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Allworth Does It All with Niches

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Time has been kind to Allworth Press. What started as a one-man, one-book publisher in a living room in 1989 now celebrates its 15th anniversary with more than 250 books in print, 10 full-time employees (including me), and, yes, a much larger office. When I asked Allworth Press founder and president Tad Crawford to talk about what makes Allworth work, he was quick to point out that it takes more than time to make a successful publishing company. Looking back over the past 15 years, he offered two pieces of advice: find niches that you believe in, and always be willing to reinvent the way you operate.

Beginning with Artists and Branching Out

Allworth Press established its artist niche with its first title, Crawford’s own Legal Guide for the Visual Artist. It had grown out of his experience as an attorney and advocate for artists, who needed practical information to help them with the business and legal aspects of their operations. The book was targeted to fine artists, illustrators, graphic designers, photographers, and other visual artists–readers who would come to be a significant core market–and the 1989 edition (superseding versions published earlier by others) got Crawford’s company going.

Making inroads into specific subject areas was a slow and cautious process. Allworth reached out to photographers with How to Shoot Stock Photos That Sell by Michal Heron in 1990. Three years later, when Steven Heller approached the press with a proposed collection of critical writings on graphic design, Allworth agreed but arranged to have the book printed on donated paper to minimize the loss if it did not sell.

The book was Looking Closer, which went on to sell more than 15,000 copies and became the first in a series of four Looking Closer titles. It also built the foundation of a lasting partnership with the author; Steven Heller has now written or edited more than 30 Allworth books. His prolific output includes signature series such as The Education of… and the now-classic book Design Literacy.

Allworth’s foremost signature series, Business and Legal Forms…, typifies the way the press reinvented itself as the company grew and technology advanced. Its earliest titles were published as collections of explanations, checklists, and fill-in-the-blank forms on perforated pages. Recent editions provide the forms on CD-ROM compatible with Mac and PC formats. And the target markets have expanded from visual artists to include photographers, fine artists, illustrators, crafts workers, authors and self-publishers, graphic designers, interior designers, and theater and industrial designers.

Power Through Partnerships

Co-publishing arrangements helped Allworth Press build name recognition within its niches. By sharing content and promotional resources with the American Institute of Graphic Arts, American Society of Media Photographers, Authors Guild, Communication Arts magazine, Design Management Institute, Graphic Artists Guild, Alliance of Artists Communities, and School of the Visual Arts, among others, Allworth was able to organize industry events, book-launch events, panel discussions, and lectures that might not have been practical otherwise.

Staying focused on its niches led to one of Allworth’s most successful partnerships. Watson-Guptill Publications, which found Allworth titles an ideal fit with its own list, began distributing Allworth books to the trade in 1997, expanding the company’s reach into art supply and photography retail. Because Watson-Guptill was an established presence in certain subject areas, Allworth was also able to expand its offerings on writing, theater, music, and film. Since entering this distribution arrangement, Allworth has celebrated several milestones. In 1997, trade sales exceeded $1 million for the first time. In 1999, the company reached 100 titles in print. In 2003, that total rose to 200.

Partnerships can also help in areas of weakness. Allworth tried to handle its own sales of foreign rights and came up mostly empty-handed. Then the company reached an agreement for exclusive foreign rights representation with the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency in 1999. With that partnership in place, Allworth Press translations have built their own Tower of Babel in Bulgarian, Czech, Chinese, Dutch, French, Indonesian, Iranian, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Thai.

The Niche as Nucleus

As Allworth Press has grown, much of its expansion has been within its established niches. Early books dealt mostly with the entrepreneurial concerns of creative professionals. Titles in recent seasons have included The Art of Writing Great Lyrics by Pamela Phillips Oland, Movement for Actors edited by Nicole Potter, Mastering 3D Animation by Peter Ratner, and other books that look beyond business to deal with technique. One of the company’s recent top sellers, Mastering the Basics of Photography by Susan McCartney, is aimed at a broader audience than the press used to target, and so are two books published this year that boast full-color images, McCartney’s How to Shoot Great Travel Photos and Creative Canine Photography by Larry Allan.

Expansion into new niches has often stemmed from success in related subject areas. Allworth books for illustrators led to titles on cartoons and animation; books for graphic designers led to titles for interior designers and industrial designers; books on the performing arts led to titles on theater management. Most notably, books on design led to Emotional Branding by Marc Gobe, which became the best-selling first edition in the history of Allworth Press. Now in its ninth printing, Emotional Branding has more than 50,000 copies in print.

The combination of an expanding business and changing technology led to some dramatic reinventions within Allworth Press. Since the mid-’90s, the company has been transformed from a handful of part-time employees working on decrepit, stand-alone computers in a cramped, dark, backroom office to a state-of-the-art computer network and phone system in a half-floor of a New York-chic loft. Digital processes are involved in nearly all aspects of the operation, from editing manuscripts online to using FTP for sending digital files to and from the typesetter, designer, and printer.

And where all employees were once expected to contribute to promotional efforts, the press now has three full-time marketing and publicity employees. The overall effect has been better-written, better-looking books being promoted more effectively than ever before. In the past year alone, Allworth Press authors have appeared on CNN and been heard on NPR, BBC, and many nationally syndicated radio programs. Similarly, Allworth books have been covered by USA Today, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and other mainstream print media, and reviews have appeared in trade publications such as Publishers Weekly, as well as niche publications such as American Artist, The Artist’s Magazine, Communication Arts, Creativity, Shutterbug, The Writer, Back Stage, and many others.

As Tad Crawford looks ahead to future seasons, he expects to see more titles in photography, graphic design, performing arts, arts and crafts, writing and publishing, and other niches for which the press is known. And he knows that new niches are certain to appear. But the office space? Crawford looks around the current New York office with its 12-foot ceilings, exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, and view of Madison Square Park and says it feels like home.

Michael Madole is publicity director of Allworth Press.

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