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Ancient Languages, Modern Strategies for Success: The Gorgias Growth Story

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Combine a computer scientist
and a chemistry doctoral candidate with a dot-com severance package and a
mutual passion for obscure languages, add guts and ingenuity, and what do you
have?

 

You have Gorgias Press, a
Piscataway, NJ, scholarly publisher that’s gone from zero publications and zero
payroll to a backlist of 350 titles, 70 new publications a year, and a staff of
15—all since spring 2001.

 

“Gorgias wasn’t born of a business
plan, but out of our passion for exotic languages and the determination to
disseminate them to the general public,” says Christine Altinis-Kiraz. She and
husband George Kiraz took advantage of the high-tech implosion to follow a
dream—building a business that publishes books on Arabic, Islamic, Jewish, and
Syriac studies, archaeology, the Near East, the Middle East, classics, history,
and religion.

 

They called it Gorgias, Christine
explains, because they wanted a name from classics (Gorgias was a Sophist
philosopher and rhetorician credited with transplanting rhetoric to Greece),
and they liked the fact that this one sounded a little like George’s name.

 

With George’s severance check in
the bank, he and Christine didn’t waste any time deciding what to do next.
Already the author of 10 academic books, George went to Holland in the summer
of 2001 for a Syriac conference. He came home with commitments from
world-renowned scholars for two manuscripts. But the couple soon realized these
manuscripts were years from completion. In the meantime, Gorgias had nothing to
sell.

 

To Build an Instant Backlist

 

Like many other PMA members who
want to build a catalog quickly, George did reprints. He selected a dozen
titles from the collection of antique books he had started as a teenager and
secured reprint rights. “Even in the book antiquarian market, it took me years
to find these titles myself—but they were still very important both to scholars
and to general readers interested in Syriac and the ancient Near East,” he
explains.

 

With this instant backlist, George
created a shopping cart and a Web site, emailed his contacts, and rented email
lists from the Syriac Institute and the University of Chicago Oriental
Institute’s Ancient Near East email discussion group. Within hours—that’s
right—within hours of sending out a few thousand emails, orders started to
arrive.

 

Two technologies made Gorgias
viable at the outset: email and print-on-demand. Email made marketing almost
cost-free. Even with list-rental payments, the cost was thousands of dollars
less with email than it would have been with graphic design, printing,
labeling, and postage.

 

The big advantage, however, was
print-on-demand. As Christine points out, “POD enabled us to build a backlist
quickly, without high production and inventory costs, and to publish titles
that would have been rejected by our competitors because of their highly
specialized nature.” But, she cautions, POD is not cost-effective for every
book. “It makes sense if the publisher has a limited budget, if the readership
is a small niche market, and if the books can be priced higher than trade
books.”

 

Special Pricing and
Promotion

 

Print-on-demand did not guarantee
instant financial success. Although the Kirazes, like many start-ups, were
operating lean (the dining room table was the company headquarters), and
response to their first books was enthusiastic, their original prices were very
low.

 

“We priced to reach every reader,
not thinking about overhead costs,” Christine remembers. “Two years later—after
we taught ourselves financial analysis—we realized that even if we were to sell
books at 99 cents each, there is a maximum number of people who will purchase
our books—and this maximum is in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands.”

 

Price increases were a must.
Determined to stay below the competition’s prices, Gorgias was still able to
double and even triple the prices of its titles. “We saw a minor decrease in
retail sales, but that was compensated for by library sales,” says Christine,
who adds, “We don’t see the initial low prices as a loss. We gained customers
who are still with us.”

 

Because profit is not the Kirazes’
only goal, “assigning prices remains a challenge,” she explains, noting that
they “hope to satisfy the poor graduate student and at the same time recognize
value from institutional sales.”

 

The means? Promotional campaigns
far more innovative than you’d expect from a scholarly press.

 

The most daring was April’s $1
sale. Other than a holiday sale at the end of each year and a special on a
given book each month, Gorgias has no regular sales. Instead, to keep customers
reading its frequent email announcements and returning to <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>www.gorgiaspress.com
,
it holds sales at random intervals.

 

In its April lottery-style
promotion, every fifth order was charged only $1 for each title ordered—no
matter how large the order or how expensive the titles. “It was a great idea
that generated a spurt in sales (especially during a traditionally
low-sales-volume period), but I’m not sure we’ll do it again because the
discount had to be implemented manually,” says Christine.

 

Messages That Sales Sent

 

After they launched their
publishing company, the Kirazes took no salary for four years, did outside
consulting to generate cash, and borrowed against their home to continue
funding Gorgias after they exhausted the severance check. The response of their
customers is what kept them energized.

 

“We went to our first book exhibit
with the initial 12 books within three months of launching the press. It was
wonderful to be greeted by scholars and students who loved our books,” recalls
Christine, who says some of those early customers acted like “kids in a candy
store.”

 

“For most of these people,” she
explains, “owning copies of these rare books had never been a possibility. Some
were lucky enough to have copies available on a reserve basis in their own
university libraries, but most had only seen the books through interlibrary
loans.”

 

This experience underlined the
importance of an extensive backlist. It also resulted in the Kirazes developing
technical expertise that they are now marketing. A subsidiary launched in 2005,
Gorgias Digitization Services, helps libraries and other publishers scan books
and archival material.

 

Luck—in the person of Mel
Gibson—also played an important role in Gorgias’s early success. The 2004
release in Aramaic of Gibson’s movie, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The Passion of the Christ
, created
awareness of Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, and generated an unexpected number
of sales for the publisher.

 

A very close look at that sales
data gave the Kirazes another surprise: it was Syriac titles that were their
best selling and most profitable, not the ancient Near East titles and classics
that they had assumed would be the most popular. This discovery changed the
focus of the company, which significantly increased the number of new titles
and reprints in Syriac studies.

 

Treasure Trouble

 

This does not mean that the
Gorgias start-up was trouble-free. Aside from the usual new-business obstacles,
the Kirazes faced challenges in obtaining physical copies of books it wanted to
reprint. Its work on the 1905–1910 Bedjan edition of the five-volume <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Homilies of Jacob of Sarug

provides one extreme example. Reprinting the books was a project conceived in
2001, but according to George, “There was one major problem: my library only
held the first volume.”

 

He’d searched unsuccessfully in
the antiquarian market for an entire set for at least 20 years. Library copies
were so tightly bound that pages could not be digitized. It was 2005 before
Gorgias located the four additional volumes in the collections of two scholars
in England.

 

“But who would trust such
treasures to a postal system?” asks George.

 

Within a month, he’d found a
solution. Both scholars were scheduled to attend a symposium at Princeton
University and were willing to bring their volumes along so that the Gorgias
crew, working around the clock, could digitize the hundreds of pages during the
few days the books would be available. This wasn’t the end of the challenges,
however. The owner of volumes 2 and 3 returned home to Oxford, forgetting to
pack his books, and when they were sent with his colleague, and the colleague’s
volumes 4 and 5, the airline managed to temporarily misplace them all.

 

That crisis resolved itself after
a few days, but the work for Gorgias was just beginning. Due to the length of
the books—about 900 very thin pages per volume—and such technical reproduction
problems as bleed-through, the homilies didn’t go to press for a full year.

 

A Family Affair

 

Like many other new publishers,
the Kirazes did all the initial work themselves. George handled acquisitions,
IT, and production, including digitization. A major challenge was building a
software infrastructure. Aware that the commercially available workflow and
fulfillment software was far too expensive for them, George developed a
proprietary program they call FolioFlow. It handles order processing,
accounting, acquisitions, and production workflow and also provides tools for
email campaigns and newsletters. Eventually the company will license FolioFlow
to other publishers.

 

Christine, who had some experience
in retail sales from her family’s jewelry store, took on sales and marketing,
and taught herself Photoshop so she could produce the first book covers. She
created the first 100 mostly in the wee hours, after a full day of teaching and
lab work at Rutgers University and an evening with their daughter.

 

Tabetha Kiraz, born a few months
before Gorgias Press, played her own part in early sales efforts. Because the
Kirazes had no family to leave her with when they attended conferences, she
went along. “She was a friendly baby with no anxiety about strangers, and
everyone was delighted with her presence,” Christine remembers. One year, while
happily playing in her stroller at a conference as Dad handled acquisitions and
Mom sold books, she attracted so many customers that another exhibitor teased
Christine he needed to borrow the baby to increase traffic to his exhibit.
Today, although Tabetha and her younger brother, Sebastian, now stay home when
their parents travel, booth visitors continue to ask about the cheerful little
girl.

 

 

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