The economy is uncertain, the Dow is falling and book publishers may be a bit uneasy about the future, but life couldn't be better at Sterling Publishing. A niche publisher specializing in a wide range of how-to, recreational and educational categories, Sterling claims a bang-up year despite an economy slow to recover from recession and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

"Business is booming," said Sterling president Lincoln Boehm in an interview at PW's offices, with sales up "37% and profits up even more." The company also notes the addition of the Hearst Books list—in January Sterling licensed the Hearst magazine trademark and will take over the Hearst book publishing program—among a number of factors driving an "exceptional year," said Boehm.

How do they do it? By emphasizing nonfiction backlist-oriented niches such as crafts, and selling through nontraditional retail outlets, selling to libraries and schools; and offering good-looking books with great price points.

Founded in 1949 as a publisher of hobby books, the publisher has remained true to its roots, focusing on a list full of hobby and crafts titles as well as puzzle books, juvenile books, gardening and woodworking. "We're more of a school and library publisher," emphasized Sterling executive v-p Charles Nurnberg. About 75% of Sterling's sales come from the backlist, and the company loves to boast about a list full of titles that lead their categories in sales for years.

About a third of Sterling's business is generated by the special sales division, and Sterling officials are quick to cite the importance of nontraditional outlets. Nurnberg cited the company's mail-order sales, but emphasized the number of books sold through "lumber yards and garden centers. Returns are low, and they're happy to have backlist titles they know will sell." And library sales, Boehm added, have been strong, despite concern over possible cuts in public library budgets.

Sterling has six imprints of its own and distributes books from about 17 different publishers, among them multiple imprints from Hachette (Octopus, Orion, Gollancz), the Guild of Master Craftsman and American Express. Sterling also has an agreement with Barnes & Noble to distribute titles from B&N's book-publishing units to other retail outlets. Altogether, Sterling releases about 1,000 titles a year, half from its own imprints and half from its distribution clients, whose titles are featured in Sterling's catalogue alongside its own titles. Some 95% of Sterling titles are reprinted, said Boehm, and the company amortizes its publishing costs over the years of reprintings to keep price points low. "We're more like a textbook company in that way," said Nurnberg, "but trade is strong for us, too."

Nurnberg and Boehm lamented that Sterling's titles sell big numbers, but never show up on bestseller lists. Sterling's Illustrated Dream Dictionary (1996) has sold more than 800,000 copies, "and has never been on a bestseller list," said Nurnberg. He pointed out The New Router Handbook, a woodworking title he said has sold more than two million copies; and The Biggest Riddle Book in the World, a children's title, that he said has outsold every other book in its category for more than 25 years. Sterling also offers the trademarked For Wimps series, (Yoga for Wimps has sold 110,000 copies in 2 years) and the Little Giant books, a 40-title series of small, quirky, 500-page reference books on everything from astrology to puzzles and jokes.

"We're not the lead books for trade stores, but independents know us. The chain category buyers know our crafts books well. " Boehm said.

Through a licensing arrangement, Hearst Books is now a division of Sterling. Jacqueline Deval, publisher, v-p of Hearst Books, oversees the Sterling program, although she works for Hearst. Hearst will publish 45 titles this year, and Deval expects to increase that number by 25 titles a year until it is publishing about 150 titles a year.

The agreement, said Deval, is a "licensing partnership" that allows Sterling editors as well as Hearst magazine editors (from such magazines as Country Living and House Beautiful) to generate book ideas for the various markets these magazines represent. Hearst approves the publication of the books, which are then produced, published and distributed by Sterling. "Our books, their trademarks." said Nurnberg. "We pay them a royalty for use of the brand."

But while Sterling is a New York City—based publisher, it's a house that's focused on publishing books for the rest of America. Boehm said Sterling has 23 editors specializing in crafts, and all but one is based at Sterling subsidiaries located in North Carolina, Utah or Georgia. "I'm not sure," Boehm quipped, "if there's even a table saw in Manhattan."