Unbridled Books, headquartered in Denver and Columbio, Mo., with nine employees scattered across the country and a webmaster in Estonia, continues to buck industry trends in its business model. At a time when other small presses are holding steady in their output or even trimming their fiction offerings, Unbridled is both growing its list—a mix of literary and commercial fiction written by both debut and seasoned authors—and successfully promoting its books in both traditional and unconventional ways.
Unbridled reports that it's expanding its frontlist this year from three to five releases per season to six or seven titles, with an average of 10,000—15,000-copy initial print runs in hardcover, which co-publisher Fred Ramey claims is 25%—30% higher than previous years' print runs. Between two and four releases each year will be debut novels, although this spring's list contains what Ramey calls an “unprecedented” three debuts.
One fall release, Annotated Nose by Marc Estrin, with artwork by Delia Robinson, will be offered as a free download in its entirety, though Estrin's serio-comic annotations and most of Robinson's collage paintings will be available only in a clothbound limited edition of 500 copies.
“[Annotated Nose] straddles our commitment to online publication and to traditional bookmaking,” Ramey explained. “That's a commitment to the experience of and love for books we know is still out there. But we're doing this in concert with our recognition that Estrin's readership is very much a Web-savvy readership.”
Ramey ascribes the recent growth of Unbridled to the success of its “quality” list of 33 titles in print, with three more releases shipping in May and June. Of those 33 releases, 13 have been named as Booksense picks, with two of them reaching the number one rank, most recently the press's fall 2007 release, The Pirate's Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson, a Wellesley College professor and the author of True History of Paradise (Plume, 2000). The Pirate's Daughter was also named a Booksense year-end Highlight and was chosen by four independent booksellers as a selection for their signed first editions book clubs.
Ramey claims Pirate's Daughter has “clarified” Unbridled's brand as a publisher of high-quality fiction. “Our success last year with Pirate's Daughter has, I think, opened opportunities for us and finally placed Unbridled on the boards,” he told PW, reporting a “sharp” jump in sales this past year, though he declined to disclose specific sales figures.
According to Caitlin Hamilton Summie, Unbridled's marketing director, The Pirate's Daughter, a novel inspired by the actor Errol Flynn's accidental visit to Jamaica in 1946, is the press's bestselling title, selling through two print runs in hardcover, with paperback rights sold to Random House in a “significant six-figure deal.” The book has received glowing reviews in major trade and consumer media, including Publishers Weekly, New York Times Book Review, O magazine, Vogue, Washington Post and USA Today. It was named a People magazine critic's choice selection, and last month, Cezair-Thompson received Essence magazine's first literary award for fiction.
“It's just snowballed,” Summie said of the critical acclaim. “We're still running with this book.”
Unencumbered by overhead costs because of their decentralized business model, Ramey and his co-publisher, Greg Michalson, are putting their profits into marketing. They're planning on hiring more marketing staff this year and are revamping the press's Web site, with what Summie describes as an “aggressive redesign and relaunch.”
“We keep one foot in traditional media, one in new media,” Summie explained. “That's what it requires these days. We want our authors on NPR, but there are some fascinating communities online.”
Unbridled's plans for its Web site include extending the reach of its Unbridled Aloud series of podcasts, in which authors are interviewed in-depth and read from their work, as well as increasing the number of widgets for more Unbridled titles. Thus far, the works of only two authors—Marc Estrin and Andrea Portes—are widgetized on Unbridled's site.
Unbridled also plans to make full use of social networking and file sharing sites, with innovative marketing strategies tailored towards each targeted online community. For instance, this spring, Unbridled is having actors act out a scene from its trade paper original release, Marriage of True Minds, a debut novel by the playwright Stephen Evans, and posting the video on YouTube.
“It's online word of mouth. We hope to build online buzz,” Summie said of Marriage of True Minds, which she compares to reading a screenplay, with a plot reminiscent of “screwball Cary Grant movies.”
Valerie Koehler, Houston's Blue Willow Bookshop owner, proclaims herself an ardent Unbridled fan. “They have an ear for what much of America is looking for: good quality fiction. They're solid books with solid characters.”