BUILDING THE BUSINESS
An Inside Story: Boys Town Press Reaches Out
by Linda Carlson
Barbara Lonnborg is always looking for opportunities to turn Boys Town research and clinical experience into publications with a broader market, as Boys Town Press titles show.
The firm has only five full-time staff members plus one person who works half-time, but it turns out as many as twelve new or significantly revised titles each year, plus dozens of reprints. What may be even more impressive is that none of its staffers came to Boys Town with any experience in book publishing, and most of the books’ content comes from mental health care and behavioral science professionals, including some who have never been published before.
Boys Town Press is a unit—a very small unit—of the social service agency founded in the Omaha area in 1917 by Father Flanagan that now focuses on abused and neglected children and children with emotional or behavioral disorders. In several locations across the United States, it provides a continuum of care for children and parents, offering several levels of residential care, outpatient care, and in-home counseling. For years it’s developed its own training programs for educators and counselors, and that’s part of what led to the establishment of Boys Town Press in 1992.
When Lonnborg joined Boys Town in 1980, it was as a behavioral science writer, responsible for writing and placing stories with newspapers and magazines about the Boys Town approach and its success. The clinical and research staffs were compiling information about the agency’s methodology, but primarily for internal use. At that time, Lonnborg’s department took this information and translated it to create consumer-friendly booklets on behavior that were given away as part of the Boys Town campaign to disseminate helpful information to families that needed it.
Production of these materials was informal; publications were often not copyright-protected, and there was no consistent style.
By the 1990s, the Boys Town administration recognized that it was time to quit giving away all its material, and that its publications needed a common identity. It was also time to recognize that Boys Town was, in at least a small way, a “real” publisher. In 1992 Lonnborg moved from her position as director of communications and public service to organize the Press.
Her no. 1 mandate was to fulfill the mission of Boys Town, serving the needs of the staff and its commitment to at-risk children. The no. 2 mandate was to create a businesslike operation to ensure that Boys Town publications would begin to contribute financially to its mission instead of continuing to be a drain on its resources.
Although Lonnborg reports that the staff had to work from the “ground up,” educating itself on such basics as ISBNs, she believes the Press has been successful in part because staffers were willing to ask questions.
“Never be afraid to ask questions of your peers,” she says. “We still do this, and we are always gratified by how willing they are to share their knowledge and experience. We’ve avoided a lot of mistakes by simply taking the time to ask the right person the right question.”
Going After a Wider Audience
By 1994, when the Press issued its first catalog, it initiated contacts with wholesalers, catalogers, and specialty distributors. “Our original customers had been primarily public schools and, to a lesser extent, youth care agencies, and although they are still important, we early on began selling on Amazon.com and our own Web site,” Lonnborg explains.
The first book marketed to lay readers was Common Sense Parenting, issued in 1992 and now in its third edition, with some 250,000 copies in print. Today it sells about 16,000 copies a year. Another early success was The Well-Managed Classroom, published in 1995 and now in its second edition, with 75,000 in print. Although this book included recommendations for integrating social skills instruction across curriculums, readers asked for even more how-to information, and that led to the development of lesson plan and activity books, CDs, a DVD, and poster sets that help teachers put the Well-Managed Classroom program into action.
Reader feedback also led to books like Teaching Social Skills to Youth, with 300-plus pages, which Lonnborg calls a “basic primer.” It describes more than 180 social skills that Boys Town clinicians and educators believe kids need, ranging from “Introducing Yourself,” “Table Etiquette,” and “Accepting No for an Answer” to “Listening and Following Directions,” “Persevering on Tests,” and “Taking Risks Appropriately.”
Lonnborg describes the Press as a business-to-business marketer, with its primary audience the school systems and youth-care professionals who use its books themselves or recommend them to parents. Boys Town also sells some videos to judges, who sometimes require that they be viewed by parents involved with the criminal justice or social welfare systems.
When Staff Members Are Otherwise Occupied
Because the Boys Town staff members whose work is published by the Press squeeze their writing into workdays full of other significant responsibilities, Lonnborg is relieved of one task—and challenged by another. She doesn’t have to negotiate contracts, because almost everyone writes on a for-hire basis. She does have to negotiate commitments to write.
“I have to get creative when the people who develop content aren’t available to me because they’re working on training programs that take months to finish,” she explains. She also has to work around the commitments of marketing department writers, who do all the significant editing of content provided by health-care and behavioral-care professionals.
That’s why in 2009, with both content and editing staff assigned to major agency-wide projects, Lonnborg recalls, “I had to get creative!” That year the Press issued few new books. Instead, it developed audio editions of existing publications.
Besides the customer service representatives, who also handle the toll-free order lines, invoicing, and returns, Boys Town Press employs a sales supervisor who works with wholesalers, distributors, and resellers, and an IT person who maintains the customer database and shopping cart, sends out the email mass mailings, handles inventory, and serves as liaison to the agency IT staff.
As director, Lonnborg reads every manuscript, does light editing, and writes the email messages, press releases, and back cover copy. She also handles advertising and awards program entries. Just as many publishers work with freelancers for book design, Boys Town Press uses designers from the agency’s marketing department for cover design and for promotional materials. Lonnborg can also rely on marketing department staff members to handle prepress, printing quotes, and coordination of print production. For foreign rights, including representation at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Press relies on agents.
Because the number of new publications the Press can issue for lay readers is limited by the availability of people who develop content, Boys Town Press early on began distributing for others. To satisfy wholesale customers and to provide helpful material not directly related to the Boys Town mission, the Press catalog today includes some 100 of its own titles and about 200 from other publishers.
“Acquisitions” work at Boys Town Press differs from that at other presses because of the focus on mission and because most authors are internal. Lonnborg doesn’t have a slush pile of proposals to wade through, but she has to keep tabs on the research being done, the curricula being developed, and the feedback from clinicians within Boys Town. “I have at least 30 people I check in with as I’m trolling for possible publications,” she says.
She also keeps tabs on what her three customer service representatives say they hear from callers. “So far no one is requesting e-books, but we need to see if there is—or will soon be—a demand,” she notes.
Challenges Today and Tomorrow
E-books and social marketing are two of the greatest challenges the Boys Town Press—and Boys Town overall—must deal with now, Lonnborg adds. “Unlike big publishers, the Press doesn’t have the funding to buy expertise to pursue these, and neither is central to Boys Town’s mission, so the agency doesn’t need these as much as we at the Press might.”
In fact, Boys Town didn’t even upload a Facebook page until December 2010, when the administration was confident that people were available to keep postings on the page updated. Because of limited staff and experience, Boys Town Press will probably contribute to this Facebook page rather than create one of its own.
Cybermarketing skills are vital for most publishers, Lonnborg believes. “When I started out in publishing, I was fortunate to have someone who understood print production,” she says, adding, “That saved me in those early days. But today, a startup needs expertise in social marketing and electronic publishing of all kinds.”
What else does Lonnborg believe publishers need? Careful editing. “Silly errors impede communication, especially with specialized information like ours,” she points out.
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she strives to avoid providing sloppy copy.