For the second year in a row, Mango Publishing topped PW’s fast-growing small publisher list. Mango’s sales growth rate between 2017 and 2019 was less than half its rate in the previous three-year span, but that is to be expected from a maturing company: Mango celebrated its fifth anniversary last year.
Mango attributes its success in 2019 to its diverse list of authors. The publisher discovered artist Kate Allan and her animal drawings on Tumblr, and her You Can Do All Things sold well in the trade market as well as in the gift and special markets, Mango says. Women’s studies scholar Becca Anderson has been another important Mango author. Her bestselling The Book of Awesome Women led to a new series, which includes The Book of Awesome Women Writers and The Book of Awesome Black Americans.
Your Next Level Life by Karen Arrington, founder of the Miss Black USA pageant and a goodwill ambassador to Sierra Leone, was another strong seller in 2019. “Karen Arrington is an exemplar of the kind of author Mango is proud to publish,” says Mango associate publisher Brenda Knight. “She is not only inspiring young women of color but working hard to make a difference in the world.”
Last year also saw Mango continuing to expand its partnership with Franklin Covey, publishing the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People card deck. And Franklin Covey executive v-p Scott Jeffrey Miller’s Management Mess to Leadership Success hit bestseller lists in the management science category in 2019 as well.
International sales were another strong spot for Mango, quadrupling over the past two years, the company says, and it now expects 30% of its English-language sales to be from outside of the U.S.
Mango also benefitted last year from the October purchase of Conari Press, and it expects to see Conari make a more meaningful contribution in 2020 when it relaunches the imprint under the direction of Knight (who is Conari’s former associate publisher). Mango followed the Conari purchase by acquiring lifestyle and regional title publisher Yellow Pear Press in early 2020.
Mango founder and publisher Chris McKenney notes that “while 2019 was full of many wonderful things,” what he is most proud of about the year was Mango’s ability to win six auctions when competing with representatives from the Big Five publishers. He attributes those victories to Mango’s revenue-sharing model, which offers authors up to 50% of net sales for each book sold, as well as its “modern marketing techniques.”
Media Lab Books, a unit of Topix Media, began life as a bookazine publisher before launching a book division in 2015. MLB’s initial focus was on licensed publishing done in collaboration with companies like Disney, Jack Hanna, and Nickelodeon, explains MLB v-p and publisher Phil Sexton. After publishing 25 titles in 2017, the company changed tactics to concentrate on acquiring better titles that will have longer backlist lives, he says.
That decision delivered almost immediate results. In 2018, sales rose 60% over 2017—and they increased another 42% in 2019, even as the number of titles steadily declined. MLB’s bestsellers last year included Smithsonian 10-Minute Science Experiments, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from John Wayne, and The Unofficial Ultimate Harry Potter Spellbook.
Sexton, who joined MLB from F + W Media, says the company’s strategy now is to work with authors and licensors “who have the platform and desire to support their titles with us over time.” This approach, he says, has created a “far more efficient and profitable publishing model for everyone involved.”
MLB’s publishing model varies depending on the kind of book it is doing and the kind of author or licensor it is working with, Sexton says. For some projects, the agreement is the traditional advance/royalty model. For others, where a brand or content is licensed but MLB is doing all of the creative in-house, it may be royalty only. And in other cases, books are original works being written by in-house staff. “We try not to limit the kind of deals we’re willing to come up with in order to create the book we want, so long as we’re doing so in a financially responsible way,” Sexton adds.
Despite cutting the list in recent years, Sexton says that, moving forward, MLB is planning “a thoughtful, measured expansion of the list.” It will release 12 books this year, going up to 24 in 2022. “We intend to limit ourselves to 24 titles from 2022 onward to help ensure we’re focusing on the best projects we can,” Sexton notes. MLB’s titles are distributed by Macmillan.
“We had another banner year,” says Familius founder and president Christopher Robbins. Among the metrics Robbins follows, sales per employee and sales per title had large gains between 2017 and 2019. The company’s growth drivers last year included its Lit for Little Hands series, interactive board books, and regional titles, says marketing and public relations director Kate Farrell. A top-selling individual title was Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts by Karen Kleiman, founder of the Postpartum Stress Center, illustrated by Molly McIntyre.
The Road Not Taken, based on the poem by Robert Frost and illustrated by Vivan Mineker, got a boost last year when it received a mention in the New York Times Book Review—the first time a Familius title made it into the NYTBR. Another solid seller was a padded board book version of Familius’s PW-bestselling picture book Made for Me. Big Book of Family Games—which “provides tech-free fun and games to families,” Farrell says—was also a hit in 2019. And The Munchy Munchy Cookbook for Kids by Pierre Lamielle, winner of the reality cooking show Chopped Canada, was a good performer last year, too.
Familius is now distributed by Workman, after previously doing its own distribution. Robbins hopes the move will expand its visibility to the trade.
Blue Star Press had immediate success when it launched in 2015, taking advantage of the surge in interest in adult coloring books. Originally known as Blue Star Coloring, the publisher’s two top-selling books in the adult coloring category hit the New York Times bestseller list, combining to sell more than 500,000 copies. That success “motivated us to charge ahead and expand into other genres,” says Blue Star chief operating officer Peter Licalzi, who started the company with Camden Hendricks.
Blue Star’s first move was to expand in the creative art and wellness categories in 2016, followed by games and other gift products in 2019, Licalzi says. The company’s Paige Tate & Co. imprint publishes how-tos, lifestyle titles, devotionals, and coloring books.
Among Blue Star’s bestsellers last year were Hand Lettering 101, Millennial Lotería, and Mind Your Business. Early on, Licalzi says, the company worked to build relationships with independent booksellers and other bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Hobby Lobby, Joann Fabric, and Magnolia. Blue Star’s quick success drew the attention of Penguin Random House, which added it as a distribution client in September 2019.
Based in Bend, Ore., Blue Star’s core staff of five employees are all 35 years old and under and work from Los Angeles and Austin. Licalzi attributes a large part of the company’s early success to its relationship with its authors, whom it considers creative business partners and friends. “We are very selective about who we collaborate with,” he says, “and have worked hard to carefully nurture these relationships and get our authors excited about releasing a series of new titles with us year after year.”
Founded in 1964 by aerial photographer Robert Cameron, Cameron + Company was acquired in 2009 by his granddaughter Nina Gruener and her husband Chris Gruener following Robert’s death. The couple moved the boutique publisher of photography, art, food and wine, children’s, and regional interest books from San Francisco to Petaluma, Calif. The company has seen its strongest sales period over the past few years, growing 25% between 2017 and 2019, led by a particularly good 2019. Chris, who is the publisher, attributes its recent success to a number of factors.
Cameron’s most important initiatives include the 2016 launch of the Cameron Kids imprint, which was formed to complement its line of children’s picture books and is headed by Nina, who is also a children’s author. Cameron Kids publishes picture and chapter books, and though it began by releasing two books per season, it will release 12 in 2020, Chris says.
A second growth area has been Cameron Studios, which offers custom book, packaging, and design services for movie studios, video game studios, artists, photographers, and other publishers. Cameron has also seen solid gains in its Roundtree Press imprint for general nonfiction. Roundtree is distributed by PGW, and in 2018 Cameron signed with Abrams for sales and distribution of its Cameron list.
A final contributor to its strong sales last year was the fall release of what Chris says were two of the biggest books in the publisher’s history: Rick Baker: Metamorphosis, a $250, slipcased, two-volume set on the Hollywood legend, and the children’s picture book The President Sang Amazing Grace, which Chris describes as “a lyrical account of the day President Obama sang with a grieving nation following the 2015 shooting in a black church in Charleston, S.C.”
Brown Books Publishing Group president and chief operating officer Tom Reale says the company was able to overcome sluggish sales to Barnes & Noble to post its fifth consecutive year of gains and make PW’s fast-growing list for the third consecutive year. He adds that offsetting slower sales to B&N were a strong backlist performance, a refocus on online and independent store sales, the addition of direct sales, and an increase in export sales.
One of Brown Books’ big titles of 2019 was Ed Curtis’s Why Texas: How Business Discovered the Lone Star State, which features interviews with business leaders describing why they moved their operations to Texas. “As a Dallas-based publisher, Brown Books’ leadership felt a strong affinity towards publishing this title,” Reale says.
Another Texas-themed book also performed well last year: Hold Texas, Hold the Nation: Victory or Death, by former congressman and retired Army officer Allen B. West, saw a bump in sales following West’s announcement that he would enter the race for the chair of the Texas Republican Party. His follow-up, We Can Overcome: An American Black Conservative Manifesto, had strong early sales following its publication in February 2020, Reale says. Brown Books has been adding more titles from military veterans, he explains, noting that Baghdaddy: How Saddam Hussein Taught Me to Be a Better Father sold well last year.
Brown Books’ children’s list had a solid 2019, as well. Sweet Child Born in California, the newest volume in Whitney Strauss’s Sweet Child series, sold well, Reale says, adding that Sweet Child Born in New York will come out this year. Brown Books also continued to focus on the K–12 classroom library market—and books that discuss special needs and inclusion in particular, led by Jo Mach’s Finding My Way series.
Brown Books has capitalized on the boom in audiobook sales following its entrance into the market in 2018. According to Reale, the company expanded its in-house production and its relationship with Recorded Books, whose Tantor division produced the first two audiobooks in Devri Walls’s Venators series last year.
North Atlantic Books is another publisher that benefitted from growth in the audiobook market. According to Tim McKee, publisher of the nonprofit, North Atlantic’s investment in its audiobook infrastructure contributed to a doubling of sales of the format in 2019 over 2018.
Last year was another year during which North Atlantic benefited from growing interest in its core areas of trauma, plant medicine, grief, racial justice, the liminal, self-healing, and indigenous cosmologies. The increased interest, McKee notes, led to strong backlist sales. Top backlist sellers in 2019 included the ever-popular Walter the Farting Dog which sold more than 38,000 units across all formats, followed by Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, Waking the Tiger, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and The Wild Edge of Sorrow. Backlist accounts for about 75% of North Atlantic annual sales. The publisher’s two bestselling new releases in 2019 were Teaching Yoga Beyond the Poses and Evolutionary Herbalism.
Another long-term aspect of North Atlantic’s publishing program—putting a priority on the diversity of its authors, particularly with regard to race, age, sexual orientation, and gender—also contributed to a better financial performance, McKee says, as did the increased impact of diverse voices within North Atlantic’s organization.
Working with its distributor, Penguin Random House, North Atlantic had a strong performance in special markets last year, McKee notes. PRH also helped North Atlantic reduce the number of returns to the point where the return rate is now about half of what it was several years ago, he adds.
Charlesbridge Publishing executive v-p and publisher Mary Ann Sabia says the company’s sales gain last year was spread across a number of channels, including “very strong growth” in the school and library market. Other solid increases came in sales of subscription boxes and e-books, while Charlesbridge also had a “nice bump” in sales in the U.K.
The breadth of Charlesbridge’s sales is reflected in its bestselling frontlist titles from last year. SumoKitty was a Kids Indie Next List pick, and Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music was released by its Imagine adult imprint. Other bestsellers were a new paperback edition of Whoosh! and Lola Goes to School, the latest release in its Lola Readers series, written by Anna McQuinn and illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw.
Key backlist titles last year, Sabia, says, were Baby Loves Science Board Box Set, Boo-Boos That Changed the World, Feathers: Not Just for Flying, Last Day Blues, Rickshaw Girl, and We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (a Sibert Honor book).
Charlesbridge was founded in 1989 and has regularly appeared on the PW fast-growing small publishers list in recent years. “2019 marked our 30th anniversary, and it’s been so rewarding to see our continued growth,” Sabia says. “It was the enthusiasm of independent booksellers back in 1989 that gave us our start, and over the years that support spread across many and varied marketplaces.”
Morgan James founder and president David Hancock says contributions from a number of areas helped to drive sales gains in 2019. Bestsellers came from the publisher’s business, faith, and fiction imprints, and Hancock called out Becoming Us by Jeff and Beth McCord as exceeding his expectations. One of the company’s business books, The Bezos Letter, was a steady seller in the U.S. last year and garnered more than $200,000 in foreign rights sales. In general, Hancock says, Morgan James had a strong performance from its growing backlist, particularly in nonfiction.
Morgan James supported its entire list last year with expanded marketing efforts to both consumers and the trade. “For example,” Hancock says, “we placed significantly more ads in PW and in Foreword magazine during 2019 and had very positive reactions.”
Digital initiatives also added to the publisher’s growth. Sales in the audio division rose 31% over 2018, due in part to additional distribution channels opened up for Morgan James by its distributor, Ingram Publisher Services, Hancock says. A new strategy of promoting e-books before pub date grew sales of that format last year, and Morgan James’s partnership with Open Road Media led to a 900% jump in backlist e-book sales.
Hancock is planning more digital initiatives for 2020, including rolling out its free e-book bundle to all print titles, driven by FlexPub. In addition, Morgan James has partnered with Bookshop to drive more online sales through independent booksellers.
Strong backlist sales drove growth at Greystone Books, which returns to PW’s fast-growing list after initially appearing in 2017. In that year, the company was riding high following the release in 2016 of two hits, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and The Obesity Code by Jason Fung. Those two titles remain extremely popular, says associate publisher Jen Gauthier. To date, Trees has sold 600,000 hardcover copies, while Obesity Code has sold more than 425,000 print copies and 200,000 e-book copies.
Both authors remain important contributors to Greystone. The company published Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals in 2017 and The Secret Network of Nature last year, along with an illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees; in 2018, Greystone released Fung’s The Diabetes Code, followed by The Obesity Code Cookbook in 2019. “We have more books coming from both authors,” Gauthier says.
Last year’s sales received a lift from the fall launch of a children’s imprint focused on books in Greystone’s core areas of nature, science, environment, health, and social issues. Greystone Kids started with five books, including a middle grade nonfiction adaptation of The Hidden Life of Trees, titled Can You Hear the Trees Talking?, and Birdsong, a picture book by Cree-Metis author Julie Flett, which received multiple starred reviews and was an ALA American Indian Youth Literature honoree. “We will continue to build the children’s list, publishing a mix of picture books and middle grade nonfiction and growing the list to 12–16 titles per year,” Gauthier promises.