John Whalen did not anticipate settling down in Kennebunkport, Maine, when he drove into town along a small road in 2005. In fact, he didn’t even know where he was. He did know that he wanted a home for a small publishing house.
A New England native, Whalen had spent years in Philadelphia as the publisher at Running Press before deciding to set off on his own. The only question was whether to move to Vermont or Maine. As Whalen says, “the Atlantic won out.”
“Eventually my wife and I found a house for raising three boys, two dogs, and a small press,” he says, from the 1790 building that houses Cider Mill Press at the center of the small Maine seacoast village.
As he approaches his 15th year in business, Whalen has settled in as a quintessential New England publisher, running Cider Mill along with his son John and other employees. Whalen’s hunch was that a publishing house with a strong backlist and guaranteed frontlist sales to nonbookstore retailers would inevitably also draw traditional bookstore readers.
To do it, the press has specialized in high production values for titles as varied as cookbooks, lifestyle titles, and children’s classics. “We pay for it,” Whalen says. “Our unit costs are higher because of that. But that’s our calling card. It’s very important to us to make sure that our books are striking. From 10 feet away, they’ll lure a consumer in and they’ll want to pick it up.”
Whalen’s hunch has paid off. Sales are up 70% in the United States this year over 2018 and up 166% in Canada. The press and its children’s imprint, Applesauce, will produce between 65 and 75 titles in 2020. In addition, Cider Mills’s parent company, Appleseed, handles special production requests for nonreturnable one-of-a-kind titles for large retailers that run into the tens of thousands of copies.
Though sales have gone up, the press keeps a small staff overall. That size is essential for being the kind of company Whalen believes large retailers and independent bookstores want to partner with. “Being nimble means that you’re reliant upon your great relationships,” Whalen says. “You can’t be nimble all by yourself. You need to have great partnerships.”
At the company’s current size, Whalen says his clients know that he can be reached directly and can be trusted to come up with creative ideas that meet their needs without unnecessary delays. Part of Cider Mill’s in-house flexibility comes from content generation. Nearly all of the press’s books are devised in-house and then contracted out to authors who have expertise in their fields.
“Everything on our publishing list is something we originated in a new title meeting here, and then we search for the right writer, or chef, or children’s illustrator,” Whalen says. “Most of the partnerships I have, they realize that’s how we operate. So when they have a creative idea, they know we’re already built to find the talent to deliver on the concept.”
Looking ahead, Whalen says he envisions that his current approach will continue to build the strength of the company. “Even though we’ve been around for only 15 years, comparatively, that’s a young company in publishing,” he notes. “So each year, our frontlist moves into our backlist and our foundation continues to expand.”
The patience and peace of mind he has in building the backlist is a result of his return home to New England 15 years ago as much as anything else. “Even when you have a robust publishing program of 65 new titles a year, even when you’re working with a very demanding marketplace, it’s a great environment,” Whalen says. “It just changes the way you see things. I’m a stone’s throw from the water. I walk to work most days with my dog. It’s an incredibly stimulating setting because we’re not swimming upstream. Everyone who lives here lives here because they want to live here. They’re living here first and foremost. Then they’re building a career around that.”