In our final roundup of how independent publishers fared in 2021, four West Coast presses and one in Maine reported that they were able to increase sales last year by honing their distinctive identities. And while they are gearing up to deal with paper shortages and other supply chain problems, they expect 2022 to be another good year.
Tom Helleberg, publisher at Seattle-based Mountaineers Books, said the press has had several good years and that he is optimistic about the one ahead. “Mountaineers Books sits right at the intersection of book publishing and the outdoor industry, so we have been the dual beneficiary of strong growth in both areas,” he explained. Sales were up 26% last year over 2020, and “backlist and frontlist blew through expectations.”
Mountaineers Books offers trail and adventure guidebooks, as well as educational books on topics including wilderness first aid and avalanche preparedness. “Campfire Stories, an edited collection about the parks by Ilyssa Kyu and Dave Kyu, was far and away our best seller for the year,” Helleberg said.
Some of the press’s recent success was driven by acquisitions. In 2019, Mountaineers Books acquired Green Trails Maps in a “complicated distribution partnership,” Helleberg noted, and in 2020, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy came on as a distribution partner too. “ATC opens up a lot of Southeast and East Coast accounts where we might not be on the radar,” he added. These moves plus a long-standing partnership with the Colorado Mountain Club mean Mountaineers Books has “all of the long-trail guides in-house. It’s been a little baby juggernaut”—at a time when pandemic-fatigued readers fantasize about going on epic hikes.
Throughout Covid, Helleberg saw “an explosion of online retail” sales and found that “direct-to-consumer remained high.” Because the Mountaineers organization has six program centers across western Washington, Mountaineers Books was able to arrange curbside pickup opportunities during the pandemic; third-party vendors also sold books in conjunction with events, Helleberg said.
The closest Mountaineers Books came to a publishing disaster was with Seth Kantner’s A Thousand Trails Home: Walking with Caribou, which was a decade in the works. “We had it scheduled for September ,” Helleberg noted. “The books wound up on a ship for three and a half months, parked in [the port of] Bremerton. We could basically see the ship from our office. We got it out in October, and it landed on our bestseller list for the year.”
For 2022, Helleberg said, “we increased our baseline order quantities to push out the reprints because of the paper crunch—a bit of a gamble. We’ve been looking at our spring list, and I think we will see it going to fall because of overseas freight delays and printers declining jobs due to the paper shortage.”
Even so, Helleberg intends to participate in the Outdoor Retailer Summer Show in Denver, where he will be promoting Lauren DeLaunay Miller’s Valley of Giants and Gus DeAngelo’s forthcoming fall book National Parks A to Z: Adventure from Acadia to Zion! (an unusual direction for Mountaineers Books, which seldom publishes for the children’s market).
Another niche indie press, C&T Publishing in Concord, Calif., is experimenting, as well. Crafting books are C&T’s forte, and publisher Amy Barrett-Daffin said sales were up last year by more than 10% over 2020. But C&T also discovered that hobbyists would put down their piecework to read quilting-themed novels: 2021’s The Tannenbaum Christmas Quilt, a holiday entry in novelist Ann Hazelwood’s Door County Quilt series, resonated with readers. C&T also published Sara Trail and Teresa Duryea Wong’s Stitching Stolen Lives, which looks at the Social Justice Sewing Academy Remembrance Project.
“Working on this book opened our eyes to social justice, equity, and diversity,” Barrett-Daffin recalled. “We decided as an organization that we were going to take a stand on DEI and sent out an email to our entire list.”
More conventional titles continued to be solid sellers, as well, including titles for new crafters. By 2021, Barrett-Daffin continued, “all of the quilt stores were open again, so our special sales channels were really cooking, along with trade at Amazon.” Though C&T’s authors are looking to travel and teach again, they are reluctant to venture far, which may mean more use of C&T’s Creative Spark Online Learning platform.
Five years ago, C&T began transitioning to U.S.-based printing and now does most printing stateside, but Barrett-Daffin is still concerned about materials and labor problems. As a hedge, C&T will explore audiobooks and electronic-only patterns as substitutes for print editions. A new venture C&T launched in April 2021 was its FanPowered Press imprint on “all things cosplay.” Barrett-Daffin said, “We have new cosplay titles coming out starting in June 2022, including one on ball gowns that I think will be our best seller. We’re really excited about that, because the cons are coming back.”
Once C&T gets fans dressed for the cons, Insight Editions will be ready with an array of pop-culture cookbooks, film-companion books, and tarot decks featuring Labyrinth characters and Disney villains. “Conferences are what we’re most excited about in 2022,” said Raoul Goff, Insight Editions founder and CEO. “Our deep fandom publishing means that events like Comic-Con [San Diego, Calif., July 21–24] and Star Wars Celebration [Anaheim, Calif., May 26–29] are where we really connect with our communities and customers.” He yearns for “a return to some normalcy,” and with it the opportunity for author appearances at indies, fairs, and fests.
Even with live events on hold, Insight Editions saw 25% growth in 2021 over 2020, due in large part to online sales. “Online—both our own website and online retailers—has always been the predominant channel for our high-end, high-ticket art books,” Goff said, “and with retail and events in such flux over the course of the year, we saw that trend skyrocket.” Among last year’s bestsellers, he touted movie tie-ins to Fantastic Beasts and Downton Abbey from Insight imprint Weldon Owen; Harry Potter: Feasts and Festivities; a Stranger Things pop-up from paper engineer Matthew Reinhart; and Marvel’s Black Panther: The Official Wakanda Cookbook.
Angela Engel, publisher and founder of The Collective Book Studio in Oakland, Calif., doubled down on exquisitely designed titles in lifestyle, parenting, food and wine, and children’s books. Recent highlights include Sarah Blanchard and Mishasha Suzuki Graham’s Dear White Women, Yvonne Pearson and Regina Shklovsky’s picture book Little Loon Finds His Voice, and Faith Kramer’s 52 Shabbats, which, because of supply chain issues, missed all of Hanukkah and ended up being released on December 13. “I was sweating here,” Engel said, noting that the publisher sold out of 6,000 copies in three weeks and went back to press for another 10,000.
Engel runs The Collective Book Studio on a selective partnership-publishing model, with authors paying for such services as editorial, design, and marketing. And she sometimes helps with fund-raising. For the A–Z children’s cookbook B Is for Bagel, she and author Rachel Teichman ran a Kickstarter campaign that enabled them to hire developmental editor Amy Treadwell, as well as a photographer. “Rachel owns the photography, gets to sell shirts, bags, earrings, whatever,” Engel said.
The Collective Book Studio’s distribution is through IPG, and Engel said trade sales approached $500,000 last year for the three-year-old publisher. To help it expand, Engel is working to grow its backlist, and to that end will be going to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this month and will exhibit at the ALA conference in June. She’ll also have a booth at May’s Bay Area Book Festival.
Engel is counting on her high-quality production values and established staff to attract readers. She sees “cool sponsorship” potential for former media exec Fran Hauser’s Embrace Your Work, Love Your Career; regional events for Nashville author Rebeka Iliff’s Champagne for One: A Celebration of Solitude; and Bay Area bookshop events for Cheryl Yau Chepusova’s alphabet book Noodles, Please!
Back East, John Whalen, founder of Kennebunkport, Maine’s Cider Mill Press, said sales jumped 47% in 2021 over what was a record 2020. “What we have been most pleased with is the sell-through performance of our list, as well as the growing demand in our backlist,” Whalen said. Cider Mill’s cookbook and cocktail and spirits publishing categories have been growing steadily over the last several years, and they did well again in the pandemic while readers stayed home.
The press develops its publishing program in-house, which Whalen said has allowed it to target its title output based on new trends, as well as to create custom titles for its different distribution channels. He added that both the online and physical retail channels had “fantastic performances in 2021,” noting that in physical retail, bookstores, warehouse clubs, mass merchandisers, and gift stores all had higher sales. School book fairs was the only significant Cider Mill channel that underperformed during the past two years, and with schools reopening, Whalen expects to see a resurgence there in the next 12–24 months.
In addition to its adult titles, Cider Mill has done well with its children’s books, led by its Charles Santore Illustrated Classic series. Since Cider Mill published its original edition of The Night Before Christmas in 2011, that one title has sold nearly three million copies.
Whalen remains confident enough in the market to launch a new imprint this year. Whalen Studio Editions will release its inaugural list this fall, featuring books from photographers, including one from Hollywood photographer Greg Williams; a new book by National Geographic and former Magnum photographer William Albert Allard titled Paris; and a three-book series by Leica ambassador Craig Semtko, including the titles Unposed, Unposed India, and Unposed USA.
Correction: This article initially misnamed the author of Valley of Giants by Lauren DeLaunay Miller.