Volume has always been important at the History Press, the Charleston, S.C., publisher that specializes in local titles. The History Press released 320 titles last year and has plans to publish 400 new books in 2013, a number that would bring its total titles in print to 2,000. Chief Operating Officer Brittain Phillips credits three main reasons for the company’s growth over the last three years: adding and revising titles in three of its most successful series; expanding its geographic footprint; and producing more e-books.

Among the most popular titles in its American Palate series were Baltimore Beer and Arkansas Pie, and Phillips has high expectations for Austin Food Blogger Alliance Cookbook, The Abalone King of Monterey, and New York Street Food. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the History Press added 50 titles on battles and campaigns from the period to its Civil War Sesquicentennial series, including The Battle of Brandy Station and Civil War Northern Virginia 1861. Its Disaster line had success with Disaster off Martha’s Vineyard and Fire Strikes the Chicago Stock Yards. To help sell the titles, the History Press has a team of house reps that promote the books not just to the traditional book trade but to a wide variety of local shops ranging from diners to bait shops to churches. Putting more emphasis on digital led to a 810% increase in e-book sales in 2012, Phillips reports.

Chelsea Green had a “banner year” in 2012, says publisher and president Margo Baldwin. The company saw growth in both e-books and print books, with print sales up 34% compared to 2010, while e-book sales now account for about 6.5% of revenue. Total sales last year were boosted by Chelsea Green’s fourth New York Times bestseller, The Art of Fermentation, which has sold almost 40,000 copies since its release last April. To reach the bricks-and-mortar market, Chelsea Green went back to using commission reps for independent bookstores, and the press continued to expand its branded/consignment program in key indie stores as well. Cheslea Green also saw significant growth in specialty sales, which Baldwin attributed in part to upping the number of author events to 774 in 2012, from 651 the previous year, a move that lifted direct sales from these events by 28%. Overall, direct sales rose 72% last year due to a growing e-mail newsletter list and increased sales from its Web site. Direct sales accounted for 3% of total sales in 2012, but Baldwin believes the company could double or even triple that over the next few years.

Chelsea Green’s digital sales rose 177% compared to 2010, but Baldwin explains that she is not willing to sacrifice margins to boost volume. “We do not discount our e-books, leaving that to the vendors to do and, for that reason, we are not up on the iBookstore,” Baldwin says. The publisher has invested in producing a few how-to videos, and while sales are modest, Baldwin hopes to use some of the videos in enhanced e-books “once we find the right platform.”

Ulysses Press followed up big gains in 2011 with a solid 2012, once again led by its disaster-preparedness titles and cookbooks. Top books in the preparedness area last year were The Prepper’s Pocket Guide, Bug Out, and Prepper’s Home Defense; in 2013, titles set for release include The Prepper’s Cookbook, When Help is Not On the Way, The Nautical Prepper, and Meals in a Jar, which the press’ s Kourtney Joy says the company expects to appeal to a wider audience than just preppers. Cooking titles were led by “green smoothies,” with The Green Smoothie Bible and The Green Smoothies Diet topping Ulysses’s sales list. Joy says the company expects the green smoothies trend to continue in 2013, and it will publish Green Smoothies for Every Season this year. One new goal for Ulysses in 2012 was to expand sales to outlets other than bookstores. To meet the objective, Ulysses adopted two approaches: publishing books with paper-over-board covers (Taste of Tremé) and publishing book material in coupon and card formats (The Sex Position Deck and Dirty Spanish Flash Cards). Similar projects are planned for 2013, including doodle postcards, icebreaker cards, and humor sticker books. The final component in 2012’s growth was e-books, with sales up 33%.

Steady growth in both 2011 and 2012 led to a 16% gain since 2010 at Wisdom Publications, which specializes in publishing Buddhist works, ranging from contemporary essays to new translations of ancient texts. Marketing and promotions manager Lydia Anderson attributes the sales gains to the company’s popular Teachings of the Buddha and Library of Tibetan Classics series, a strong backlist that continues to sell year after year, and a new effort in e-book publishing. In 2011 Wisdom began working to add backlist titles to its digital catalogue, and the response, Anderson says, “has been extremely positive. We have found that e-books, especially of our larger volumes, are very popular with readers who want to carry the Buddha’s teachings with them, but not in a 1,000-plus-page book. Readers are buying both types: the hardcover for home, and the e-book for travel.”

Sasquatch Books started off 2012 on the right foot with the publication of Grow, Cook, Eat: A Food Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, which was a hit in special market accounts such as Williams Sonoma and Anthropoligie and finished the year selling over 21,000 copies. Overall, the press’s sales to special markets rose 28% last year, due mainly to Sasquatch’s move to Random House Publisher Services in January 2012, according to v-p and associate publisher Sarah Hanson. The company also saw gains in international and institutional markets after its move to RHPS. Sales in 2012 also benefited from the release of the 40th edition of Sasquatch’s all-time bestselling title, The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery, which has sold a total of over 750,000 copies. Other notable titles in 2102 included Molly Moons’ Homemade Ice Cream, Will Puberty Last My Whole Life?, and The Gardens of Democracy. Although e-book sales rose 71% last year they still accounted for just about 4% of the house’s sales. “Because Sasquatch Books has focused its list on visual and gift categories like cookbooks, gardening books, and children’s books, our physical book sales volume far outpaces our e-book volume,” explains Hanson. The company is currently releasing all new titles simultaneously in physical and e-book formats, except for children’s books, which Sasquatch is selectively publishing as e-books.

After an experiment doing hardcover editions of memoirs and biographies resulted in a flood of returns early in 2012, putting Cleis Press 23% behind 2011 sales through April, the company turned to its backlist to take advantage of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. As titles such as Yes Sir; Please, Sir; Hurts So Good; and Carrie’s Story: An S/M Novel began to find an audience, Cleis also turned up the heat on some other backlist titles that found traction in outlets outside of bookstores, reports associate publisher Brenda Knight. The company sold 10,000 copies (nonreturnable) of The Frugal Foodie to Target. Other Viva Editions imprint “evergreens” that were picked up in special markets and gift shops included The Inspired Life and Lemons and Lavender. Cleis’s four-color books on friendship, such as Girlfriends Are Lifesavers and Girlfriends Forever, are top sellers for Femail Creations, and last year the Web site bought 5,000 copies of the former, and Common Grounds, a gift distributor, bought 1,000 copies of the book.

Cleis’s aggressive marketing pitch to its nonreturnable accounts yielded some surprising sales, Knight says, pointing to a 600-copy buy by the U.S. Department of Defense of Apocalypse Not, in preparation for the end of the world on December 21. And as the year went on, Cleis continued to find ways to ride the Grey-inspired erotica wave, launching an e-original called 50 Shades of Kink: An Introduction to BDSM by Tristan Taormino, whose print book, The Ultimate Guide to Kink, was a hot seller last year. The success of the 50 Shades of Kink e-book also led to increase interest in other Cleis E-Treats: Literary Temptations titles, including Cowboy Lust and Change Your Life, which both sold well. Audiobooks also helped Cleis’s sales in 2012, led by the company’s backlist, which includes Frenzy: 60 Stories of Sudden Sex, another erotica-themed book that attracted renewed interested in the wake of Fifty Shades. In addition, Cleis sold rights to its Insatiable line of romance and erotic audiobooks to AudioGo.