Building the Business
“Special” Sales Are Normal: How Addicus Books Stays Healthy
by Linda Carlson
Rod Colvin has written his way from 30-second news spots to true crime to Straight Talk about Breast Cancer—and that was only the first half of his career as a writer and publisher.
The common thread in Colvin’s professional life, both before and after he established Addicus Books in Omaha in 1994: passion. As a writer, he was passionate about his topics, and in his 18 years as a publisher, he’s continued to be passionate, both about the books his company publishes and about the audiences Addicus serves. “I enjoy going to work every day,” he says.
Of course, Colvin is quick to point out, the passion he could indulge as a writer—first during his 15 years at Omaha’s WOW radio and then in writing First Heroes: The POWs Left Behind in Vietnam (Irvington) and Evil Harvest: The True Story of Cult Murder in the American Heartland (Bantam)—has been tempered by business concerns.
“Now as a publisher, I’ve had to choose books that I believed would be commercially successful. Like all of us, I’ve made a few acquisition mistakes along the way, but I am pleased with the performance of most of our books,” he says.
Straight Talk about Breast Cancer provides a good example. “We printed 2,000 copies and hoped we’d sell them,” Colvin recalls. “Today, that book is in its fourth edition and still selling; we have more than 100,000 copies in print.”
Selling More Outside of Bookstores
The primary niche at Addicus is consumer health books, 60 percent of them sold to hospitals, clinics, and government organizations. Some of these so-called special sales are among the company highlights. Sales to pharmaceuticals have sometimes involved tens of thousands of copies, Colvin notes, adding, “The companies paid invoices within 30 days and there were no returns!”
The emphasis on special sales is something he recommends to other publishers, especially those new to the business. Many years ago at a Publishing University, IBPA veteran Don Tubesing told Colvin: “Make sure you have at least one solid sales channel for a book outside the traditional bookstore sales channel,” and that’s advice the Addicus publisher has obviously taken to heart.
As he points out, “Many publishing newcomers automatically think of bookstores when they think of selling books. However, most books are not sold through bookstores, and many, many publishers would be out of business if they depended only on bookstore sales.”
He goes on to explain that revenue is not his only motivation: “It’s heartening to know that our consumer health books help people,” he says. “As one reader said about our book on lung cancer, ‘Information takes away some of the terror.’”
Some of Addicus’s 200 titles are so specialized that it’s easy to see why they’re more easily sold direct or through intermediaries rather than in general interest bookstores—Facial Feminization Surgery: A Guide for the Transgendered Woman, for example; and A Patient’s Guide to Dental Implants and Overcoming Urinary Incontinence: A Woman’s Guide to Treatment. These books are also sold by online retailers, accompanied by such rave reviews as “Easy to understand, a quick read and a thorough explanation . . . in language that I can understand.”
Other Addicus titles are crossovers into self-help. The Health and Self-Help section in the Addicus catalog includes The Family Compatibility Test: Fun Questions for Couples, Moms, Dads, and Kids to Answer Together, and Understanding Your Living Will: What You Need to Know Before a Medical Emergency.
The company also publishes a few nonfiction titles outside the consumer health area, titles that Colvin believes may have strong regional markets, at the least. Examples are The ABCs of Gold Investing; Finders Keepers: Attracting and Retaining Top Sales Professionals; The Coach’s Guide to Real Winning: Teaching Life Lessons to Kids in Sports; and Divorce in Nebraska: Understandable Answers to Your Legal Questions. And Addicus has several true-crime titles, including Colvin’s own Evil Harvest, which it republished.
Stories That Shed Light
One of Colvin’s favorite newer titles outside the health area is The Sapp Brothers’ Story: Tough Times, Teamwork, and Faith, written with the surviving pair of a four-brother Nebraska-based partnership that took a family from rags to financial security.
Now in their early 80s, the brothers were 77 and 80 when they started work with Addicus. Great storytellers rather than writers, they worked with a freelancer to create what Colvin calls “a fascinating story”—and it’s a story that brings crowds to their appearances, whether at the Omaha Rotary, a Catholic church Thanksgiving lunch, or an event at 2,300-student Peru State College.
Perhaps thinking of the Sapps, Colvin says he made the switch from journalism to publishing because although he enjoyed researching and interviewing interesting people and putting their stories together, he didn’t necessarily like writing. “I didn’t want to be a writer the rest of my life,” he says, but he notes that he has continued to write, doing three books that have been published by Addicus, including one that is still selling 15 years after launch.
“Combining writing and publishing is a challenge,” he points out. “Writing takes such concentration and focus, and I can’t ignore running a business.”
His passion helps. One of Colvin’s books, Overcoming Prescription Drug Addiction, was inspired by the death of his 35-year-old brother. “It was a profound personal loss,” he recalls, “and I wanted to shed light on this problem. It was shredding the emotional fabric of families across the nation, but at the time no one—including the media—was talking about prescription drug abuse.”
Successes and Setbacks
Colvin’s passion for publishing has paid off in uplifting ways. He spent four years serving as an IBPA board member, which he calls a “most enriching personal experience.” “During the years I sat around the table with these people, I was exposed to so many stimulating ideas and made some lifelong friends,” he reports, and he notes that he also made contacts that paid off financially.
Thanks to someone he met through IBPA, Addicus published The Courtin Concept: Six Keys to Great Skin at Any Age by Olivier Courtin-Clarins, who heads the French-based Clarins cosmetics empire. “The company was launching a new product in the United States, and it bought 25,000 copies to use as a giveaway at cosmetic counters in the United States,” says Colvin, who also sells the book to the trade.
No career is without setbacks, of course, and Colvin can cite a few. About 13 years ago the distributor that Addicus was using went bankrupt, and although his company was having a record sales year, “the loss of that hard-earned money stung.” Since then Addicus has used IPG for trade distribution, and Colvin is complimentary about the IPG crew and his working relationship with them.
Another expensive mistake was the publication of a book without an index. Having the printer cut off the spine, insert the index, and rebind with a new cover was “pricey,” Colvin remembers, and it led to a series of checklists that are now used internally and with his freelance copy editors and proofreaders to ensure that a book is complete and truly press-ready before it is submitted for printing.
5,000–10,000 for Starters
Today, to reduce costs, Addicus has brought cover design and typesetting in-house. The company now employs four people full-time and about eight on a contract basis.
Colvin characterizes its initial print runs as “conservative.” First printings are usually between 5,000 and 10,000. That’s a range that he has found realistic, given the size of his “special sales,” the specialized markets, and the platforms of many of his authors.
All Addicus titles are now made available as e-books, and, as print sales slow, Addicus sometimes also uses print-on-demand to keep older titles in print.
Linda Carlson (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she would love to have great skin at any age.