Sayings, Sentiments, Success: The Bluegrass Story
by Linda Carlson
You’re one of those publishers who’d like to break into the notoriously competitive gift and specialty retail market? Then read this story sitting down, because your head will probably be spinning by the time you hear how Linda LaTourelle used a self-published book of sentiments to establish a company that today is one of the fastest growing in the $2.6 billion scrapbooking industry. And she did it all in five years.
How did this hairdresser make the giant leap to CEO? It all started with a sister’s suggestion. In the late 1990s, LaTourelle’s younger sister, Lisa, was running a scrapbooking supply store in the Napa Valley, and she said she’d like to sell sheets of sayings and sentiments for crafters. Nothing like that was then available.
It sounded interesting to LaTourelle, who had once made and sold teddy-bear cards at Hawaiian flea markets, but she was busy doing hair in a small Kentucky town and home-schooling her daughters—and she wasn’t a scrapbooker. She did talk the concept over with her customers, however, and they did more than encourage her; one offered to finance the first printing of a book.
Then LaTourelle got serious about what was to be Bluegrass Publishing. She sat down at the keyboard in May 2003 and started to write. “Wherever I went, I took my laptop along, and I wrote and I gathered ideas,” she remembers. Within a few months, this budding publisher had a lot more than a few sheets; she had what became the 352-page first edition of The Ultimate Guide to the Perfect Word.
“I didn’t have a clue,” LaTourelle said when we talked not long ago. She sounds sincere, and a bit awed by her almost-overnight success, but a little probing provides evidence that she’s a natural when it comes to entrepreneurial publishing.
First Moves for a First-timer
She read Marilyn and Tom Ross’s The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, followed its advice in contacting book printers, and took the initiative to cold-call the author of a quote book she saw in a grocery store for advice on copyright.
LaTourelle must have asked almost everyone she met for advice. Convinced she needed point-of-purchase displays, she used an Internet search to identify a company that sells them. When its corporate display designer learned she had no artwork, he offered to help—and ended up designing the displays, brainstorming with her about the title, and designing the cover, all on a pro bono basis. “Eventually, he did come to work for me,” she adds.
Long before the manuscript went to the printer, Bluegrass had a Web site. Modest, yes, but Perfect Word was being promoted in cyberspace even as it was being written. Because the Web site had no shopping cart, LaTourelle had to call every would-be customer to obtain a credit card number. That created the opportunity to do informal market research.
“I found out that scrapbookers were using their leftover supplies to create note cards and greeting cards,” she says, and that’s why she decided she needed a companion book with language and how-tos for cards.
Turning to the Internet for resources, she learned of fledgling author Thena Smith, already popular on scrapbooking message boards. Despite working 20 hours some days to finish Perfect Word, LaTourelle picked up the phone again to call across the country to Smith.
“We instantly clicked—our first phone call was three hours,” the publisher remembers. “She and I hit it off from the first conversation and have since ‘adopted’ each other. She’s the big sis and I’m the little sis.”
Perfect Word arrived from the printer in November 2003, and The Ultimate Guide to the Perfect Card (181 pages) came a few weeks later. A couple of months after that, LaTourelle had two eight-foot tables in the new-vendor section at a major hobby industry show in Dallas. She had 2,000 copies of Perfect Word, 2,000 copies of Perfect Card, and a “Coming Soon!” flyer for Smith’s Where’s Thena, I Need a Poem About . . .
“My exhibit was mobbed. I wrote $25,000 in wholesale orders, and when I got home, the fax machine rang for three-and-a-half hours solid,” she recalls, chuckling. “You have to be careful what you wish for!”
Between ordering reprints to fulfill orders, LaTourelle got Where’s Thena out in July 2004. It was the first of eight books that Smith has written so far for Bluegrass, and the beginning of LaTourelle’s work with outside authors.
Like Smith, other Bluegrass authors are expected to provide significant promotion for their books. Check bluegrasspublishing.com, and you’ll see one reason Bluegrass has been so successful. The Web site makes the promotion requirement clear: “For a book to do well, the author must be totally committed to promoting it. Bluegrass is interested in authors who want to actively market their work (through author blogs, websites, readings/signings, etc.).”
LaTourelle insists that much of the company’s success is “right product, right time, right place,” but when you listen to her, you realize there is another reason she has sold close to a million books. She knows what she does well—and when she should delegate. The best example: When the company had an opportunity to have its books presented to what is now the $4.1 million, 964-outlet Michaels Stores, Inc., LaTourelle flew her first employee, the business manager, to Dallas to make the pitch because “she is much better than I am; when I get excited I can’t stay on track and remember what to say.”
That decision paid off. LaTourelle is now on a first-name basis with the Michaels buyers, because Perfect Word has been number three on that company’s bestseller list for three years, and Perfect Card is among its 20 top-selling books.
Bluegrass nurtures relationships with smaller chains and independently owned stores, too. Authors are encouraged to make store visits; the company distributes an occasional newsletter with product news, technique updates, and guest columnists; and it provides promotional items for special store events, including coupons, gift certificates, books, and CDs. Any retailer willing to meet the six-book minimum currently gets a 50 percent discount, and the mom-and-pop stores prepay, which eliminates collection problems for Bluegrass.
Glitches at the Get-go
Of course, nobody’s perfect. Bluegrass published its first books before making contact with distributors or wholesalers of any kind. For at least its first two years in business, it did not sell through Ingram, and LaTourelle still doesn’t have the sales through bookstores or to libraries that she’d like. She chose to shred 5,000 copies of one title when she let an employee with lower standards than her own manage the book production. She’s spent money on advertising, which she is now quick to say is a less effective way to market than publicity. And despite that belief in publicity, she says Bluegrass could be doing more to contact national and regional media, a job that’s tough when you’re a four-person company—even when at least one of those four people is happy to spend most of her waking hours selling current titles and creating new ones. “I love what I do; it’s not a job,” says LaTourelle with frank enthusiasm.
Linda Carlson (LindaCarlson.com/cards.html) writes from Seattle, where she also handcrafts cards.