In an industry obsessed with building brands, one publisher has a major advantage—and is finally using it.
Leveraging the venerable name of its affiliate institution, the house is morphing from flailing scholarly press to successful publisher of books for the general trade market. Formerly known as Smithsonian Institution Press, the newly renamed Smithsonian Books increased its sales by 36% in the fiscal year ended September 30, on the strength of its emerging trade program. That sales boost exceeded the mandate Don Fehr received when he took over as head of the press in August 2002, which was to increase revenues by 25% in fiscal 2003 and improve the bottom line.
"Like most university presses, they were just losing money. I was put on a pretty vigorous schedule to turn it around," said Fehr, who has made his career publishing serious nonfiction trade books at such houses as Basic Books. To meet his goal, Fehr made sweeping changes, which included signing W.W. Norton to distribute SB's books.
"[SB] getting distribution through Norton is great for us," said Jim Hardcastle, a buyer for Olsson's Books, a group of bookstores in the Washington, D.C., area. "We more often than not before had trouble getting what we needed on time from them, so that's a big boost." Better trade distribution is key as Fehr moves toward his target of publishing 80% trade books and 20% scholarly titles, flipping the press's past ratio.
Fehr also tweaked the name of the company to make it less stuffy and reinforce the connection between books and the Smithsonian.
"It seemed to me the Smithsonian name is an amazing brand name," Fehr said. The publisher's name change is just the beginning of the image transformation. Fehr has established a New York office for the press and plans to split his time between there and its Washington, D.C., headquarters. "It was clear to me that I need to have more of a marketing and publicity presence in New York," he said. Also working out of the new office is Janey Tannebaum, who Fehr hired in November to head marketing and publicity efforts.
The focus on image building follows a year of change, some of it painful, inside the press. During his first few months on the job, Fehr laid off seven of the press's 38 employees. The dismissals, coupled with discomfort over the new pace and direction of the company, battered morale and led half of the employees who weren't laid off to quit, Fehr said. Fehr has also cut the number of titles from 76 annually to 55.
But the changes are already reaping results. In addition to the sales hike, which Fehr said puts revenues at just over $5 million, the press also cut its losses by 50%. Ultimately, though, the proof is in the books. Hardcastle said he was impressed by SB's October title, One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish: The Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood Cookbook. "It looked more like a Broadway cookbook or a Morrow cookbook," he said.
SB's spring list will include a three-volume series by bestselling historian Joy Hakim, The Story of US. The series is part of SB's efforts to reach young readers, a strategy that will also include developing a line of illustrated biographies similar to the Penguin Lives series. For adults, SB's spring list includes a biography of Sargent Shriver by journalist Scott Stossel, which Maria Shriver plans to help promote.