BUILDING THE BUSINESS
Interweave Interweaves Magazines and Books
by Linda Carlson
Forty years ago, Linda Ligon was a high-school English and journalism teacher who wove as a hobby after she’d gotten her small children to bed. Today she’s the creative director of Interweave Press, which adds at least three dozen new how-to craft books each year to its backlist of 250 titles and publishes 14 craft magazines plus a variety of special-interest publications. And that’s not all it does—you can read about Interweave’s events, calendar contests, television programs, blogs, and other products at aspire-media.com.
But let’s talk publishing. As Interweave’s founder and CEO and as a past president of the PMA board, Ligon has decades of experience and lots of advice for today’s independent publishers, both large and small. Here are just a few of the things she’s learned that you can benefit from at various stages in your company’s life:
To be successful in publishing today, you have to care more about running a business than about the topics of your books—or about the art of writing. Ligon started in business in 1975 with a magazine called Interweave not because of her interest in weaving, but because of her commitment to communicating information.
Running a successful business means assessing what you cannot do, and hiring someone to handle those responsibilities. In the early days of Ligon’s magazines, that meant an advertising salesperson.
Recognize the value of a strong, promotion-minded author. It wasn’t as important when Ligon added books to her publications in 1979, but in this extremely competitive market, she emphasizes, “a star author can make all the difference.”
Even if you’re not thinking about an exit strategy yet, maintain your accounting records according to what a prospective buyer will want to see. “I used an accounting system that let me make management decisions,” Ligon explains, “but the financials were not in the form that a potential private equity buyer expected” when the time came to sell.
More Product for Responsive Readers
Linda Ligon got into the publishing business part-time after the birth of her third child, when she had resigned from teaching. She created three magazines—Interweave; Spin-Off, for hand spinners; and Handwoven—before doing her first book.
“I had developed an audience of enthusiasts, and I wanted to give them more product,” Ligon says. That first book, Fleece in Your Hands, was an extensive revision of a hand-spinning title previously published in New Zealand. She printed a few thousand, they sold well, and she reprinted the book so many times she lost count.
Interweave’s next title, Patterns from the Loom, with instructions for simple handwoven garments, sold still better and stayed in print for more than five years. Some later titles have been even more successful: Learning to Weave, issued more than 20 years ago, has more than 100,000 copies in print. Knitter’s Companion, published more than 10 years ago, has more than 200,000.
“But books weren’t my core business,” the publisher explains. “I just did them when I had extra time between issues of the magazines.”
In an era when most enthusiast and hobbyist books were sold direct, Ligon’s publications were easily and inexpensively marketed through the magazines. “Basically,” Ligon says with a smile, “the magazines were like a catalog for the books—a catalog that people paid me for!” And pieces that had run in her magazines could be collected and become books.
The book-periodical combination has always worked well for Interweave, she continues. “Customers pay up front—for at least a year at a time—for magazines, and that creates an income stream. Books create a backlist, so you don’t have to be continually creating new material.”
Both the periodicals and the books create several sources of revenue. The magazines have subscription sales; they have single-copy sales in specialty stores and on newsstands; and they generate income through advertising. The books sell direct, through specialty stores, and through bookstores.
Because of the direct and specialty store sales, Interweave has another important advantage in today’s market: fewer returns, both of magazines and of books.
Telecommuting—Pros and Cons
One challenge Ligon has almost always faced is her Loveland, CO, location. “It’s not the center of the universe,” she points out, “and some people don’t want to move here.” As a result, even before technology created telecommuting, Interweave had remote employees and contractors.
“I’d rather hire the best talent than worry about convenience,” Ligon says. For several years, Spin-Off was edited by a Berkeley, CA, woman; for many years, Handwoven has been edited by a Whidbey Island, WA, resident. Today, staff (some on payroll, some on long-term contracts) live in Alabama, Maryland, British Columbia, and Ontario as well as in Colorado. In addition, now that Interweave is part of Aspire, there are offices in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, the original homes of recently acquired magazines.
Despite the decades she’s worked with remote employees, and despite the fact that it’s much easier to do that than it used to be, Ligon’s advice to other publishers is, “Don’t do it if you don’t have to!” The quality of Interweave publications has not suffered from employees being so far from each other, she points out, but the creative ferment doesn’t exist when everyone isn’t together. “You lose the synergy.”
Technology is an issue as well—you can’t scrimp on it if you’re working with remote staff. And finally, although Ligon believes that telecommuting makes sense for very small companies, especially those headquartered in what she calls “odd places,” she reminds publishers that it requires managers to spend more time supporting staff. That means technical support, for starters, but it also means emotional and moral support. “If you have someone who’s thousands of miles away and she’s doing a good job, turning in her work on time, there’s the risk that you’ll forget about providing her with the same support and feedback you give closer employees.”
What’s New with a New Owner
Almost five years ago, Ligon began positioning Interweave for sale, a process covered in “Selling a Successful Company: How Interweave Engineered Its Acquisition” (October 2005). Then in her early 60s, she felt no urgency to sell, so she could carefully evaluate the way her goals for Interweave’s future compared to those of prospective buyers.
“My goal was to keep the company intact, create good opportunities for my employees, and keep the company in the Loveland area,” she says. So far, she reports, she’s satisfied.
At the executive and management levels, the new ownership has changed responsibilities. There’s more emphasis on profit, and “very rigorous” budgeting, Ligon points out, adding, “I was a little sloppy.”
But she sees a lot of enthusiasm among the staff, which has many more advancement opportunities now that the company has more than doubled its size with acquisitions including American Artist and its sister publications Watercolor, Drawing, and Workshop (purchased from Neilsen Business Media in mid-2008), Quilting Arts(a company that issues a magazine with that name as well as Cloth, Paper, Scissors, and Studio), and a former unit of Primedia (with such publications as Jewelry Artist, Colored Stone, and Step by Step Beads).
As for Ligon? “I told the new owner I’d be around as long as I was having fun, and I still am!”
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle, where she still hasn’t set up the loom she bought herself for Christmas 2007.