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Magazines in the Mix: A Pattern for Profitable Book Publishing

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I got into publishing because I love the printed word, love books. Just like you. A funny thing has happened to that love, though, that has helped my company thrive in what are generally regarded as hard times for publishing.

When I was much, much younger, my love of books, and my impulse to make them, focused on the book as a beloved object. I was enamored of beautiful paper, well-crafted bindings, elegant type. I loved the craft; I had a secret ambition to run my own little letterpress, to do arty leather bindings with my own two hands. I didn’t think too much about content, except that it would be “significant.”

For a host of practical reasons, though, I started out publishing a magazine instead–a very narrowly focused, modest little magazine about a personal interest, handweaving. Now, a magazine publisher produces not just the publication itself but also a captive audience of readers. And the more narrowly focused the subject matter, the more captive those readers are. For me, it was an easy, short step from producing the magazine to producing books for its readers. And that’s been the business model at Interweave Press for more than 29 years: we develop a special-interest magazine with an avid readership, then give them all the books they want.

So far, we’ve done more than 300 titles in eight different subject-matter areas (weaving, spinning, needlework, beading, knitting, herb gardening, herbal medicine, sustainable living), and have found that the books take on lives of their own, far beyond the subcultures of the magazines they spring from.

Readers Rule

That’s been my paradigm shift. I’m not publishing books for the sake of books, but for the sake of their readers. That deep sense of the readership, who they are, what they do, what they want, what they need, what will intrigue and delight them, informs all our decisions, from acquisition to format to design to marketing. And we gain that deep sense by paying attention to the readerships of our magazines, what they respond to, what their demographics are. We survey them, on paper and via the Internet. Each magazine has an email reader advisory panel of several hundred to several thousand readers who can respond to marketing questions in a matter of minutes: How do you like this book idea? How much would you pay for this book? And so on. I’ve broken the rule of reader attentiveness a few times, and have invariably ended up with really nice books that did not sell.

One of the greatest synergies between the magazines and the books, though, is magazine as marketing tool. We place ads for our books in the magazines for little cost–no cost, really, when you consider that readers are paying to get them. Sometimes we bind small versions of our catalogs into our magazines as well, though there are postal regulations to be mindful of. Often, the magazines publish excerpts from new books, or profiles of the authors. Direct trackable sales from these efforts aren’t great, but the indirect benefit of the exposure to a large target audience is priceless.

And from a financial standpoint, magazines provide cash flow for our book program. Subscribers pay for a whole year’s worth of issues up front–or even two or three years’ worth–and we can use that income to underwrite book development and manufacturing. The power in this simple concept is not to be dismissed. We rarely have to use our line of credit.

The Just-Books Scenario

Of course, most book publishers don’t also publish magazines, but some advantages of our hybrid operation are available anyway for those who follow three simple guidelines.

Be first. Find special-interest categories that are underserved, where you can be the alpha publisher. Never go against established competition–don’t delude yourself that you can do it better and win. Examples featuring publishers who made this mistake are too heartbreaking to describe here. Oh, okay, I’ll tell you one.

For a while, we had an alternative-health magazine. We published a book on herbs for women’s medical conditions–think PMS, hot flashes, breast lumps, sleep disorders, and so forth (or don’t). It was much better researched and more authoritative than any of the other dozen or so on the market. It addressed the personal interest of half the adult population. It was well timed. It had great recipes. We even had a cover blurb from Dr. Christiane Northrup. The fatal flaw was that we were one of a dozen titles, and we weren’t there first. Enough said.

On the other hand, who on earth would want to publish a book on spinning the fleece of certain New Zealand sheep breeds into yarn, and making funky hats and whatnot out of it? That was our first book, back in 1978. It went through seven decent-sized printings.

Focus. The smaller the publisher, the tighter and more abstruse the focus, the better. I do believe that. Especially with the power of Google and Amazon, people will find you. And once they find you, if you’re publishing exactly what they yearn for, they will come back. And when they come back, if you’ve focused your efforts on giving them more, not something entirely different, you will own them as customers. They will order from your Web site, or seek you out in specialty retail outlets, or special-order in their local bookstore chain, if you’re not already there.

I’ve seen this happen, not just with our books for somewhat rabid enthusiasts of yarn and beads and knitting and knotting and so forth, but with books for Battle of the Little Bighorn maniacs (there are a lot of them), with books for parents of children with various rare diseases (too many of them), with books featuring a fictional Native American sleuth from an obscure tribe (even though fiction is tough in the world of independent publishing). Building a deep list for a known readership, not a broad and miscellaneous list for the faceless masses, generates strong and predictable sales.

Knowing your readership to the bone also can help you ride out the hard times, because–whatever the industry news sources say–people will always want books. We’ve had the pure good fortune, in the months since 9/11 and the war in Iraq, to be publishing in categories that make people feel good. Staying home, nesting, doing mindless, warm, fuzzy money-saving activities–we couldn’t have planned for it, we just lucked out. But at the same time, we’re in a position, by knowing this readership well, to tailor the books we do for them at any given time to their deepest needs. We’re not, at the moment, doing the high-end, coffee-table kind of craft book. We’re doing practical, useful, comfortable, affordable books, and they’re selling.

Keep on focusing. It may sound boring, but we’ve found that giving a known readership exactly what it wants over and over again is pretty foolproof. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my own thinking, and seen other publishers make, is believing that broadening the focus of a special-interest book–watering it down–will make more people interested in it. Maybe that’s possible if you have a vast PR budget, but it’s a lot easier to feed an existing passion than to try to instill a new one in the unwary.

The more you focus, the stronger your brand identity. At Interweave, we published weaving and spinning books exclusively, to match our weaving and spinning magazines, for several years. We gradually added other related craft categories–basketmaking, knitting, dyeing, and so forth–that had crossover appeal to the same readers. Our titles have been, almost without exception, how-to books. The ones that weren’t died an early death. Anyone who’s ever heard of our press knows exactly what our core competency is–soft craft how-to–which makes marketing pretty efficient.

During the years we published herb magazines and books, we ventured into the more general-interest areas of cooking and gardening. It was a little scary, but we stuck to our how-to focus, which we had learned to do well, and found crossover readers and general market acceptance. We also stuck to a general aesthetic–certain trim sizes, formats, production values, a certain look. Our books aren’t cookie-cutter replicas by any means (except for a couple of series), but they have at least a genetic resemblance. Again, that makes for marketing efficiency.

So that’s the pretty side of the picture. I’ve not talked about distribution or the crazy-making pace of a deadline every few days or other aspects of the dark underbelly of publishing magazines along with books. It’s not a world to enter lightly. But the strategic benefits and financial cushions it creates are well worth considering, and the lessons it teaches about relationships with readers are invaluable.

Linda Ligon is founder and CEO of Interweave Press in Loveland, Colorado, and a former president of the PMA board of directors. Portions of this article appeared in The Endsheet, the quarterly newsletter of the Publishers’ Association of the West.

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