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Outsourcing the Books
John F. Baker -- 4/17/00
Packagers are busier than ever, after 20 (official) years

What do Mark Helprin's Swan Lake, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin), Carla Lind's The Wright Style (Simon & Schuster), The New York Public Library Desk Reference (Macmillan), The Jews: A Treasury of Art & Literature (Hugh Lauter Levin), The Essential Andy Warhol (Abrams) and Jane Goodall's My Life with the Chimpanzees (Pocket Books) have in common?

Answer: They were all created for their publishers by packagers or, as they prefer to call themselves, book producers.

The tradition of putting together particularly complicated books, or books that require a lot of illustrations and consequent permissions, or that need extensive research beyond the reach of an individual author, and then selling the results to an interested publisher, is a venerable one. It probably g s back to such pioneers as Britain's Paul Hamlyn, Peter Kindersley and Bruce Marshall, who began putting together highly designed packages and selling them to publishers in the late 1960s and early '70s. American entrepreneurs were not slow to pick up the notion, however, and now they are celebrating a birthday of sorts.

The American Book Producers Association, their official trade group, celebrates its 20th birthday this year; and though packagers have obviously been around considerably longer than they've been organized into such a group, this is as good a time as any to take stock of where they've been and where they're going.

"I think packaging is now a more substantial part of the publishing mix than it's ever been," said Nick Viorst of Grand Central Press, an ABPA director. "There are hardly any major publishers who don't work in one way or another with packagers. And just as so many of other publishing functions--editing, publicity, art direction, rights sales--are being outsourced these days, you could say that packaging is the outsourcing of the publishing function itself."

He is quick to quash the notion that packagers simply respond to publisher ideas, like authors performing work for hire. "They're considerable creative forces these days, not simply responding to publisher demands, but coming up with the ideas for books themselves. We're not just talking backlist reference staples, but sexy frontlist titles, too, using brand names like popular Web sites, or significant food or health entities." Viorst's Grand Central (which developed out of Paul Fargis's Stone Song Press, one of the pioneer American packaging groups) works with, among others, the New York Times ¸National Public Radio and Woman's Day magazine to create books from their material.

David Rubel, who is ABPA president, cites as an example collaboration with the Society of American Historians as the source of a book his Agincourt Press is doing later this year: It's called To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents, and it's being edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson for Dorling Kindersley, with publication to coincide with this summer's political conventions. The publisher is planning a 100,000-copy printing, and will send a gift-wrapped book to every convention delegate from both parties.

Packagers have sometimes seemed to be involved primarily in lavishly illustrated books, and so, in that case, what has the turn away from such books among many major publishers in recent years done to the business?

For John Campbell at Wonderland, it's an odd conundrum: "Fewer publishers seem to be doing art and illustrated books these days, but the market is actually growing," is his take. "So that's good for us. These kind of books also take longer to publish, and publishers have been scaling them back because they don't want to have too much in inventory." Many of the big publishers, which used to have large special departments to create illustrated books, have either discontinued them or considerably reduced them, meaning more outsourcing for projects requiring extensive illustration.

Viorst sees a decline in the total number of such books, but a greater preponderance of them now being created by packagers, "so it's more business for us." He points to Hyperion, which used to work with Disney for illustrated books but now has to create--or have created for it--its own.

Jim Becker of Seattle's becker&mayer! Ltd. sees the current situation as a mixed blessing. "The good side is that publishers have less and less resources, human and financial, to put together big complicated books, so they have to turn more to us. But the downside is that it's now more difficult more difficult to make a profit. Our margins are much thinner, and publishers seem to want to buy the books at not much more than it costs us to print them." He acknowledges, however, that there are new technological advances that make it easier to keep costs down and at the same time offer more perceived value. "We have to be more clever than ever!" is the way he amusingly puts it.

Becker&mayer! has a list that is balanced about 50-50 between adult and children's books, and the children's list usually requires special hand-crafted elements, done these days largely in Chinese plants. It's the company's responsibility to supervise all aspects of the often costly and time-consuming production. Troll and Scholastic are its principal clients in children's, and Random and Chronicle in adult titles.

Philip Lief of the Philip Lief Group in Princeton, N.J., is concerned more with text than pictures and therefore d s not share the same concerns about production costs. For him, the problem in dealing with publishers these days is the same one that authors and agents complain about: the shrinking number of potential customers for their work. "What we need is a computerized Rolodex to keep track of everyone, all the constantly changing editors and imprints," he said. "It's got so you can't hold an auction any more. I recently had a property I'd normally have auctioned, but most of the potential buyers, being in the same corporate groups, couldn't bid against each other. So I had to let it go to the best offer instead. They can still do that!"

Lief works with celebrity names and authoritative sources for his books. Upcoming is a Patricia Cornwell cookbook he is putting together for Putnam, and a series of books on aspects of health for Dorling Kindersley that will be drawn from Natural Health magazine.

One packager who has gone through all possible permutations of creating material for publishers--becoming heavily involved at one time or another in graphic novels, interactive children's books, video animation, computer software, CD-ROMs and e-books--is Byron Preiss Visual Publications, which celebrates its quarter century at the same time ABPA is celebrating its 20 years.

Preiss describes a 1975 launch in which the company sold its first illustrated titles to Pyramid Books, then expanded to embrace science fiction, with illustrated works of Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny, and the SF art of Leo and Diane Dillon. During the '80s it further expanded to embrace environmental books (including Jane Goodall's My Life with the Chimpanzees) In 1990 he launched Byron Preiss Multimedia, exploring CD-ROM possibilities, and went public in 1994. A partnership deal with Simon & Schuster followed, embracing distribution for BPMC software titles, before that company was sold last year to a British Internet group. Meanwhile Preiss has continued to develop, with licensing agreements with Yahoo!, Imax and Scientific American. Its ibooks, done with S&S, was, he claims, the first simultaneous publishing of e-books and print books. Staying ever abreast of new developments, Preiss has packaged an instant book on the popular HBO-TV series The Sopranos, with the New York Times, and is about to do, with Yahoo!, The Ultimate Desk Guide to the Internet for HarperCollins.

"You just have to keep up with what's happening," says Preiss. That's something that packagers are forced, by the constantly changing nature of the demands made on them, to do all the time.

Some Classic Packaged Titles

The ABPA maintains a Hall of Fame for some of the most celebrated titles created over the years by its members, and at its 20th anniversary gathering on April 27 they will be set up for admiration in a special display. Here, in chronological order, are a baker's dozen of the classic packaged books or ongoing projects:

Grandmother Remembers (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1983). Packaged by Welcome Enterprises. Over 1,500,000 copies sold.

The Official Book of Thumb Wrestling (Workman, 1983). Packaged by becker&mayer! Ltd. Over 300,000 copies in print.

Swan Lake by Mark Helprin, illus. by Chris van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, 1989). Packaged by Ariel Books. A New York Times bestseller.

The Wright Style by Carla Lind (Simon & Schuster, 1992). Packaged by Archetype Press. Eight printings, 90,000 copies in print of this $50 book, which gave rise to an extensive series of Frank Lloyd Wright books.

The Jews: A Treasury of Art & Literature edited by Sharon R. Keller (Hugh Lauter Levin, 1992). Packaged by Fair Street Productions. Winner of a National Jewish Book Award.

The Pill Book (Bantam, 1992 onward). Packaged by CMD Publishing. This annual publication has sold more than 10 million copies.

Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine (Scholastic, 1993 onward). Packaged by Parachute Publishing. Bestselling children's series ever, with more than 220 million copies sold.

The Stanley Complete Step-by-Step Book of Home Repair and Improvement (Simon & Schuster, 1993). Packaged by Grand Central Press. Nearly 300,000 sold; revised edition out in the fall.

Blockbuster Video Guide to Movies and Videos (Dell, 1994 onward) Packaged by the Philip Lief Group. Four million copies sold, including more than half in a CD-ROM version, of this annual compilation that is now, with the downsizing of Dell, ceasing publication.

Wine for Dummies (IDG Books, 1995). Packaged by Ettlinger Editorial Projects. Over two million copies sold in two editions.

The New York Public Library Desk Reference (Macmillan, 1998). Packaged by the Stonesong Press. Over a million copies sold in three editions.

Deal with It! (Pocket Books, 1999). Packaged by Roundtable Press, in association with gurl.com.

Essential series on noted artists: Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Vincent Van Gogh, others. (Abrams, 1999). Packaged by the Wonderland Press. Half a million copies in print.
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