Three years after launching Big Earth Publishing in the small town of Neenah, Wisc., 100 miles north of Milwaukee, David Oskin is steadily expanding his niche—and in the process, creating a viable new business model. Despite a lack of any previous publishing experience, the former Appleton Coated paper company executive already is seeing positive results in the venture he embarked on in 2004, in partnership with two investors, Four Winds Ventures and Pacific Millennium.
This past fiscal year, Big Earth pulled in between $5.5 and $6 million in revenue on its list of over 1,000 available titles (with returns at only 10%). Big Earth intends to release 50 titles this fall, with another 50 titles scheduled for release next spring. This fall's lead titles include Chicago Blues, a collection of short stories revolving around the Windy City's blues scene, and Strange Wisconsin by Glenda Godfrey.
Much of Big Earth's rapid growth in the past three years is the result of the company's aggressive acquisition of small regional presses in Wisconsin and Colorado. After forming Big Earth in 2004, because he “wanted to do something on [his] own” and realizing, while browsing in a bookstore, that he wanted to publish books, Oskin acquired Johnson Books in 2005, a Boulder publisher of Western nonfiction. This acquisition was followed in quick succession by others: Trails Books, a Midwestern publisher of regional-interest titles; Prairie Oak Press, another Midwestern house, specializing in sports, gardening, travel, and cookbooks; Madison's Bleak House and Denver's Intrigue Press, two publishers of mystery fiction; 3-D Press, a Colorado publisher of cookbooks; and, this past spring, Big Earth's largest acquisition to date, Westcliffe Publishers, with a list of 150 coffee-table books and nature guides spotlighting the Rocky Mountain region.
“Hopefully, we'll become a family of publishers. We own them, but we provide them with independent thoughts and independent beliefs. It's along the lines of Perseus's structure,” Oskin said. “We allow these publishers to continue to do what they do best.”
While the four employees working out of Big Earth's main office in Neenah provide back-office services for all six imprints, the four employees in Madison and seven employees in the Boulder offices—most of them previously employed by the presses acquired by Big Earth—perform editorial and certain marketing functions for each imprint in their respective regions.
“The last thing I'd do is pick up regional publishers in Boulder and move them to Neenah,” Oskin said. “With niche community content, you have to be close to where the people are.”
As of this writing, Big Earth's warehousing is in the midst of transition, as the company is transferring its inventory from Banta's facilities in Menasha, Wisc., to the company's own warehouse in Denver, which currently employs three employees. The move should be completed by September 30.
In contrast to many trade publishers of this size, not only does Big Earth handle its own distribution, but the company does not use sales reps, nor does Oskin intend to implement a sales force in the future.
“When you are a significant player, you don't need sales reps,” he told PW. Linda Doyle, Big Earth v-p of marketing and sales, presents to the national accounts, and personnel in each office maintain close contact with independent booksellers.
Ben LeRoy, publisher of Bleak House for 12 years, sold the press to Big Earth in September 2005 after meeting Oskin at BEA earlier that year. Bleak House, which started publishing in 2001, had released 12—15 mystery and noir fiction titles before being acquired by Big Earth, and has released 40—50 titles since then. Seven new titles and several reissues will be published this fall under the Bleak House imprint, including Chicago Blues.
Bleak House's revenues have increased 500% in the past 18 months, LeRoy told PW. “It's a combination of more titles, better selling, more sell-through and a larger market presence,” LeRoy said. “There's more leverage, being part of a larger organization. I just had a sales call with Barnes & Noble; that's something I wasn't able to do before.
When asked if he intends to expand beyond the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions as Big Earth continues to grow, Oskin responded that he's “looked at things,” both on the East and West Coasts.
“We're always looking for opportunities, talking to somebody,” he said, “We're a company interested in creating value. We're not in it for the short haul.”