Just as smaller independent publishers and book sellers survive by targeting specific markets and developing expertise in narrow slices of interest, small book distributors are finding ways to serve niche markets. Book Central, founded and owned by book artist Ed Hutchins and based in tiny Cairo, N.Y., in the Catskills, focuses on making available how-to book arts titles to artists and educators.

Practicing the book arts since the 1960s, Hutchins became a full-time artist in 1980, and in 1989 started Editions, a workshop for producing limited editions of art books. His whimsical, exquisitely crafted work has been widely exhibited and can be found in the permanent collections of institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The book/art piece Extended Family "was my landmark book," said Hutchins of his 1990 20-copy limited edition. This lighthearted look at an unexpected gathering of friends has rubber-stamped text and images on Arches paper with overlays and pop-up, fold-out, spring, string, slide and wheel features. "It put me on the map when it was in many competitions and photographed in lots of publications. A number of collectors bought it and started following my work," the artist explained. A year later, he created a 30-copy limited edition called Do Sit Down, in which practical advice for relaxing unfurls from the seat of a miniature chair. The two-color text strip fits inside a painted museum board chair.

As part of his passion, Hutchins also collects instructional materials relating to the book arts. Last year, he founded Book Central to make it easier for others to find and purchase the most useful how-to books. In July, he published and distributed a catalogue offering 22 books. As Hutchins stated in the catalogue, "A good how-to book is a like a patient, resident instructor: it is just an arm's reach away and always available to solve a technical problem or to help learn a new technique." Topics include bookbinding, structures, papermaking, printing, pop-ups, paper engineering and creating books with children. The catalogue grew to 41 selections, and 65 titles are slated for the spring edition, available in March. To help artists create content for their books, new sections will include drawing and illustration, graphic design and writing.

"We select books that have easy-to-follow instructions and clear illustrations," Hutchins told PW. A case in point is Teaching Hand Papermaking (Zpaperpress) by Gloria Zmolek Smith. "I show how to do it without expensive equipment and to make your own tools so that you can make paper in your apartment or in the classroom," Smith, an Iowa paper artist, commented.

All the manuals are written by book arts professionals and most are either from small publishers or are self-published. "We want to connect small publishers to readers and help small publishers sell books," noted Hutchins. Book Central has developed expertise in niche marketing in its competition with online and traditional booksellers. The distributor's mailings target 2000 people carefully culled from lists collected by Hutchins from his workshops, lectures and exhibits. Some book arts groups have sent entire membership lists to be included in the mailings. This year, the list will increase to 3000.

Excellent customer service is another way that Book Central has built its business. Hutchins explained, "We take our customers very seriously. People call for information, like where to get materials or techniques not covered in the books. They like having someone to talk to. Also, virtually every order," he added, "is shipped the same day we receive it."

Chi Nguyen, a customer from New York City, told PW, "The thing I like most is that they handpick the books in the catalogue. With my first order, I got a cute threefold booklet as a gift. It was really well done." The booklet includes a copy of the customer's order, a wooden bookmark, a coupon for free shipping on the next order and a blank order form.

Book Central has worked out decent discounts from publishers by placing nonreturnable orders. "If we don't sell books through the catalogue, we'll sell them at the Book Arts Jamboree or at trade shows," Hutchins remarked.Originated last year by Hutchins, Book Arts Jamboree is three week-long workshops where book artists and educators from around the world can gather to learn, share new ideas and explore innovative ways to record, design and produce their own stories and ideas in a book format. With a maximum class size of 62, the smallest class had 59 people enrolled.

This year, the classes will take place in the Catskills inside four circus tents, which will provide open-air studios with more room to spread out and will enable students to leave their projects in place. This year's workshops are offered July 18-23, July 25-30 and August 1-6. Enrollment for one week's classes is $650, which includes five nights and six days in a double-occupancy resort setting, all meals (Sunday lunch through Friday lunch), hands-on instruction, all necessary materials, bonus workshops, evening programs and use of the resort facilities. (For more information contact: 1999 Book Arts Jamboree, P.O. Box 895, Cairo, N.Y. 12413.)

With the success of last year's Book Arts Jamboree, carefully targeted mailings and pragmatic inventory management (books are warehoused in Hutchins's house), Book Central is, in the owner's words, profitable "at the moment." To keep the catalogue fresh, Hutchins plans to continue to add titles and categories, such as history, criticism and marketing of artists' books. He also expects to increase business through Book Central's recently redesigned Web site (www.artistbooks.com).

Working alone except for part-time help during peak periods, Hutchins spends 70% of his time on Book Central, much more than originally planned. Adding the time spent on planning this year's Book Arts Jamboree, he has little time to spend on his first love, making books. "I will do a 10-day retreat in March," he said, to work on an upcoming show, Thinking Editions, opening this fall at Widener Library at Harvard University.

Hutchins offered some final words of advice to other distributors: "If you're small, you have to be large on service. Know your market. And patience is the operative word. You have to be willing to grow slowly though strongly."