Jed Lyons, president and CEO of Rowman & Littlefield, gets annoyed when the mainstream press calls the publishing industry “beleaguered” and “distressed.” His word of choice is thriving. “The book industry is thriving right now,” Lyons said. “We’re thriving. The Big Five—or maybe it’s the Big Four soon—are doing well. For our National Book Network [the distributor Lyons founded in 1986] many of the clients had their best year ever in 2021.”
To become one of the nation’s largest independent publishers, Lyons has kept his focus on acquisitions, partnerships, and people. His 73-year-old publishing house, based outside Washington, D.C., has four dozen imprints—and climbing. The company wrapped up 2021 with sales of $103 million and an 80,000-title backlist.
Those figures include New England publishing house Globe Pequot, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. R&L acquired it in 2014, along with its 2,500 titles and $15 million in sales. Now, Globe Pequot is both the name of R&L’s trade group as well as one of its flagship imprints. R&L’s trade group had sales of almost $30 million in 2021. It has a raft of imprints specializing in lifestyle, recreation, and regional and local history and guides. They include Stackpole, founded in 1930; Lyons Press, which specializes in military history as well as fishing, hunting, nature, and more; and Falcon, publisher of more than 1,000 regional guidebooks.
R&L acquired Stackpole in 2015, and its publisher, Judith Schnell, was named trade group publisher in 2017. In that role she also leads TwoDot Books, focused on Western history and culture; Maine-centered Down East Books; and new acquisitions Prometheus, Applause/Backbeat, and Astragal. Schnell describes Lyons’s long courtship of Stackpole as typical of his perseverant approach to growth. “Jed had been knocking on the door for years, patiently waiting and getting to know us,” Schnell said. “He was clear he would keep the imprint and our identity, and he was trustworthy on this. He understood the nature of the company. When you buy an imprint, that’s what you are buying.”
Lyons said, “It is gratifying to be part of a team that is keeping these respected imprints alive and independent rather than watching them get rolled into the maw of some gigantic public company. To fold in Down East Books in Maine and erase their Maine identity would be foolish. The same for Pineapple Press, which has just done books on Florida for some 40 years.” Globe Pequot is still based in New England, moving this year 20 minutes up the road from Guilford, Conn., to resettle in Essex, where the company was founded.
A silver lining in the long stay-close-to-home years of the pandemic was “a surge in the sale of our books on the outdoors,” Lyons said. Sales at Falcon Guides have boomed, as have sales for fishing titles, regional travel, and local history books.
Strategy and planning also played a role in the trade division’s big 2021 sales year. “These kinds of books sell every year,” Schnell said. “We don’t have to run after trends. We stay solid to what we are doing, and do it as well as we can.” Schnell projects steady growth to continue on the trade frontlist, with output moving up from 539 titles in 2021 to 586 this year and more than 600 in 2023.
Partnerships also are key to R&L’s growth. Under Globe Pequot, for example, Lyons Press publishes Orvis’s fishing books, while Stackpole does titles for the National Outdoor Leadership School. Falcon works with Backpacker magazine and National Geographic, and its latest partner is KOA with camping books for kids. R&L has partnered for decades with nonprofits such as the American Association for State and Local History, think tanks such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, research groups, university presses, and government agencies, including publishing the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States.
Both Lyons and Schnell said R&L’s people drive the success of the company. It employs around 400 full-time staffers in offices in Marlborough, Mass.; Essex, Conn.; and Lanham, Md., and at its 300,000-sq.-ft. distribution center in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa. and its 150,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in Hagerstown, Md. The trade group has about 70 people on its payroll, many of whom have been with Globe Pequot, through various owners, for decades.
Lyons, who began his career as a campaign advance man for a Maine congressman before moving into publishing 47 years ago,is always looking ahead. R&L, for example, was an early adopter of print on demand and now does 40% of its printing in-house. “It gives us some protection from the unpredictable and sometimes unreliable book printing schedules that outside printers are too often delivering,” Lyons said.
The company has faced its challenges. There was a furlough early in the pandemic, though all employees who wanted to return were back on the job in a few months. Now, inflation is driving up not only the cost of paper for books but also the price and availability of the corrugated boxes to ship them. Paper mills in New England are sending the pulp to China, where manufacturers make corrugation material and ship it back to the U.S. at prohibitive prices, Lyons said. Years ago, Lyons moved R&L’s four-color printing out of China to Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam. “I would love to do all our printing domestically,” he said. “It’s something we are keeping an eye on.”