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Free Spirit Soars by Specializing

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Some of Free Spirit
Publishing’s competitors and fellow independent publishers were probably
surprised to see the publisher of self-help books for children gracing the
cover of Publishers
Weekly
with a five-page advertising spread in mid-December, but,
like all Free Spirit’s marketing and editorial decisions, the decision to take
premier advertising space was reached quickly—although not before founder
Judy Galbraith had done her homework.

 

PW<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> approached teacher-turned-publisher Galbraith after
another advertiser dropped out at the last minute. Galbraith and her staff
weighed the bargain price of the splashy ad space in light of Free Spirit’s
budget, its ability to produce a high-quality ad in six days, and the ad’s
promotion value. The verdict: Take advantage of the opportunity. A similar
spirit has guided the Minneapolis-based publisher throughout its 22 years in
business.

 

Free Spirit’s growth has been
fueled by its laserlike focus on its niche, its commitment to keeping overhead
low and controlling debt, and its determination to find the best ways to market
its products to educators, parents, youth workers, and children. Specializing
in books that help children develop socially and emotionally, it has grown to
have annual revenue of nearly $6 million and a staff of 33. Galbraith reports
that it has been profitable in all but 2 of its 22 years, and she projects
growth of about 18 percent for this year.

 

Currently, 45 percent of sales are
direct, through the Free Spirit Web site, mail-order catalogs, and attendance
at trade shows and conferences. But as part of Galbraith’s drive for
improvement and expansion, the company is courting mass merchandisers, such as
Target, Wal-Mart, Babies “R” Us, and Meijer Retail and Grocery Supercenters, a
regional chain.

 

Starting as a
Self-Publisher

 

Free Spirit’s first titles were
two books for gifted kids written by Galbraith and inspired by her years of
teaching exceptional children. Disappointed by the way a small press handled
her Gifted Kids’
Survival Guides
(for ages 10 and under and for teens), Galbraith
got the rights back and published them on her own.

 

In the process, she learned that
her forte was developing other authors and packaging books. “I love coming up
with the ideas for books and developing them and pooling creative talent,”
Galbraith says. “The fun comes from the general design, not just writing, but
putting all the pieces together.”

 

Galbraith used her own money to
start Free Spirit, kept overhead low by operating out of her basement to start
with, and supplemented her investment with money from a few investors (one of
them overheard her talking about her company at a school-related social event
and asked her about investing). “The company was really started on a
shoestring, and I kept putting everything back into the business,” Galbraith
recalls.

 

Today, Free Spirit has 150 titles
in print, and it will publish 28 new titles this year, but its essential
mission is unchanged—helping young people think for themselves and
succeed in life.

 

That niche was unexploited back
when Free Spirit was founded in November 1983, Galbraith explains. “I remember
thinking in my early years, Someone will knock me off.” But the flip side, she
adds, is that “what we do is very, very hard to do,” and the house often has to
“scour for sources” with its groundbreaking books.

 

According to Michele
Cromer-Poire—co-owner of The Red Balloon Book Shop in St. Paul,
MN—Free Spirit continues to grow because it knows its niche and seeks
timely, but not trendy, titles that are attractively packaged. “They continue
to try to find books that are needed that aren’t being produced by anybody
else, and they are good at thinking outside the box,” she says.

 

Exploring New Markets

 

“Part of the reason we are
tiptoeing into the mass market is that a lot of people who don’t go to Borders
or Amazon.com do go to Wal-Mart, and they have children who would be interested
in and would benefit from our books,” Galbraith says.

 

A second part of the reason is
that Free Spirit has recently begun to produce books that Galbraith sees as
appropriate for mass merchandisers. And a third is that the house now has the
cash flow and the inventory management systems needed to deal with the huge
orders—and possibly huge returns—characteristic of mass
merchandisers. On the subject of returns, Galbraith points to a method she
devised when she first starting selling into the big bookstore chains. When a
big order comes in, she asks to scale it back and promises 48-hour turnaround
on reorders. That satisfies the retailers’ inventory needs, while protecting
Free Spirit from large returns, she says.

 

Galbraith didn’t begin by asking
mass merchandisers for a meeting at which she could pitch her titles. Following
her usual practice, she began with research, which in this case involved going
into big-box stores and seeing what books they stocked. “You have to know
pricing and the size of books,” she says. “You may not have anything that’s
worth pitching to them, so find out so you don’t waste your time or theirs.”

 

Confirming that price is key for
mass merchandisers. Galbraith knew she needed titles at their price points but
with the quality of Free Spirit’s other offerings.

 

Entree to Educators

 

Direct marketing continues to be a
cornerstone of Free Spirit’s publishing program. In a typical year, the company
goes to between 35 and 40 trade shows serving the education and youth fields as
well as the book industry. At some conventions, schools may purchase multiple
copies for teachers or students, and Galbraith notes that some pay off in other
ways. When Free Spirit attends a show for high-level educational
administrators, for instance, attendees may disseminate catalogs to teachers in
their districts and otherwise influence book purchases even though they
themselves don’t usually do the purchasing. And attendees at conventions of
various sorts often sign up to get the Free Spirit print-on-paper catalog.

 

To build its mailing list, the
company uses blow-in cards in many of its books and captures information when
people order from its catalogs and via the Web site. Free Spirit also tests and
rents lists. Although most of them involve the education and youth markets, it
rented a list for high-end pet-supply stores for <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Tails Are Not for Pulling
.

 

“We find lists from companies and
organizations, and we place orders through 21st Century,” Galbraith says,
adding that 21st Century (a direct-marketing firm based in Farmingdale, NY)
also offers Free Spirit’s mailing list for rent.

 

To detect trends, Galbraith and
her employees scan orders. When they noticed that employees in juvenile courts
were buying several Free Spirit titles, she targeted that market and also
acquired a book by Thomas A. Jacobs called <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>They Broke the Law—You Be the Judge
.

 

Over the years, she’s made some
mistakes, Galbraith reports, but she is unwavering in her commitment to
research and to making the best decisions based on what she knows. If it
doesn’t work out, it’s time to learn from the mistake, regroup, and move on,
she believes. And if it does work out, then it’s time to learn how to do things
even better next time. “With every mistake or bad thing that might happen in
our lives,” Galbraith says, “there’s always an opportunity to learn, improve,
and grow.”

 

Jenny McCune is a business
writer who has worked in book publishing and reports regularly on publishing
and publishers for PMA
Independent
. To reach her, email jennymccune@imt.net.

 

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