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Rights and Special-Markets Sales Can Be Big Contributors to Success

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Most book publishers start out small. Seattle’s Fred and Elizabeth Crary were no different. She wrote Parenting Press’s first book on the dining table in 1979 and he typed it on a home-built 60K PC. They and their two young children packed books and labeled flyers on the living room floor.

What was different, however, was that Without Spanking or Spoiling, Elizabeth Crary’s how-to parenting guide, sold like the proverbial hotcakes. It launched a company that is celebrating its 25th anniversary, with all but four of its 86 books still in print. Why has the Crarys’ Parenting Press succeeded? Among the important reasons: sales of foreign and book-club rights and special-market sales.

Some of these sales are modest, but overall they are a growing source of income for Parenting Press. They include sales of translation rights, school book-club rights, and children’s book-club rights, along with sales to the education market for books to be used as supplements to texts; and sales to such special markets as Books Are Fun (a Reader’s Digest subsidiary) and Discovery Toys. Two other kinds of sales that Parenting Press hopes to generate soon are school-based book-fair sales and premium sales. Because the press issues almost all its books as trade paperbacks, it does not attempt to sell reprint rights for that format.

Generating Interest Overseas

Parenting Press got into the foreign rights business almost immediately after the publication, in 1983, of It’s MY Body, which helped create a market for books for preschoolers about abuse. Originally 24 pages long, It’s MY Body was a true overnight success, with sales climbing to as high as 2,500 copies a week. In 1984 the press sold Norwegian language rights to Folkeuniversitetet Forlag A/S of Oslo, which initiated contact.

Scrambling to keep up with sales of It’s MY Body, Without Spanking, and their new books, the Crarys didn’t have much time to devote to sales of foreign rights. But offers kept coming. A German publisher bought rights to another of the Parenting Press titles on abuse, a Japanese publisher took on It’s MY Body and Loving Touches, and an English publisher bought rights to The Sleep Book for Tired Parents.

Starting in 1993, Parenting Press made more of an effort to attract foreign rights sales by sending books and catalogs for distribution through PMA at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This low-key, frugal approach alone brought foreign publishers to Parenting Press, and by the time of the company’s 20th anniversary, foreign rights deals were a growing contributor to gross sales. With little more than the annual exhibit in Frankfurt through PMA, foreign rights have become especially active in the past six years. Today, 45 titles–that’s more than half the Parenting Press list–have been translated into 15 languages.

A Book Club Bonanza

In terms of copies sold, the most impressive rights sale Parenting Press ever made was to Scholastic, for school book-club sales of the paperback edition of The Way I Feel. This full-color children’s picture book, the most expensive project ever undertaken by the press, was launched four years ago with the company’s first Internet-based publicity campaign. There was a flurry of initial interest, but sales could best be described as respectable–and unexciting. Then lightning struck, in the form of Scholastic.

Offered only in a September 2001 Scholastic book-club catalog, the paperback edition of The Way I Feel pulled in orders from half the American kindergarten and first-grade children who placed orders that month. Scholastic promptly added The Way I Feel to more book-club catalogs. To date, sales per catalog have spiked as high as 398,000 copies, and before the end of 2004, total paperback sales for this title are expected to reach 750,000.

Although revenue from book-club sales is modest, the regular publicity in the Scholastic flyers has created awareness of The Way I Feel across the country. It’s also created a demand from Scholastic’s preschool book clubs, and for those youngest club members–as well as other markets–Parenting Press has just published a toddler board-book edition of The Way I Feel.

The sales that are redefining the company’s management strategy, however, are those to special markets. Not long after the rights sale to Scholastic, an enthusiastic and savvy Phoenix-based independent sales rep named Tim McCormick decided that The Way I Feel should be sold by Discovery Toys, Books Are Fun, and other specialty retailers. The oomph he provided with both special markets and chain-store buyers pushed sales of the hardbound close to 200,000 and provided additional momentum for the board-book edition.

Healthy Side Effects of Success

Today, the Crarys and publisher Carolyn Threadgill have quit thinking of the four-year-old The Way I Feel as a short-term influence on company revenue. Although the company is careful to study revenue both with and without Feel sales, it’s adopting some of the principles of product management. Threadgill and her staff are recognizing that Feel requires time almost every day–to ensure adequate inventory, to handle production of new editions, to create publicity campaigns, and to manage author Janan Cain’s appearances.

Because no permanent staff can be added solely for Feel, the existing crew and the summer influx of interns are learning to reallocate their time as this bestseller demands. This takes time from other projects–one intern spent the entire summer of 2003 on Cain’s appearances–but Threadgill finds that the success of Feel is energizing. “We all feel so positive about it that we’re inspired to do more for this title–and for other titles,” she explains.

The varied markets that have bought the original Feel and its new board-book edition have also encouraged the Parenting Press staff to think in terms of a more organized approach to rights sales of all kinds. “Now we are working harder at evaluating the potential of every edition of every title for different markets,” Threadgill points out. “We sold the hardbound Feel into special markets, and we’re planning to do the same with the board book. Similarly, we’re selling the board book to Scholastic along with the paperback rights for the original book.”

She’s taking the same approach with foreign markets. “Parenting education is a new concept in markets such as Japan, where our nonjudgmental, problem-solving perspective is growing in popularity. With U.S. sales of books continuing flat, these growth markets are important to us too, both with backlist and with newly released titles.”

What’s the forecast for Parenting Press’s next 25 years? The Crarys and Threadgill have no thoughts of retirement, so they’ll undoubtedly be pursuing even more foreign and book-club rights and special-market sales. In fact, as you’re reading this, Threadgill is digging through proposals from audiobook publishers.

Linda Carlson handles marketing for Seattle’s Parenting Press. Her own most recent book is Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press, 2003), already in its second printing.

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