It is not uncommon for new companies to top PW’s list of fast-growing independent publishers, and that is the case this year. (A publisher is eligible for inclusion in the list if its net sales were between $2 million and $10 million in 2018.) Mango Publishing was started in 2014 by Chris McKenney, whose background includes serving as chief operating officer of PGW and who was also the cofounder of Mobifusion, a digital startup seeking to make content compatible across different mobile platforms. In forming Mango, McKenney assembled a team that includes such publishing veterans as Michelle Lewy, who worked with McKenney at Mobifusion, and Brenda Knight, former publisher of Cleis Press, as well as newcomers to the industry. Some of Mango’s 23 employees work at the company’s Miami headquarters, while others work remotely, including several who live outside the U.S.
From the outset, McKenney structured Mango to publish a diverse list. “Our secret sauce is our diversity—new voices, different backgrounds, and exceptional talents all publishing for a rapidly growing and diverse audience of readers,” McKenney says. That mix of staff has led to an eclectic list in subjects that includes cooking, crafts, feminism, health, LGBTQ issues, self-help, spirituality, and mindfulness, as well as fiction, poetry, and children’s and young adult books.
Knight, who is editorial director, says her criteria for building a list is simple: “Acquiring distinctive books we can sell. Period.”
To help organize its wide-ranging list, Mango has created several imprints, including Books & Books Press, Dreams-on-Paper-Entertainment (DOPE), FranklinCovey, and the Tiny Press (founded by author Alexandra Franzen). Mitchell Kaplan, founder of the independent bookstore chain Books & Books, is an acquiring editor for the Books & Books imprint, which had success within its first year with Patrick Alexander’s The Book Lover’s Guide to Wine and the memoir A Dedicated Life by David Lawrence Jr., editor and former publisher of the Miami Herald. Another important book for Mango last year was Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers by Sarah Zeff Geber, which was named one of the best books of 2018 by the Wall Street Journal.
To help drive sales, Mango has an analytics team looking for patterns relating to book discoverability. The company also has two statisticians on staff who focus on understanding online book-buying behavior. Mango has grown rapidly since its launch and has no intention of slowing down. It plans to publish 150 titles in 2019—books on space exploration, spirituality, creativity, feminism, and the civil rights movement, as well as mystery anthologies, self-help titles, and YA histories geared toward children of color.
Similar to many bigger publishers, Dallas-based Brown Books did well in 2018 with some political books, led by Hold Texas, Hold the Nation: Victory or Death by Allen B. West, a former U.S. congressman and Iraq War veteran. Another political strong seller was Licensed to Lie by Sidney Powell, which hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, says Tom Reale, who added the title of president to his COO role during the year. Staying in nonfiction, Reale says, from Brown’s Christian list, The Right Fight: How to Live a Loving Life by John Kennedy Vaughan “far outstripped expectations as a drop-in fall title.” Another way Brown Books, which is a hybrid publisher, took advantage of industry trends last year was by moving into the audiobook market, producing some titles in-house and licensing others.
Brown also expanded its children’s list last year, moving further into the classroom and school library markets. Leading the way here, Reale says, were the Finding My Way readers and Lucas the Lion Loves the Tiny Talker by Brittani and Ryan Rollen, which moved the publisher into the special needs and inclusive education markets. Young adult remained an important area for Brown, as Steve Copling followed up on the Sage Alexander series with Sage Alexander and the Blood of Seth and veteran YA author Devri Walls made her print debut with Venators: Magic Unleashed.
Higher foreign subrights income contributed to the overall sales gain at Brown last year as well, Reale says. For instance, he notes, the company sold rights to The 10 Pillars of Wealth: Mindsets of the World’s Richest People by Alex Becker to publishers in China, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, South Korea, and Vietnam. Further expansion into international markets is being implemented this year with an English export agreement covering 32 countries across the Asia Pacific region, Europe, and South America.
Founded in 2012 by Christopher Robbins, Familius, which is based in Sanger, Calif., has seen accelerating sales in recent years as it begins to scale its publishing program. Last year was the company’s best year to date, with revenue up 48% over 2017. Familius continues to focus on publishing regional and interactive children’s books, as well as family-oriented adult nonfiction in the categories of parenting, relationships, self-help, education, and cooking.
In 2018, Familius had strong growth domestically and internationally in its adult and children’s programs. In particular, Robbins, who is also the owner of American West Books, attributes the rapid gains to aggressive distribution in the gift and chains channels. “It’s a product-driven business,” he notes. “Fortunately, our growing program found additional traction, and we were well positioned to take advantage of some current trends in multiple markets.”
Familius’s top-selling title last year was the PW bestseller Made for Me by Zack Bush and Gregorio De Lauretis. But Robbins says the company’s sales were spread across its 300-plus titles, including Let Me Tell You My Story, a book that gives voice to the current global refugee crisis, which Robbins says is the most important work he’s ever published.
Page Street Publishing saw steady—and rapid—growth between 2016 and 2018, with new titles jumping from 50 in 2016 to 89 last year. Publisher and founder Will Kiester attributes the growth to an increase in sales per title, as well as low return rates, which enabled the Salem, Mass.–based company to invest in new editors and titles.
Cookbooks was Page Street’s first major category, and though sales in that area rose about 10% last year, the big sales drivers were crafts, YA, and children’s picture books. Page Street has a young staff, and Kiester says its new editors have created “standout books” from their personal experience, such as Hand Lettering for Relaxation by Amy Latta and Seamless Knit Sweaters in Two Weeks by Marie Greene.
Page Street had nearly 300 titles on its backlist at the end of 2018, and backlist accounted for 49% of its sales last year. In the last week of 2018, Page Street’s gross sales for the year crossed a milestone, topping $10 million, with the growth aided by expanded business in the mass merchandiser channel and “a surge of sales growth in Canada,” Kiester says.
Another key to Page Street’s success has been its location near Boston, which allows it to recruit from the city’s many publishing programs. Kiester is confident that Page Street’s investment in new talent will continue to bear fruit in 2019, and he is projecting revenue to grow by more than 30% this year. Among the drivers will be the publisher’s children’s picture book list, which will have 19 titles this year.
Kiester also expects the YA list to hit its stride in 2019, after earning critical praise but slow sales in its first year. “The program has stuck to its guns, kept producing original story lines, and engaging characters with surprising and satisfying transformative personality development,” he says. Page Street has been rewarded with its first YA strong seller, Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer, which is now in its third printing.
Another promising YA title is An Affair of Poisons by Addie Thorley, which Kiester says is getting a lot of prepub attention, including from the Discover program at B&N. “We aren’t looking for bestsellers, but rather strong titles from debut authors we can invest in and that earn an honest living,” Kiester says.
Jump!, founded seven years ago, has obviously found its niche: this is the second year in a row that the Minneapolis-based children’s publisher has landed on PW’s annual listing of fast-growing indie publishers. Launched in 2012 by Gabe Kaufman to publish hardcover nonfiction books for emerging and reluctant readers, with reinforced bindings to accommodate the library market, Jump has seen its sales explode with 70% sales growth since it expanded into the educational market in 2016. For the past three years, the company has published books in paper as well for classroom usage—pre-K through third grade, although the books are appropriate for high-interest, low-level fifth graders.
Jump’s Tadpole Books imprint targets beginning readers, and Bullfrog Books focuses on high-interest, low-level readers. The company increased its output from 110 titles in 2016 to 125 in 2017 and 187 titles in 2018. It has also doubled in size, from five employees in 2016 to 10 in 2018.
Kaufman notes that Jump has added social studies titles to its third imprint, Pogo, which publishes books for early fluent readers; it previously focused solely on STEM topics (Pogo STEM). Pogo Social Studies titles emphasizing civic engagement played a major role in the company’s continuing growth this past year. “It’s a definite hot topic in these times,” Kaufman notes. “It’s in such great demand by educators, especially those teaching second and third graders.”
Pogo’s five-volume Being an Active Citizen series sold 2,500 sets last year, while Building Character, its eight-volume series under the Bulldog Books imprint, sold 3,000 sets.
Jump continues to expand its reach into the school market: Kaufman says that the company will launch a fourth imprint in January 2020: Blue Owl Books, which will focus on social and emotional learning for elementary school students.
Barefoot Books in Cambridge, Mass., had phenomenal growth between 2016 and 2018: revenue jumped by nearly 45% after the company almost doubled its output from 16 frontlist titles and reissues in 2016 to 31 last year. Domestic sales (including the trade, gift, and educational markets) were up 25% in the period, while international sales rose 50%, and the company is seeing a triple-digit increase in subrights revenue.
Elaine Stone, Barefoot’s product marketing and publicity manager, notes that a 72% increase in frontlist titles (currently 20–25 releases each year) fueled the growth, as did company initiatives such as an aggressive outreach into new foreign markets, notably Asia. Barefoot is also seeing results pertaining to an aggressive campaign to revitalize its engagement with its core market—librarians, booksellers, and consumers. Barefoot’s Ambassadors program encourages direct sales to entrepreneurs, in person and online.
Approximately 65% of Barefoot’s business comes from the trade, and the remaining 35% comes from the web and from ambassador direct sellers. Barefoot reports that trade sales growth in North America and the U.K. especially has been driven by two activity decks: Mindful Kids, with 100,000 sold, and Yoga Pretzels, with 50,000 sold. Barefoot’s third deck, Global Kids, will be released in September.
Serendipity and an emphasis on a multicultural list has also been a major factor in Barefoot’s success. Last year’s La Frontera: El viaje con papá/My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills, Alfredo Alva, and Claudia Navarro, an immigration tale inspired by the true story of a boy and his father making their way by foot from Mexico to the U.S., touched on a hot-button issue and, Stone says, brought attention to Barefoot’s “diverse and inclusive backlist,” which resulted in an upswing in sales across the board. Though Barefoot declined to provide sales figures, it disclosed that La Frontera is in its fourth print run.
Charlesbridge Publishing in Watertown, Mass., is celebrating its 30th year of publishing primarily nonfiction children’s and young adult titles, though its publisher, Mary Ann Sabia, notes that the company has expanded its fiction offerings in recent years. In 2018, Charlesbridge had “the best frontlist sales in the history of the company,” she says, adding that trade book net sales were up 15% over 2017.
Explaining that “a lot of our books fit holes in the market, while others are highly topical,” Sabia attributes the company’s 43% growth in revenue between 2016 and 2018 to an increase in sales across the board: chains and indies, the school and library market, the gift and toy market. E-book sales, she notes, “are strong and continue to grow,” while a relatively new revenue stream, sales to subscription box vendors, spiked this past year.
Notable successes among the press’s 49 frontlist releases in 2018 are such bestsellers as We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, which was just named a Robert F. Sibert Award Honor book by the ALA; Like Vanessa by Tami Charles, a winter/spring 2018 Indies Introduce title; and the latest entries in Ruth Spiro’s Baby Loves Science series of board books, Baby Loves Coding and Baby Loves Structural Engineering. But, as always with Charlesbridge, it’s not just about frontlist: the company’s robust backlist is also pumping up sales. The nine titles in the Lola Reads series, of which five are available in Spanish as well as English, continue to drive sales. Anticipation is high for Lola Goes to School (June) by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw, as the company hopes to replicate the success of such bestsellers as 2000’s First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Judy Love, sales of which were up 22% in 2018 over 2017; Beaks! by Sneed B. Collard III, illustrated by Robin Brickman, a 2002 picture book illustrating the importance of beaks to birds; and Global Babies by the Global Fund for Children, a 2007 board book celebrating the diversity of the world’s population through photos of babies from 16 different countries.
Evanston, Ill.–based Agate Publishing had a strong 2018, with sales up 32% over 2017. Founder and publisher Doug Seibold attributes the solid year to the success of a children’s book it published in late 2017: Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James. Part of the Denene Millner Books children’s imprint, the title will soon have 115,000 copies in print. In early 2019, Denene Millner took her imprint to Simon & Schuster, but the five-book backlist remains at Agate. There has been some discussion about selling the backlist to S&S, but no deal has been reached as yet.
Seibold says there are no hard feelings about Millner’s departure. “We set up the imprint in such a way that it would be easy for Denene to leave if she wished,” he explains.
Though Crown was a major driver of 2018 sales, Agate had other books that contributed to the gain. Seibold continues to seek out titles that are typically overlooked by larger publishers. He points to two in the cooking area that did well last year: The New Fillipino Kitchen by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri, now in its second printing, and Craft Coffee by Jessica Easto and Andrea Willhoff, which has had four printings.
In 2011, Seibold started the In His Own Words series with a book that contains quotes from Steve Jobs, and, since that time, the line has proved to be a steady seller. Last year, Agate released separate In His Own Words books using quotes from Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, and Seibold says he is considering broadening the line beyond successful businesspeople.
Seibold was an early proponent of publishing a diverse list, a belief that led to the creation of the Bolden Books imprint, which focuses on African-American writers. He says that the line continues to sell but that, as larger publishers have taken a greater interest in books from people of color, he is not seeing the same influx of projects he had in the past.
Agate’s strong sales gain resulted in 2018 being one of the publisher’s most profitable years to date. Rather than using the proceeds to push for fast expansion, Seibold is using them to bide his time and think about the future. “You have to be disciplined,” he says. “I won’t compete for pricey projects. We will be doing fewer projects in 2019.” He adds that he will analyze Agate’s businesses in an attempt to find the sweet spot where it has the best chance to be consistently profitable.
In 2018, founder Steve Piersanti’s last full year as CEO and publisher of Oakland, Calif.–based Berrett-Koehler, the company posted a 16% sales increase over 2017, giving it a 30% growth rate between 2016 and 2018. Beginning May 1, David Marshall will take over as CEO/CFO, and Johanna Vondeling will become president/publisher, with Piersanti transitioning to acquiring editor.
The 2018 revenue gain was led by several bestsellers, including On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Growing Old by Parker Palmer, and the release of the third edition of one of B-K’s all-time bestsellers: Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute, which has sold more than two million copies since it was published in 2000 and sells more copies each year than the year prior. Complementing those big titles were six new books that sold well: The Age of Overwhelm by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky; The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor; Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva; A Great Place to Work for All by Michael C. Bush and the Great Place to Work Research Team; Servant Leadership in Action, edited by Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell; and Talent Magnet by Mark Miller. Sales of all print titles were helped by B-K’s Jan. 1, 2018, move of its trade distribution to Penguin Random House Publisher Services. As a result of the switch, according to a B-K spokesperson, “Our international print sales approximately doubled while our domestic print sales also increased.”
In addition to moving to PRH, B-K continued to build out its digital marketing systems, which increased the publisher’s direct and trade sales. The upgraded marketing system also supported B-K’s new online training business, which featured a Women’s Leadership Online Summit that brought in more than 20,000 participants from 150 countries. B-K also launched a Dare to Serve Online Training Master Course.
A couple of other nonprint initiatives also contributed to B-K’s sales gains last year. The company began publishing audio editions of nearly all new titles in 2016, and it saw large audio sales growth in 2017 and 2018. And e-book sales, which had been flat in 2017, began growing again in 2018.
Even though it cut its output from 67 titles to 55 between 2016–1018, Westminster John Knox, part of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, the U.S. publishing arm of the Presbyterian Church, had a 22% sales gain in the same period. WJK’s achievement is even more noteworthy, because, less than 20 years ago, WJK had to cut 20% of its staff in its Louisville, Ky., offices as a cost-saving move. In the past two years, however, it has grown its staff from 28 to 40. WJK attributes its growth to two new initiatives: it has begun publishing children’s books, and, in 2018, it acquired a curriculum publishing unit from the Presbyterian Church.
In the fall 2017, WJK published three children’s books and was encouraged enough by the results that it formed the Flyaway Books imprint in 2018. One of the eight 2018 releases under that imprint, Barbara Brown Taylor’s first children’s book, Home by Another Way: A Christmas Story, became a bestseller for the press, selling 8,000 copies. There will be eight Flyaway Books frontlist titles in 2019, including The Night of His Birth, a Christmas picture book written by Katherine Patterson, the 2010–2011 U.S. national ambassador for young people’s literature, and illustrated by Lisa Aisato.
“While half of our children’s titles are religious in nature, half go beyond any denominational religious tradition; they’re for the average family with children,” notes WJK publisher David Dobson, explaining that Flyaway Books’ list emphasizes diversity. “There is a real hunger for such books, and we’re trying to meet that need.”
Though WJK’s new children’s imprint and curriculum publishing program are adding to the company’s revenue, its 2018 adult releases for the trade contributed to its success as well: Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out by Walter Brueggemann sold 5,000 copies; Advent for Everyone: Luke by N. T. Wright sold 4,200 copies; and Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians by Austen Hartke sold more than 4,100 copies. Its top two sellers in 2018 were Brueggemann’s A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent, which sold more than 8,100 copies, and A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz, which sold 7,200 copies.
Tim McKee, the publisher of Berkeley, Calif.–based North Atlantic Books, says that the 45-year-old company’s 11% growth between 2017 and 2018 comes from its continuing focus on its core market. Like several others of this year’s group of fast-growing publishers, North Atlantic benefited greatly from publishing books about topics that are no longer considered marginal or alternative but have entered the mainstream, such as books about the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs, somatic psychology and trauma, homeopathic medicine, natural foods, deep ecology, and sustainability.
North Atlantic’s top three bestsellers in 2018 were Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble by Stephen Jenkinson, with more than 9,100 copies sold to date in all formats; Nurturing Resilience: Helping Clients Move Forward from Developmental Trauma—An Integrative Somatic Approach by Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell, with nearly 9,000 copies sold to date in all formats; and Climate: A New Story by Charles Eisenstein, with more than 8,600 copies sold to date in all formats. North Atlantic’s investment in audio over the past five years is also having a huge impact: it has seen a 50% growth in audio sales year over year.
North Atlantic attributes its success to having a list that is increasingly relevant to readers, and McKee also notes that the press, which became a nonprofit in 1980, has been “working on our own health as an organization.” It aspires to fulfill its mission of publishing books that transform lives and heal people, he says, and to do so on a more solid financial footing.
Thus, for the past year or two, North Atlantic has been engaged in such activities as updating and fine-tuning workplace policies, conducting racial equity trainings, and diversifying its board. “We’re asking ourselves if we are acting in a way that empowers staff and yields the strongest outcomes,” McKee says. “We’ve been working to become as actualized of an entity as we can be. This takes a lot of time and collective effort, but it undoubtedly impacts the books we do and how they fare in the world.”
Founded in 1994, San Francisco–based No Starch Press is celebrating its 25th anniversary of publishing technical books infused with popular culture—or, as it describes its catalogue on its website, “the finest in geek entertainment.” Having released 28 titles in 2018, No Starch reports that sales were up 8% in the year over 2016. And there’s even more cause for celebration: the company says that there will be a 50% increase in 2019 frontlist releases over 2018’s number, and 2019 sales to date are up 50% over the similar period in 2018.
Sales and marketing analyst David Bugden explains that No Starch’s success in the marketplace is primarily due to the company’s commitment to quality over quantity, noting that its titles are released only when there is a consensus that “they are ready” for the marketplace. “This focus has built a fan base of tens of thousands of readers who trust that any No Starch Press title will deliver the information they desire, whether that is to learn a new programming language, improve their skills as a security researcher, teach children to program, build stunning Lego models and cool robots, play with electronics, or simply exercise their brain.”
Bugden also notes that moving No Starch’s distribution to Penguin Random House Publisher Services in 2017 expanded its niche and opened new sales channels. For instance, the company has begun to work more closely with Barnes & Noble and other bricks-and-mortar retailers to promote its professional, STEM, and Lego titles in stores. At the same time, it is upping its presence on social media and elsewhere online with digital advertising that has been creating awareness and sales of No Starch titles.
One particularly lucrative digital sales channel since 2015 has been the Humble Bundle online storefront, where consumers set prices for bundled products, with a portion going to charity. “No Starch Press was one of the very first publishers to work with Humble Bundle and has brought in millions from their bundles over the years,” Bugden notes, adding that No Starch has raised more than $1.5 million for charitable causes through the service.
Feature Fast-Growing Independent Publishers 2016–2018
|2018 v. 2016||2016||2018||2016||2018|
|Mango Publishing, Miami||400%||11||23||41||99|
|Brown Books Publishing Group, Dallas||220%||15||15||35||48|
|Familius, Sanger, Calif.||77%||6||6||52||61|
|Page Street Publishing, Salem, Mass.||73%||12||32||50||89|
|Barefoot Books, Cambridge, Mass.||45%||20||20||16||31|
|Charlesbridge, Watertown, Mass.||43%||23||26||40||49|
|Agate Publishing, Evanston, Ill.||35%||20||20||26||20|
|Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, Calif.||30%||26||31||38||42|
|Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.||22%||28||40||67||55|
|North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Calif.||11%||24||22||41||44|
|No Starch Pres, San Franciscos||8%||17||23||22||28|