Though this year’s list of fast-growing independent houses counts only seven publishers, entrepreneurs looking to crack into publishing should not be too discouraged. The two fastest-growing publishers on the list are relatively new, proving that even in an era when publishing models are in flux, people with good ideas and the ability to execute them can make a mark on the industry.
After being in publishing for more than 20 years working for such publishers as Random House, Black Dog & Leventhal, and Quarto Publishing, Will Kiester struck out on his own in 2013, and so far the results have been very encouraging. His new company, Page Street Publishing, released 13 titles in its first year, but upped its output to 34 last year, helping drive a 289% increase in revenue since Page Street’s launch.
The company has built a backlist of 70 titles over the past three years, with cookbooks representing 70% of its list. “We consider ourselves a general lifestyle publisher and publish into health, parenting, crafts, popular science, and other categories when we find talented authors with something important and valuable to say,” Kiester says.
Page Street’s main line is composed of a 192-page trade paperback series with titles priced at around $20 each. The books each feature either 100 recipes and 60 photos or 80 recipes and 80 photos. The company also has a small $25 hardcover series and $28 hardcover series, but the paperbacks sell the best, Kiester says.
In addition to higher title output, Page Street’s growth has been driven by more sales per title, plus a backlist that has become a key to the company’s early success. “We spend a lot of money on the books—quality paper and printing—and have had a higher and longer sales expectation based on that strategy,” Kiester says. And though marketing is important, he notes that his philosophy in launching Page Street was to start with “talent, skill, passion, and overall quality editorial.”
Page Street’s barbecue series has done well since its launch, led by Secrets to Smoking on a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker and Smoke It like a Pro on the Big Green Egg. The New Mediterranean Table by Sameh Waid—whom Kiester calls a “brilliant recipe creator” and who owns two well-reviewed Minneapolis restaurants—has been a solid seller, helped by a front-page mention in the New York Times food section, Kiester says. Page Street’s paleo cooking list has also sold well, as has its vegan line.
Sales in Page Street’s children’s list were led by activity books, including 101 Kids Activities from the popular Kids Activities Blog, and a second book from the blog is set for 2016. More smoker books are also planned for this year, as well as the house’s first adult coloring books: Island Escapes and Rainforest Escapes by Jade Gedeon, a Trinidadian artist. Kiester reports the titles “are getting the biggest orders we have had to date.”
In 2015, Page Street put a marketing firm on retainer to help promote its titles, rather than depending on freelancers. It is distributed by Macmillan in the U.S. and sales in Canada are through the Canadian Manda Group, with fulfillment by PGC.
Berkeley, Calif.–based Callisto Media, which was the fastest-growing publisher on PW’s list last year, continues to show strong growth, with sales rising 69% in 2015 over 2014. According to Callisto, the growth was fueled by a larger number of titles, higher revenue per title, and broader distribution. Sales of print books led the way, up 300% over 2014.
To accommodate growth, the number of employees tripled between 2013 and 2015, with the company adding the most new employees in sales, finance, marketing, and data. Callisto had its first full year of operation in 2012, using a model in which the publisher analyzes broad data to identify areas of consumer interest, and then works with authors to create titles. Its strongest categories include cookbooks, food and wine, alternative medicine, reference, and health and diet. In late 2015, the publisher also began making progress in categories such as self-help, fitness, and business, and it plans to continue on that path in 2016.
Also as part of its expansion effort, Callisto is ramping up its expansion of retail distribution and marketing. Distributed by Ingram Publisher Services, the publisher says that while its most important accounts include Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other chains, independent bookstores as well as select mass market and warehouse club accounts are becoming a bigger part of the sales mix.
Graywolf Press, the 42-year-old Minneapolis publisher of literary fiction, nonfiction, and essays, hit PW’s fast-growing list this year with a 144% sales increase between 2013 and 2015; this overall growth included a 48% gain last year over 2014.
While Graywolf’s success can be attributed in part to savvy marketing of a list filled with prize-winning titles, it has also benefited greatly from being at the forefront of the trend in creative nonfiction and lyric essays, which have gained traction in the marketplace in recent years. The essay collections Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015) and On Immunity by Eula Biss (2014) have both sold well, but Graywolf’s top-selling title in 2015 was Citizen by Claudia Rankine, a collection of poems, essays, and images (including photography and artwork) examining racism. This release has sold 106,000 copies in paper, and another 10,000 in e-books since its publication in 2014. In addition to receiving glowing reviews, Citizen was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2014 and has won several other awards and honors. It has been adopted for many campus-wide reading programs at colleges.
Though Graywolf’s poetry and essays are strong, fiction has lifted its sales too. Norwegian novelist Per Petterson has gained a cult following since Graywolf published Out Stealing Horses in 2007, and The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth’s 2015 debut novel, has sold 13,000 in paper and another 3,000 in e-books.
Graywolf’s success can also be attributed to its backlist, which, publisher Fiona McCrae says, is “doing better than ever.” Backlist titles are often adopted for academic courses. For Graywolf, Life on Mars (2012),Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry collection, and Incarnadine (2013), Mary Szybist’s National Book Award–winning poetry collection, continue to sell well.
Graywolf’s commitment to its authors over the course of their careers is paying off as well. Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) has enjoyed a resurgence since Citizen was released, with the former selling 20,000 titles.
Expect more creative nonfiction and lyric essays among Graywolf’s 30 frontlist releases this year, including Nelson’s The Red Parts, 2015 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize–winner Angela Palm’s Riverine, and Belle Boggs’s Art of Waiting.
As Seattle independent publisher Sasquatch Books enters 2016—its 30th year—the company points to breakout hits such as The 52 Lists Project and A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus as keys to its recent success. Known for its list of nonfiction books, Northwest regional titles, and guidebook series, Sasquatch has branched out into a variety of subjects, including cooking, lifestyle, and children’s books. It launched its children’s imprint, Little Bigfoot, in 2014 and has already built a list of about 60 titles. Little Bigfoot sales grew 13% in 2015, driven by backlist sales, while Little Kunoichi, the Ninja Girl was a strong frontlist seller.
Part of Sasquatch’s success over the past three years has been due to moving to Penguin Random House Publisher Services in 2012 for sales and distribution. Sarah Hanson, president and COO of Sasquatch, says the partnership “has allowed us to put more focus on better publishing and more dynamic marketing.” She adds, “As a regional publisher, our mission is to find the most talented voices and artists from the Pacific Northwest and bring their books to a national audience.”
Sasquatch’s success in 2015 resulted in promotions for members of its leadership team: publisher Gary Luke was named chairman and CEO, Hanson was promoted from director of sales and marketing to president and COO and joined the Sasquatch board, and Dodie Arney was named v-p and CFO.
New York–based Morgan James Publishing’s growth was led by sales in its core category, business books. Frontlist titles DotCom Secrets, Entrepreneur’s Solution, Shareology, and Common Thread of Overcoming Adversity and Living Your Dreams all sold well in trade paperback, says David Hancock, president of the company, while a number of backlist business titles continued to be popular. Morgan James, which opened a number new imprints in recent years, did not start any additional imprints in 2015, but its more recent imprints did have some solid sellers last year. Masked Saint was Morgan James’s top fiction seller, while Dance with Jesus led its faith division. Mermaids on Mars, which did well in a number of nontraditional outlets such as Pottery Barn, was the bestseller in the children’s division.
E-book sales were down a bit in the year, particularly in nonfiction, but a rise in trade paperback sales more than offset the decline, Hancock says. E-books accounted for about 15% of the publisher’s nonfiction sales last year, down from 25% in 2014. E-books sales of fiction rose slightly and accounted for 50% of fiction sales.
Morgan James has continually experimented with different ways to reach the market, some of which have worked, while others have been a disappointment. The publisher scaled back its audio business last year because of weak sales, but its speakers group had a small profit, Hancock says.
Morgan James was an early user of Aerbooks’ direct-to-consumer platform, and though its relationship has brought it attention from agents and authors, sales have been slow. Hancock is hopeful that following the purchase of Aerbooks by Ingram, sales will pick up. The publisher’s deal with Shelfie to combine e-book and print purchases has worked better, Hancock says. “Name and email captures continued to rise,” he notes. The authors and Morgan James are using those names to build relationships with readers.
Morgan James has always specialized in publishing entrepreneurial authors, offering small advances and higher royalties, and having authors commit to buying a certain number of books at an author rate. Though that has worked well, Hancock says the company spent six months working with the Authors Guild to make its author agreements more “author friendly,” with greater transparency.
Morgan James expanded its geographic footprint last year. It opened a satellite office in Nashville, and Hancock hopes to establish a London office this year.
Agate Publishing returned to the PW fast-growing list after a four-year absence, with revenue up 14% in 2015 compared to 2013. Doug Seibold, Agate president and publisher, says a big factor in the revenue gain was a steady increase in the publisher’s title output, which rose to 24 in 2015, from 20 on 2013. Seibold sees title output continuing to rise through 2017, when 28 books are set for publication. The 2017 publication schedule includes the debut of Denene Millner Books, Agate’s recently announced children’s book line. The line is part of the publisher’s Bolden Book imprint, which publishes fiction and nonfiction by African-American writers and marks Agate’s first foray into children’s literature. “We remain committed to creating opportunity for African-American writers, which I continue to feel are perennially overlooked by big publishing,” Agate says.
Agate’s biggest seller in 2015 was Grant Park by Leonard Pitts Jr., who has now published five books with the house. Agate will bring out Grant Park in trade paperback later this year.
Like Morgan James, Agate’s experimentation with different businesses has had some misses, but it also had one big hit: Agate Development. The division, originally called ProBooks, provides content-development services for a range of clients such as textbook publishers, for-profit education companies, traditional schools, corporations, and nonprofits. Agate Development accounted for over half of the publisher’s business in 2015. “It’s been a real engine of growth for us,” Seibold says.
Midway Books, an imprint launched in 2012 to focus on Midwest regional topics, has grown, Seibold said, but Agate Digital, which was established to do standalone e-books, has not fared as well. Though Agate has released scores of e-book-only titles, “we haven’t found a big readership for them,” Seibold says. The venture did not require a lot of capital, he explains, and the Chicago Tribune, one of the companies it worked with to develop titles, has proven to be a great partner. “We’ve published a number of print books with the Tribune that originally came out in e-book first, and for the most part the print titles have done better,” Seibold says.
Seibold is excited about prospects for 2016. In addition to the paperback edition of Grant Park, Agate will release its own paperback edition of Freshwater Road, a novel about the civil rights movement, which Agate published in hardcover, and for which the company sold paperback rights to Pocket Books. That license expired, and Agate’s paperback is due in April. Anupy Singla is Agate’s most successful cookbook author, and a paperback reprint of Singla’s Indian for Everyone will come out in the fall.
Oakland, Calif.–based publisher Berrett-Koehler had a 11% increase in total revenue from 2013 to 2015, with almost all of that growth occurring in 2015. Digital sales increased 18.8% between 2013 and 2015, and B-K’s digital sales made up 20% of its total revenues. This increase in digital is due in part to B-K’s expansion from 50 digital distributors around the world in 2013 to 75 in 2015, and the launch of an audio program in which all new B-K titles are published simultaneously in digital audio as well as physical audio. Audio sales exceeded expectations in 2015, and good gains are expected this year as well, according to Katie Sheehan, B-K’s senior communications manager.
Reasons for revenue growth in 2015 include a 12.8% increase in print sales, due to an increase in title output and strong sales from a number of books, including two by Richard Leider: The Power of Purpose and Work Reimagined, which were promoted through AARP marketing programs. Leider’s work was also featured in a PBS special titled The Power of Purpose with Richard Leider, which aired from Nov. 28 to Dec. 13, 2015, in 115 cities.
In addition to successes by newer books, B-K’s two biggest-selling backlist titles—Leadership and Self-Deception, originally published in 2000, and Eat That Frog!, originally published in 2001—both saw big sales in 2015 because of new marketing efforts by the authors, Sheehan says.
B-K sales, and profits, were given a boost by a substantial decline in returns from Barnes & Noble, which cleared out old B-K inventory in 2014. Strong promotional efforts at B&N, and a lot of work by B-K’s Ingram Publisher Services sales rep for B&N, led to more accurate buy-in numbers that cut returns, Sheehan explains.
B-K’s two biggest books for 2016 are expected to be The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins, which is off to a strong start, and The Outward Mindset by the Arbinger Institute.
Fast-Growing Independent Publishers
|Publisher||Sales Growth |
2015 v. 2013
|Employees 2013||Employees 2015||Titles 2013||Titles 2015||Location|
|Page Street Publishing||289%||7||7||13||34||Salem, Mass.|
|Callisto Media||230%||11||33||149||271||Berkeley, Calif.|
|Graywolf Press||144%||12||12||50||61||Minneapolis, Minn.|
|Morgan James Publishing||23%||36||38||168||141||New York City|
|Agate Publishing||14%||20||17||20||24||Evanston, Ill.|
|Berrett-Koehler Publishers||11%||28||27||39||45||Oakland, Calif.|