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Sleeping Bear Press: The House a Lost Golf Book Launched

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Looking back on 2001, Sleeping Bear President Brian Lewis reports that revenues were up 30% over 2000 and says he expects this year to be up as well–”$8 million minimum for 2002.” It didn’t figure. Sleeping Bear Press in Chelsea, MI (named by Lewis’s wife for “the 500-foot white sand dune that drops directly into Lake Michigan”) got its start in 1994 with what looked like a foolhardy leap of faith.

Lewis had, he explains, come across a manuscript filled with insights into golf; it was called The Spirit of St. Andrews. Written in 1933 by the eminent golf course architect Alister MacKenzie, it had never been published and Lewis loved it. When it came his way, Lewis was in his early 30s and working for Times Mirror, running a technical environmental publishing operation that he’d sold them four years earlier. They “declined to publish” MacKenzie’s book, Lewis remembers, whereupon “everyone said I’d be crazy to publish it and quit my job. So I quit.”

 

If You Publicize It, We Will Buy

Although he “didn’t know anything about trade publishing and had no bookstore relationships,” Lewis got through to a buyer at Borders. “If you drive people to my stores, I can react,” the buyer told him. Once “we called them up and said we had this lost manuscript,” The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times,Golf magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Sports Illustrated all did stories on it, sparking sales of 25,000-30,000 copies in the title’s first year. Sales-to-date are about 50,000, Lewis reports, and promotion includes the sort of content that spurs Internet booksellers’ sales. (“This book has 11 sample pages” and a meaty “description” at Amazon.com; the sample pages include the front and back cover, the book flaps, an excerpt, and the table of contents–each accessible with one click.)

Through Sleeping Bear’s first author, Lewis met its second, Sidney L. Matthew, whose Life and Times of Bobby Jones quickly sold 20,000 copies at $49.95 each and “started us in the golf world in earnest.” Now “the largest golf publisher in the world,” the house concentrates on course architecture, design, and maintenance; on biographies of great golfers, including “Old Tom Morris,” a “legendary golfer-greenkeeper”; on golf history; and on fiction about golf, including J. Michael Veron’s The Greatest Player Who Never Lived (“Phenomenal success,” Publishers Weekly burbled, reporting on the rights deals, new printings, and reviews). Instructional titles are not Sleeping Bear’s bag. There are “too many of them out there,” Lewis says. “Golfers trust us to do something that’s really good and different.”

 

Inspired by Ursula Nordstrom

Nothing quite as different as children’s books was part of Lewis’s original plans, but the Press began developing titles for kids when a local legend captured the imagination of Sleeping Bear editor Heather Hughes. Appropriately enough, it was the Ojibwe story of Sleeping Bear and her cubs. “Fine. Just don’t lose money,” Lewis said to Hughes. “We’ll do one children’s book.”

With sales of more than 350,000 copies and “independent bookstores selling 2,000 copies” each, The Legend of Sleeping Bear, by Kathy-jo Wargin with illustrations by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, validated the decision to publish, but Lewis didn’t commit to kids’ books right away. “One children’s book success doesn’t make a you a children’s book publisher. I was adamant about that,” he says.

What turned him around was a book about children’s books: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (“Arguably the greatest editor of American children’s books in this century,” in the words of The New York Times Book Review). Lewis read it on a plane and immediately called Hughes and said, “We have a responsibility to do children’s books and a responsibility to do great children’s books.”

Today’s Sleeping Bear titles for kids include several other “Legend of…” titles; “Our Alphabet Series” (A is for America:An American Alphabet;L is for Lone Star: A Texas Alphabet;L is for Lobster: A Maine Alphabet, plus volumes for other states and for Canada); a similar new series about numbers (launched with The Michigan Counting Book and Sunny Numbers: A Florida Counting Book); and a golf book, Foursome the Spider.“We try to have more than just a cute story,” Lewis says, adding that the company provides free, downloadable teacher’s manuals for its children’s titles and that he seeks books that are “educationally great.”

 

Customers & Content

Teachers–and pro shops–buy from the press, Lewis says, but “bookstores are our primary market.” With a staff of 36 and roughly 60 new titles annually, including a number of books about Michigan, the press handles distribution in-house because “the numbers don’t work otherwise,” and Lewis is hiring “our very first rep, for big customers.” The house promotes via its catalog (“Direct mail to over 50,000 buyers”) and its Web site (“Over a million hits a month,” which Lewis says generate some sales, help build his brand, and have a noticeable echo effect in bookstores).

Sleeping Bear’s eponymous Legend volume now has the distinction of being the first, and presumably the permanent, “State of Michigan Official Children’s Book,” thanks to a state legislator who fell in love with it. Asked whether he’d like to repeat the pattern with books about other states, Lewis isn’t interested in exploring the possibility. “No,” he says, “that would be too contrived and gimmicky.”

Talking about marketing moves in general doesn’t seem to animate him either, at least not as much as talking about content does. When he focuses in on Birdbaths and Paper Cranes: A Family Tale by Sharon Randall, for instance, Lewis doesn’t mention featuring it on the cover of PW (with four full-color Sleeping Bear ad pages following), or highlighting it on the Web, or setting up author appearances. Instead, he says, “Have you read it? You have to read it. It’s a wonderful book.”

“We get more manuscripts than we used to,” he reports with enthusiasm, and “It’s always good to get them” whether or not they come via agents. For Lewis–whose slush pile contained The Greatest Player Who Never Lived along with other successful titles–it seems amazing that some publishers “think it’s too much trouble” to read unsolicited manuscripts, trying to find “a great book that somebody put a lot of effort into. The day you think you’re getting too many manuscripts is the day you’d better sell out,” he declares.

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