Before looking at trends in hobby books, we should consider a deceptively simple question: what exactly is a hobby? According to Paul McGahren, sales and marketing v-p at Fox Chapel Publishing, “Everything pursued in leisure should be considered a hobby. It should be fun, relaxing and have a zero burden of expectation with regard to the result. It becomes a craft when you start selling it, giving it as a gift, entering it into your local art show or using it as a measurement of proficiency.”

Fox Chapel itself is working to keep the craft mentality out of its woodworking books, and McGahren points out that Carole Rothman, author of the house's Wooden Bowls from the Scroll Saw, is an amateur herself—a professional cake decorator who only took up woodworking as a hobby three years ago.

Another of what McGahren terms the house's “no pressure, no stress” titles is The Little Book of Whittling. Apparently, the approach is working—40,000 copies of that title have sold in three years.

While sales of almost all other categories of books are weakening or remaining flat, the hobby category presents one of the few that grow more popular during lean times. “In these days of declining backlist sales, it's interesting to note the continued resilience of field guides,” says Robert Kirk, executive editor and group publisher for science titles at Princeton University Press. “If they're not recession proof, they're pretty darn close.”

By almost all accounts, the weak economy bolsters the market for hobby books. Not only are hobbies a fun and often inexpensive way to pass the time, but they are frequently ecologically sound, and they inspire a kind of nostalgia for simpler times—a Tom Sawyerish respite from the age of video games and eight-year-olds with their own Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

“In our experience, people do turn to hobby books more in a recession,” Gibbs Smith editor Jared Smith says. “People are realizing that they don't need to spend a lot of money or invest a great deal of time in order to have fun or gain new experiences. Our titles How to Play the Harmonica and The Pocket Guide to Magic address familiar subjects with a whole new attitude of curiosity and invention. It's like a shift in personality or lifestyle—from being a passive consumer to becoming more involved in and aware of the mystery and magic of everyday things. ”

Judith Schnell is publisher at Stackpole Books, which has a healthy backlist and new selection of books about fly-fishing, such as Modern Midges: Tying and Fishing the World's Most Effective Patterns. Schnell says, “Fly-fishing is strong in a recession and out of a recession. It has always been recession-proof, because the people who fly-fish tend to build libraries. Even when they can't take the dream trip to Alaska or New Zealand, they can buy a book and plan to go later or they can fish closer to home with the same kind of informational book.”

Skyhorse's associate publisher and director of sales and marketing, Bill Wolfsthal, notes that the press's Self-Sufficiency series—which covers such topics as home brewing and preserving—offers books that are both hobbies and useful. “Happily, the back to basics movement works for everyone who wants to be green and for those looking to save money,” says Wolfsthal. “Because both being green and being frugal will be with us for a long time to come, we don't think we will be seeing reduced demand any time soon.”

In London, naval and maritime publisher Conway (a division of the Anova Books group) is increasingly publishing hobby books for model shipbuilders, including the now annual Shipwright. Conway publisher John Lee says, “We've seen little evidence of the economic downturn impacting the sales of the specialist books; fall 2008 numbers were well up overall. At times like these, people prioritize what is important to them, and hobbies come very high up that list.” That doesn't mean publishers ought to rest on their laurels. Lee continues, “Shipwright has an incredibly loyal global readership of very skilled ship modelers, many of whom have every issue since 1972.” Conway adapted this black and white quarterly to modern needs after a reader questionnaire elicited a 50% reply rate. “The response prompted us to go to an annual format with further-ranging articles and printed in full color on a large format,” says Lee.

St. Martin's senior editor BJ Berti concurs with the nostalgia trend for both kids and adults. “We are publishing this year some books that appeal to a slightly different type of DIY audience,” she says. “Build Your Own Paper Robots comes with a DVD embedded in the cover that allows you to customize and print thousands of designs. Things That Go Boom, or Fly, Float and Zoom! has 18 projects that include electronic objects like Stomper, a walking bug—like creation, a lemon cannon and a hot-air balloon. These books appeal to an audience similar to the Make magazine demographic.”

On the higher end of the hobbies category sits Antique Collectors' Club, whose marketing manager, Karen Lunstead, says, “Books about collecting have declined a bit during the last few years, but the moderately priced books, such as Antiques at Auction in America, which is $25, and our Starting to Collect series—on subjects such as rugs, glass, 20th-century ceramics, antique furniture and antique jewelry and ranging from $25 to $35—remain popular, the latter especially because they are small, so they are easily carried by people visiting garage sales and auctions.” Collecting is still popular today, Lunstead says, because people want a bargain and want guidance from books about whether they've found one. The press has also noticed that collecting items of vintage fashion is a growing trend and as a result will publish Carry Me! this fall, on vintage Lucite purses from the 1950s.

Zack Miller, publisher of Motorbooks, an imprint of MBI, which is in turn part of the Quayside Group, is hesitant to state flat-out that sales of the books he publishes on cars and motorcycles have not been dented by the economy: “There is a cherished view among publishers that how-to books are recession-proof, but this is a different kind of recession, and things we thought were always true really aren't. Looking at our top 100 backlist titles, I would say that the how-to is a higher percentage than other kinds of books in that list. Still, I'd be dishonest if I said we're selling the same number of books we were two years ago. We're looking a lot more critically at every project that we consider doing.”

But, Miller adds, “If we do a book that has a special spin to it, it does just fine. We just published a $50, 300-plus—page book on the history of the Pontiac GTO, and based on lots of reviews and attention, and on some unfortunate timing for GM but good timing for us, that is doing quite nicely.”

The Call of the Wild
Like other hobby books, nature books are believed to be recession-proof. But Brian King, publisher at Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says recent research doesn't bear that out. “The conventional wisdom is that hiking and backpacking pick up when the economy is bad, but we just had some students at a top-tier business school take a look at economic indicators versus our thru-hiking numbers, and they found no correlation. For long-distance hiking, it makes no sense. If you have no job or job prospects, would you use up $4,000 or so in savings to go hiking for six months?”

Not the great news that publishers of hiking books are looking for. But King continues: “What we have seen this year versus last is a huge jump of 30% in sales of our principal thru-hiking book, and early reports do show more hikers out there on the Appalachian Trail. For official guides and maps overall, volume last year through May 15 is up almost 14%, but it's primarily through major book and outdoor retail chains and Amazon, not direct to consumer, so it's a limited gauge of what individuals are actually buying.”

King is in the minority among publishers of nature hobby books with his downbeat assessment. At Globe Pequot Press, editor Holly Rubino says, “As the staycation increasingly becomes the preferred vacation during lean economic times, American families are showing an interest in what they can do close to home, whether it's hike the nearest trail and identify animal tracks with their children, or raise a few goats or take up bird-watching.” Globe Pequot publishes a range of titles, including its Knack series of basic illustrated guides, such as Knack Canoeing for Everyone: A Step-by-Step Guide to Selecting the Gear, Learning the Strokes, and Planning Your Trip by Daniel A. Gray, and narrative nonfiction, such as Don't Look Behind You by Peter Allison, a former Botswana safari guide (from Globe Pequot's Lyons Press imprint).

Another book on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk for Sunshine, has been selling briskly, although it has an angle that helps it stand out. Author Jeff Alt dedicated his walk of the trail to a brother with cerebral palsy and has used his efforts to raise over $100,000 for the Sunshine Home, where his brother is a resident. A third edition will be published in the fall. “A Walk for Sunshine has sold well since its release in the fall of 2007, when the economy was beginning to sour,” says Alt, “and sales remain constant. We attribute some of our success to the economy and the go green movement. We've received e-mails from readers who either lost their jobs or can't find one, and they've stated that there is no better time than now to hike the Appalachian Trail.”

Meanwhile, for those who are interested in going farther afield, Interlink is offering The Andes: Trekking and Climbing by Val Pitkethly and Kate Harper and Nepal: Trekking and Climbing by Steve Razzetti.

Princeton University Press is continuing to branch out from bird-focused guides such as Birds of Eastern North America and Birds of Western North America, each an $18.95 paperback, to other areas, such as Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson. “Sophisticated birders are increasingly exercising their field skills on other wildlife, and there has been something of a boom in interest in butterflies and dragonflies—critters that are often extremely challenging to identify in the wild,” says Robert Kirk, group publisher, science, at Princeton University Press.

One Hundred Butterflies by Harold Feinstein isn't exactly a field guide—it's a $50, 128-page hardcover that contains 100 four-color photographs—but Little, Brown is publishing the volume with an eye on the market of butterfly watchers. Executive editor Michael Sand says, “Butterflies have a kind of universal appeal. We're aware that there is an avid audience of butterfly fanatics out there—witness the popularity of live butterfly exhibits at science and natural history museums around the country—and an equally devoted group of photography fanatics. I don't know how you quantify this, but I suspect there is a fair amount of overlap between the two.”

And Judith Schnell, publisher of Stackpole Books, notes that nature book consumers are naturally interested in the books' effect on the environment as well. “There's a lot more concern from our buyers about green printing,” she reports. “All our National Outdoor Leadership School books are printed green in terms of the inks and the presses, and they all have a stamp of approval on the book.... [Our] fly-fishing buyers and fly-fishing authors want books done in a way that's not going to hurt the planet.”
Books Mentioned in This Feature
Wooden Bowls from the Scroll Saw by Carole Rothman. Fox Chapel, $19.95 paper, Oct. ISBN 978-1-56523-433-8.

The Little Book of Whittling by Chris Lubkemann. Fox Chapel, $12.95 paper, 2005. ISBN 978-1-56523-274-7.

How to Play the Harmonica by Sam Barry. Gibbs Smith, $9.99 paper, Aug. ISBN 978-1-4236-0570-6.

The Pocket Guide to Magic by Bart King. Gibbs Smith, $9.99 paper, Aug. ISBN 978-1-4236-0637-6.

Modern Midges: Tying and Fishing the World's Most Effective Patterns by Rick Takahashi and Jerry Hubka. Stackpole, $39.95, Sept. ISBN 978-1-934753-00-2.

Shipwright 2010, edited by Martin Robson. Conway (Sterling, dist.), $39.95, Jan. 2010. ISBN 978-1-84486-108-8.

Build Your Own Paper Robots by Julius Perdana and Josh Buczynski. St. Martin's Press, $18.95, Aug.ISBN 978-0-312-57370-6.

Things That Go Boom, or Fly, Float and Zoom! by Alan Bridgewater. St. Martin's Press, $19.99 paper, Oct. ISBN 978-0-312-57404-8.

Antiques at Auction in America by Dorothy Hammond. Antique Collectors' Club, $25 paper, Apr. ISBN 978-1-85149-594-8.

Carry Me! by Janice Berkson. Antique Collectors' Club, $55, July. ISBN 978-1-85149-593-1.

Knack Canoeing for Everyone: A Step-by-Step Guide to Selecting the Gear, Learning the Strokes, and Planning Your Trip by Daniel A. Gray. Globe Pequot/Knack, $19.95 paper, May. ISBN 978-1-59921-524-2.

Don't Look Behind You by Peter Allison. Lyons Press, $24.95 paper, Sept. ISBN 978-1-59921-469-6.

A Walk for Sunshine by Jeff Alt. Dreams Shared Publications (Midpoint, dist.), $15.95 paper, Sept. ISBN 978-0-9679482-3-2.

The Andes: Trekking and Climbing by Val Pitkethly and Kate Harper. Interlink, $20 paper, 2008. ISBN 978-1-56656-715-2.

Nepal: Trekking and Climbing by Steve Razzetti. Interlink, $20 paper, 2008. ISBN 978-1-56656-728-2.

Birds of Eastern North America by Paul Sterry and Brian E. Small. Princeton Univ. Press, $18.95 paper, Oct. ISBN 978-0-691-13426-0.

Birds of Western North America by Paul Sterry and Brian E. Small. Princeton Univ. Press, $18.95 paper, Oct. ISBN 978-0-691-13428-4.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson. Princeton Univ. Press, $29.95 paper, May. ISBN 978-0-691-12281-6.

One Hundred Butterflies by Harold Feinstein. Little, Brown, $50, Nov. ISBN 978-0-316-03363-3.