Last month’s promotion of Simon Tasker, executive v-p, general manager, and group publisher of ReaderLink’s publishing operation, to the company’s executive team reflected the increased importance publishing is playing at the distributor. Operating under the Printers Row
Publishing Group banner, ReaderLink’s publishing division had sales of about $150 million in the fiscal year that ended this September. Tasker has been with ReaderLink since 2015, when he joined as v-p and publisher of Silver Dolphin Books, and since that time, PRPG has expanded through a series of acquisitions, as well as through organic growth.
Based in San Diego, Calif., with a staff of about 60 full-time employees, PRPG now has a backlist of about 1,200 titles divided across five imprints: the Portable Press and Thunder Bay adult imprints, Silver Dolphin Books and Studio Fun International children’s imprints, and Canterbury Classics, which publishes public domain titles in a variety of formats. All but Studio Fun were acquired by ReaderLink in February 2015 from Baker & Taylor; Studio Fun (which at one point had been known as Reader’s Digest Children’s Books) was added to PRPG in October 2016; and the most recent addition was some assets of Parragon Publishing that PRPG bought last year when Parragon went out of business.
The assets that PRPG now comprises appeal to adults and children and also work in the different distribution channels serviced by ReaderLink, which include warehouse clubs (PRPG’s biggest customers) and mass merchandisers, Tasker said. The publisher also reaches the trade market through its distribution agreement with Simon & Schuster. “We have a good mix of properties,” Tasker added, noting that PRPG has licensing agreements with a number of major companies such as Disney, Hasbro, Nickelodeon, and Sesame Street producer Sesame Workshop.
A major component of PRPG’s organic growth has been due to its proprietary publishing business, through which the company works with trade houses and its three club customers (BJ’s, Costco, and Sam’s Club) to create formats of trade books that are designed to sell in the warehouse club environment, Tasker explained. One popular strategy is to create box sets in different areas, such as developing a set of six or eight board books.
Tasker noted that PRPG doesn’t compete with trade houses but looks to fill gaps in the market. Indeed, one reason ReaderLink CEO Dennis Abboud was eager to push into the publishing space was to ensure that the company’s customers had the types of books they need. “We want to help keep books a vibrant category for our retailers,” Tasker said.
Board books are one of PRPG’s strongest formats. “We sell a lot of board books, including interactive storybooks,” Tasker said. In fact, PRPG’s top 10 children’s bestsellers since 2015 are mostly board books. Tasker is also seeing more interest in sound books: Sesame Street Music Player, released in 2017, is PRPG’s second-most popular children’s book this year and since 2015. An area where PRPG is currently putting more focus are the STEM categories, he noted.
On the adult side, PRPG’s focus is on such nonfiction areas as arts and crafts, cooking, reference, and travel. The company has been doing more licensing for adult books in recent years; in the arts and crafts category, for example, PRPG is following up its hit Star Wars Crochet with Harry Potter Crochet, which is now second among the publisher’s top adult sellers in 2019. Both items feature materials and a paperback book with instructions on how to crochet characters from the different franchises. Adult coloring books have always been a good area for PRPG, Tasker said, and while sales in the category are down from their peak years in 2015 and 2016, they remain solid, he added.
PRPG’s Portable Press is home to the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series of trivia and fun-fact books. The series began in 1987 and has more than 15 million copies in print. The 2019 edition of Uncle John’s Truth, Trivia, and the Pursuit of Factiness Bathroom Reader was released in early September and is already topping PRPG’s adult books sales chart for the year.
Providing a glimpse of what’s ahead for PRPG, Tasker said the company will be backing the November 22 release of the Frozen 2 film with, among other titles, a Frozen 2 Crochet kit and sticker art puzzles for adults. For children there will be two interactive board books and Disney Frozen II Movie Theater Storybook & Movie Projector, along with a number of other titles that will be released throughout 2020.
Tasker said that though PRPG has enjoyed double-digit growth over the past four years, he wouldn’t be surprised if the company made another purchase. “Dennis is always open to the right acquisition to grow the business,” he added.