This is the first time that Microcosm Publishing, of Portland, Ore., has made it onto PW’s list of fast-growing independent publishers, and it has landed with a bang: net revenue spiked 106% in 2021 over 2020 and was up 207% over 2019. Founder Joe Biel attributes the company’s success to publishing compelling reads that have been “categorically turned down by other publishers,” like Microcosm’s runaway top-seller, Unf*ck Your Brain, which the company says has sold five million copies in all formats since 2016. One of its bestsellers last year is well-known to indie booksellers: How to Resist Amazon and Why, by Raven Book Store owner Danny Caine, which has sold more than 34,000 copies in all formats since its November 2019 release; a second edition is in the works. “Every one of our bestselling books was a debut by an author with no platform,” Biel notes. “Our role is more about finding what is the taste of the time.”
Another reason for the company’s success is its recent restructuring, which included the decision to bring distribution in-house in 2018. Since it has taken back distribution, Microcosm is adding more than 100 new accounts per month, and it has stopped selling books on Amazon. Sales to bookstores and to nontraditional accounts like coffee shops, record stores, bike shops, and other such businesses have grown 368% during that time. Despite the jump in sales, Microcosm’s fulfillment turnaround time fell to 24 hours, from 72 hours, last year after it purchased a second warehouse in Cleveland. Other publishers told Biel the purchase was a risky move, he notes, but he calls it a “great investment” that has accelerated the company’s growth.
Years of investment in its proprietary WorkingLit software program allowed Microcosm to automate numerous backoffice processes, enabling the company to save “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Biel says. “That’s why we’ve been able to pivot so effectively these past few years, and find so many new accounts.” Microcosm intends to make the software available to other indie presses this year as a subscription cloud service.
Biel has spread the success around, issuing bonuses last year, which helped Microcosm retain all of its employees in 2021; seven of its 29 employees are also owners.
New categories and new outlets helped lift sales 37% at Blue Star Press in 2021 over 2020, resulting in a 120% gain between 2019 and 2021. Peter Licalzi, cofounder of the six-year-old press headquartered in Bend, Ore., credits Penguin Random House Publisher Services with a big role in the sales gain in 2021. Last year was the second year that Blue Star was with PRHPS, and he says the company’s books are now available in more online and physical retailers in the U.S. and internationally. He also gives a shout-out to Barnes & Noble, which, under CEO James Daunt, has allowed store managers to have more of a say in title selection. “We have seen an uptick in the number of our books picked up by [B&N] stores,” Licalzi adds.
Blue Star is also working to expand its presence in specialty and gift stores, which are becoming more important to the company given its success with games and puzzles. It has released eight games to date, and sales have been led by its Millennial Loteria line; two of the Millennial titles were sold exclusively through Target last year. Licalzi says Blue Star is working to grow the game line and is in discussions with a number of a creators.
The publisher’s book program continues to be centered around the categories of arts and crafts, health and wellness, children’s, lifestyle, coloring, and gift books. Licalzi says Blue Star has deliberately kept its new title output growth modest to allow it to give each book the attention it needs to succeed.
Blue Star weathered the worst of the pandemic without losing any employees. “We have had zero turnover on our team,” Licalzi notes, crediting that success to the company’s embrace of remote work, a four-day work week, and unlimited paid time off.
“It’s an interesting story, but we’ve told it for the last two years, so people may be tired of it,” publisher Phil Sexton quips about the inclusion of Media Lab Books on PW’s list of fast-growing publishers for the third year in a row. Though growth slowed somewhat last year, the publisher still posted a 70% sales increase in 2021 over 2019.
MLB, based in New York and distributed by Macmillan, began publishing licensed titles inspired by popular TV programs, movies, and pop culture figures in 2015. Sexton ascribes much of the company’s success in recent years to paring its annual list of 30 releases down to 12 in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and including more author-driven titles. MLB has committed itself to maintaining “quality over quantity” in its acquisitions, Sexton says, while also looking to publish more books “in partnership with those who are both writers as well as promoters,” to supplement the company’s own marketing efforts.
Sexton notes that since restructuring, MLB’s frontlist has had a better sell-through, with the frontlist featuring a mix of new brands and different authors. The company has also identified three brands that have become perennial bestsellers: books relating to Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, and John Wayne. “Those provide us with a very solid foundation every year,” he explains; last year’s top-selling frontlist releases were The Unofficial Harry Potter Bestiary (50,000 copies sold); The Game Master’s Book of Non-player Characters (42,000 copies), and The Official John Wayne Handy Book of Bushcraft (15,000 copies).
An improved frontlist has helped MLB’s backlist become “stickier” in the past two years, Sexton says, and it currently accounts for 60% of sales. After maintaining an annual output of a dozen frontlist releases for three years, the company is slowly ramping up, with 18 new releases each year in 2021 and 2022, 24 scheduled in 2023, and plans to up its output to 35 in 2024. “Now that we’re in a good place, with a solid backlist, and the titles have a really high batting average,” he says, “we can expand the size of the list and get back to the size that we had [before 2018], but with a more considered list.”
Started in 2013 to publish digital editions of out-of-print genre fiction from the 1960s and ’70s, Las Vegas’s Wolfpack Publishing today comprises three imprints and an audiobook production division. Combined, sales rose 67% between 2019 and 2021. From its start, Wolfpack has depended on volume to move the sales needle, and that was the case again in 2021 when the company published 322 titles. Wolfpack’s backlist now stands at nearly 2,000 titles and was bolstered during the year by its acquisition of Rough Edge Press.
CEO Mike Bray notes that Wolfpack expanded from primarily western fiction to multiple fiction genres and subgenres, including YA, thrillers, historical romance, and Christian romance. That shift also led Wolfpack to publish more original titles rather than focusing almost solely on reprints of out-of-print works. According to Bray, all the YA and Christian romance titles are new books. “We are accepting more frontlist titles than ever before,” he says, estimating that 30% of Wolfpack’s releases are now new books. The publisher, which has focused on e-books, also upped its print output in 2021, and Bray says the format accounted for 17% of last year’s sales.
One thing that did not change significantly in 2021 was Wolfpack’s sales strategy: while sales to physical outlets jumped last year, Bray says online retailers still account for the vast majority of its revenue.
Ulysses Press, a publisher with offices in Berkeley, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y., has seen steady gains in sales and title output over the past three years. Company executives attribute Ulysses’s success to tapping into the cultural zeitgeist to build its list with books on pop culture, travel, lifestyle, and “unofficial” cookbooks inspired by movies with cult followings. The press had a frontlist hit with The Unofficial Hocus Pocus Cookbook, which it says sold 70,000 copies last year, and a number of backlist books, including Prepper’s Long-Term Survival Guide, which sold 38,000 copies last year and a total of more than 132,000 copies since its release in 2014. Backlist accounted for 67% of Ulysses’s revenue last year, says publisher Keith Riegert.
Data has been key to Ulysses’s success. Riegert notes that book acquisitions are research and market driven, with editors focusing on “underpublished niches” within the market. Writers are then recruited to write the books. “We make sure that the audience exists before we bring it to market,” he explains.
Ulysses used that approach when it launched a children’s imprint, Bloom Books for Young Readers, in 2020, with a mix of books inspired by popular culture, from manga and anime to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. Drawing Chibi, which was published in September 2020 and sold 15,000 copies, “really solidified” Bloom Books, Riegert says, noting that 13 titles were released under the imprint last year. He is especially excited about the prospects of One Hundred Percent Me, a May release about a mixed-race child who “owns the identity that goes along with having parents from very different backgrounds and how that makes them 100% them.”
Until a rebranding in 2016, 1517 Media, the publishing house associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was known as Augsburg Fortress, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn. The new name was inspired by the year the Lutheran reformation began, and the rebranding was done to give the publishing operation its own identity. The rebranding also set the stage for the publisher to more aggressively expand into the general trade area. Originally, all titles were released under the Fortress Press imprint, but in 2018, 1517 entered the children’s market with the launch of Beaming Books, and in 2020 it expanded its presence in the adult nonfiction category, forming Broadleaf Books.
Beaming Books published 14 titles with five staff members in 2018, but the publisher quickly ramped up its output to 26 titles per year, and will do 29 this year, says spokeswoman Jana Nelson. Recent successes include The Boy with Big, Big Feelings; When Charley Met Emma; and Thanksgiving in the Woods. With Beaming Books, 1517 expanded its presence in school and library channels, as well as with independent bookstores.
Broadleaf Books published its first titles in fall 2020, in the heart of the pandemic, Nelson notes. But its inaugural list of 26 titles focused on exploring religion, spirituality, social justice, and personal growth—topics that were of interest because of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd—quickly gained traction. 1517 had enough confidence in Broadleaf that by 2021, 54 titles were published by the imprint. Among its early top sellers were Worth It and In My Grandmother’s House, while newer solid sellers include Parable of the Brown Girl, Hidden Mercy, and Lightmaker’s Manifesto. Together, Beaming Books and Broadleaf had 30 employees in 2021 and published 79 titles. The company says sales in the year at the two imprints jumped 114% over 2019 and accounted for 55% of 1517’s book publishing revenue in 2021.
As it expands into new areas, Fortress Press remains 1517’s largest single imprint. It’s best known as a publisher of theological, biblical, and ethical works for academics, schools, and the church, and its title count has steadily increased in recent years, from 53 in 2019 to 85 in 2021, Nelson says. Fortress has increased its offerings for progressive clergy and church leadership while upping its acquisitions in core academic categories, leading to steady growth in the past three years. More growth is expected in 2022 and 2023, with 1517’s total title count to exceed 150 by 2023.
Kogan Page Inc. has grown quickly since it was formally established in 2019 in New York City by Kogan Page, the U.K. independent publisher, to reach the U.S. and Canadian markets. KPI’s publishing program is fueled by the list of its parent company, which is best known for its business books and titles in the specialist vocational category, augmented by its own acquisition efforts. Headed by director Martin Hill, KPI distributes its titles through Ingram Publisher Services, and it relies heavily on data for its digital advertising efforts, as well as to inform its marketing and new product development. To bolster its North American marketing and acquisition efforts, KPI has added acquisitions and marketing staff to each department. Nurturing partnerships with authors, booksellers, and key individuals and organizations in the business and vocational books space has been key to growing sales, Hill says.
The 47% increase in sales since 2019 reflects good results for both frontlist and backlist titles. New bestsellers include Brand Storytelling, The End of Marketing, and Artificial Intelligence for HR, while From Start-Up to Grown-Up, by New York executive coach Alisa Cohn, became one of KPI’s top sellers to date despite publication late last year. Among KPI’s key backlist titles are Digital Marketing Strategy, Warehouse Management, and The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook.
Hill acknowledges that Covid-19 “brought its challenges” but says the pandemic “gave us additional impetus to move away from old models to new, shifting from physical to online sales, and focusing on what is effective and measurable in our marketing.” As a result, he adds, KPI has seen strong revenue gains in both print and digital formats.
Familius founder Christopher Robbins is happy with the company’s 17% sales gain in 2021 over 2019, noting that he consciously worked to slow growth by cutting title output to improve profitability. Last year’s list was reduced to 57 new books, a number he intends stick to for the near future.
Rather than looking for sales growth by increasing its title output, Familius, founded in 2012 and headquartered in Sanger, Calif., has been focusing on new initiatives that, Robbins acknowledges, were spurred in part by changes to the industry caused by the pandemic. Paramount for him is diversifying Familius’s revenue streams and its market segments. To that end, Familius invested in new e-book and digital platforms, which doubled its digital sales last year. In addition, Familius increased its sales with specialty and gift stores as part of its plan to increase its nonreturnable business—a move that proved successful in cutting returns by 7% and making nonreturnable sales the largest part of the publisher’s revenue.
Robbins also refined Familius’s marketing strategy in several ways. The company has invested in a number of vehicles, such as podcasts and webinars, to directly reach consumers. And proclaiming that “metadata is the marketing of the 21st century,” Robbins says Familius conducts regular metadata audits to ensure its books stay “on trend.” He pays even more attention to the backlist, which now represents almost 70% of sales. “Our bestselling books continue to be great sellers,” he notes, pointing to such titles as Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts and Made for Me. As an outdoor enthusiast, he says it was “fun to see a book like 276 Edible Wild Plants of the United States and Canada get families outdoors foraging.”
Founded in 1992 in England, Barefoot Books opened a U.S. office, now in Concord, Mass., in 1998, and cofounder Nancy Traversy moved to the U.S. in 2000 when the England office closed. Barefoot has always been a children’s publisher that celebrates global diversity. Sales since 2019 were up 16%, the company says, despite a small dip in 2020, which Traversy blames on the pandemic.
Barefoot’s success is due to both timing and strategy, Traversy notes. Children’s books about “diversity, inclusion, raising global citizens, sustainability, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness” moved from “the fringe” into the mainstream,” and the company’s multipronged approach to sales insulated it from a volatile marketplace during the pandemic.
When retail was down and schools were closed in 2020, the drop in sales in these channels was offset by a surge in special sales, especially subscription boxes. “Anything that was online went through the roof in 2020,” Traversy notes, disclosing that subscription box sales grew by more than 200% that year. Subscription sales leveled off last year as the pandemic eased, but sales to the domestic retail market—and, to a lesser degree, to the school and library markets—rose as retailers reopened to customer traffic and students returned to classrooms.
International sales still have to catch up with domestic markets, though. “Asia is still down, and rights are taking a little while to get back up moving again,” Traversy says.
As in prepandemic times, Barefoot’s activity decks continue to be top sellers, especially Yoga Pretzels and Mindful Kids. But the pandemic has intensified demand for books on “mind and body and anything that can alleviate anxiety in children.” Since those topics have been the sweet spot for Barefoot, it has seen backlist sales jump, with backlist accounting for 85% of revenue in 2021.
North Atlantic Books, in Berkeley, Calif., has long published in such areas as health and wellness, racial justice, and self-healing—categories that became hot in the pandemic—and that positioning led to a 14% increase in sales in 2021 over 2019. Books on grief and death did especially well: sales in the category jumped 64% in 2021 over 2020.
The overall company sales increase was driven by strong backlist and digital sales, publisher Tim McKee reports. Digital sales accounted for 22% of revenue in 2021, up from 17% in 2019; audiobooks continue to sell well in digital, with a 50% increase in the three-year span. Backlist sales, meanwhile, generated 82% of sales last year, up from 78% in 2019. Last year’s backlist top seller, Modern Herbal Dispensatory, sold 45,000 copies in print and another 3,500 copies in digital, the company says, while its frontlist top seller, Postcolonial Astrology, sold 11,000 copies across all formats.
To support its backlist, McKee says North Atlantic engaged in aggressive online advertising, and it participated in the backlist marketing program of its distributor (Penguin Random House Publisher Services). North Atlantic also benefited from its authors’ appearances in various media outlets discussing such topics as “radical self-care.”
After bricks-and-mortar bookstores reopened in 2021 to customer traffic, sales surged there, McKee says, with sales to the chains—Barnes & Noble and Indigo—up 40% in 2021 from 2020. While sales to bricks-and-mortar retailers are rising, returns are dropping, from 6% in 2019 to 3.75% in 2021.
Through it all, North Atlantic’s title output has remained steady. “We’re keeping the size of our frontlist relatively modest, so that each acquisition is aligned with our broader publishing program,” McKee notes, “so that we can ensure that each title receives the full support of our teams.”
Since its launch in 2006, Rocky Nook has been best known for its educational photography offerings, but beginning in 2019 the company implemented a new business strategy designed to sustain its growth over the long term. Now based in San Rafael and Santa Barbara, Calif., Rocky Nook is taking a two-pronged approach to its list: focusing on strengthening its photography list, while diversifying its offerings with new topic areas and seeking out new authors. It is also aggressively moving into new sales channels and markets.
The strategy is bearing fruit, with Rocky Nook having back-to-back record sales in 2020 and 2021. Particularly encouraging to the publisher is that 26% of its 2021 revenue came from titles outside of photography education. In fact, Rocky Nook’s Morpho series on how to draw human anatomy drove sales last year and is still doing well, especially after one of the volumes, Simplified Forms, went viral on social media in 2021. “We bought the rights to this French series in 2018, and it did well, and we added new releases and they did well, too,” publisher Scott Cowlin reports. “Then in 2021 we had our first TikTok.”
The impact upon sales of the 14-second video featuring the book was almost immediate, Cowlin says: within days “there was a huge order from Amazon,” and the 2019 title was ranked “in the low hundreds on Amazon’s website—which our books don’t usually do. The book was already doing well but this took it to the next level.” Simplified Forms has sold 25,000 copies to date, while another backlist title, The Photographer’s Guide to Posing, is a more typical top seller, with 10,000 copies sold since its 2017 publication.
While supply chain delays disrupted Rocky Nook’s publishing schedule in 2021, the ongoing pandemic has an upside. “We’ve seen a real interest by consumers in all these creative outlets that we cover,” Cowlin says. “People are looking for things to do; we’re definitely getting that benefit.”