content=”I think it’s safe to say, “Several of Kohl’s books have more than 100,000 copies in print”>I think it’s safe to say, “Several of Kohl’s books have more than
100,000 copies in print
BUILDING THE BUSINESS
One Person Plus Partners: The
Art of Success at Bright Ring
by Linda Carlson
Small and successful. Sounds
like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Most publishing gurus equate growth with success,
but western Washington publisher MaryAnn Faubion Kohl is an excellent example
of someone who has prospered by choosing to stay a one-person operation.
Listen to Kohl describe her plans
as Bellingham’s Bright Ring kicks off its 22nd year in business, and you may be
convinced that there’s a simple explanation: This one woman is a whirlwind.
She’s a writer and the publisher for Bright Ring’s nine titles; she’s the
author of 14 books published by Gryphon House; she’s a speaker, a consultant,
an occasional media guest—and she has a personal life, too. In fact, about the
only thing she isn’t is a bookkeeper (for financial record-keeping she uses a
Trained as an elementary-school
teacher, Kohl entered publishing as many of us have, via a circuitous route.
After teaching children for eight years and then teaching teachers, she decided
to write a children’s picture book in the early 1980s. But no one wanted to
Then, she says, “it dawned on me
that there were no books on art ideas—as opposed to crafts—for kids.”
Seeing an opportunity in
self-publishing, Kohl read Dan Poynter’s <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Self-Publishing Manual during the summer
of 1985. “Over and over again,” she emphasizes.
By November of that year, she had
2,000 copies in print of Scribble Cookies: Independent Creative Art Experiences for Children.
Kohl was typical of many publishing novices: “I had complete belief in my book,
but no sales or marketing in place. ‘Naïve’ hardly covers it.”
Latching On to
Faith in her title, persistence,
and hard work trumped naiveté.
“I hounded [the wholesaler]
Pacific Pipeline incessantly, and it finally agreed to carry my one little
book,” Kohl continues. With that access to all the independent and chain stores
then operating in the Northwest, sales took off. <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Scribble Cookies (now <span
became a Pacific Pipeline bestseller, and by February 1986, the first press run
“Why?” is her rhetorical question.
“I believe it was because it was a book that was truly needed. It was unique,
and I was out there banging on doors, giving workshops, and making my book and
me known to the buyer.”
Cookies was followed by <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Mudworks: Creative Clay
Dough and Modeling Experiences, and when both were selling well,
Kohl had an opportunity to discuss distribution with the staff of Gryphon
House—an early childhood education distributor and publisher—at a conference.
Having Gryphon House distribute
Bright Ring’s books was a “natural,” says Kohl, who has now outsourced almost
all orders and shipping: Gryphon House handles the early childhood education
market, and IPG handles the trade.
This frees Kohl to pursue the
writing and consulting that she enjoys most, and that she considers her most
“Because I like working alone, I
knew that I would work best with distributors. Yes, I give up dollars in the
discounts to them, but they allow me to have a flexible schedule and few people
to manage. I gain time and focus for the work I want to do.”
She also gets time for the
marketing research and promotion she believes are vital.
“As someone who writes and
publishes for the education market, I am required to get out and meet the folks
who buy my books, to offer presentations and workshops, to be a part of their
world. That means I do not have as much time to be in the office as some publishers
Your company is small and you want
the same kind of freedom? Then, advises Kohl, find yourself a distribution
arrangement like hers.
Back to Being Published,
with a Difference
A few years into the distribution
relationship with Gryphon House, Kohl decided to again try for a traditional
publishing experience. But this time she went straight to that company. <span
which appeared in 1994, was a publishing success all around.
“It was a joy to be ‘only’ an
author, without the involvement that goes along with being the publisher,” Kohl
Her first Gryphon House title
launched an unusual business arrangement. Each year Kohl writes one book,
alternating between Bright Ring and Gryphon House as publisher. Her Gryphon
House books are designed to match the Bright Ring books, so all the titles can
be marketed together. No contract requires Kohl to give Gryphon House right of
first refusal on her manuscripts, but she has not had an entire book published
by any other firm.
“So far, so good,” is the
understatement Kohl uses to describe this set-up, and she goes on to say, “We
have a mutual admiration society.”
Even successful companies have had
their share of obstacles to overcome, and Bright Ring’s horror story is what
prompts another word of advice from Kohl: get author and publisher liability
insurance in addition to your business liability insurance, she says.
“Of course we all know that ideas
are not copyrightable, but that didn’t stop another self-publisher from
deciding to sue me because it claimed the generic ideas in my art book were
similar to the ideas in its single science book.”
Rather than spend hundreds of
thousands of dollars and several stressful years to prove she was right, Kohl
and her attorney decided to settle to make the nightmare go away.
“Being right doesn’t make you safe
from lawsuits,” she reiterates. “Get that copyright infringement insurance in
place—it’s worth the cost.”
Eight Special Strengths
Besides recognizing her strengths
and how to best serve her market, Kohl identifies several other reasons she
believes Bright Ring has been successful:
· She publishes in her area of
expertise, teaching art for kids.
· She has a philosophy that
distinguishes her books from other activity books: she believes children should
explore and discover, through creativity, that art for them is a process, not a
· She makes her books consistent
with one another in terms of the topics they cover and the way they are written
and designed. Every book covers creative art activities and materials. The
instructions and variations are always presented with what Kohl calls a
“formula” that her readers appreciate and expect. The design is simple and
user-friendly, with pages that are much wider than they are tall so they lie
flat and instructions are easy to read. In addition, she specifies a large type
size and a single activity per page.
· Her books’ covers, regardless of
publisher, are designed to signal a series, which she believes has created a
memorable and recognizable “brand.” Several of her titles have more than
100,000 copies in print
· There’s always a new book by
MaryAnn Kohl. “Keeping books coming is expected and appreciated by my readers,”
· Kohl keeps herself available, too.
“I try to be friendly and helpful to my readers, helping them solve problems
through email, by phone, and in person.”
· Despite her early skirmish with
another self-publisher, she shares ideas and marketing efforts with other
publishers in the same genre. “My mission statement is, ‘Bring good things to
children.’ It doesn’t matter to me if I bring the good things or if someone
· Finally, Kohl is generous: “I give
away books, I give away ideas, I give away my time—and, of course, I give away
chocolate.” Perhaps even more important to keep ideas for books percolating,
she gives herself time off.
(lindacarlson.com), who writes for the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Independent from Seattle, used Bright
Ring books with her preschooler long before she ever met MaryAnn Kohl.