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The Series, the Staff, and More: The Dawn Publications Route to Profits

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BUILDING THE BUSINESS

 

The Series, the Staff, and
More: The Dawn Publications Route to Profits

 

by Linda Carlson

 

Question: what do a renowned
naturalist, a teenage artist, and a Grammy award-winning singer have in common?

 

For Dawn Publications, the road to
success.

 

Now in its third decade with more
than 80 titles in its current catalog, this Nevada City, CA, publisher
initially sparked success with <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Sharing Nature with Children
by the
naturalist Joseph Cornell. The book was well received—so well received that it
now has at least a half-million copies in print in several languages and has
led to related titles from Cornell, all but one still in print.

 

Fast forward to 1992, when an
unusual package came across the proverbial transom: a manuscript for an alphabet
alliteration book, illustrated with Magic Markers by a 14-year-old St. Louis
high school freshman. Kristin Joy Pratt’s <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>A Walk in the Rainforest
was an
instant—and continuing—success. It has sold 150,000 copies; the follow-up, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>A Swim Through the Sea,
created when Pratt was 16, has sold more than 125,000 copies.

 

Dawn’s third important series
started incubating seven or eight years later, with a phone call from an agent
representing the estate of singer/songwriter John Denver. She was pitching
books based on such Denver lyrics as “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” The publishers
couldn’t afford to say yes to the agent’s terms then, but after deals for the
books fell through at two other houses, the agent called back and Dawn bought
rights to 16 titles. With three of the books in print and a fourth coming soon,
Dawn’s John Denver
series is now part of a backlist that sometimes accounts for 85 percent of
sales.

 

Stalking the Shadow
Constituency

 

An unusual but interesting route
to success, you’re probably thinking. That’s true—and like most publishers,
Dawn owners Glenn Hovemann and Muffy Weaver have plenty of tales to tell about
chuckholes along the way.

 

In the mid-’90s, a few years after
Hovemann joined Dawn as editor, the company hit a serious roadblock: Thousands
of copies of A Walk
in the Rainforest
went to one customer—and a huge percentage came
back too damaged to resell. With few of its newer titles selling well enough to
compensate for this loss, the then-owners decided to get out of the business.
Encouraged by publishing consultant John Huenefeld, whom they had called in for
an evaluation, Hovemann and Weaver took over Dawn in late 1996.

 

“John was especially impressed
with the sales of Sharing
Nature with Children
, and he told us we had a large ‘shadow constituency,’”
Weaver remembers. “He said that if we could identify and work with that
constituency, we could make the company profitable again.”

 

To find the shadow
constituency—people who hear Dawn’s message indirectly and are
influenced—Hovemann and Weaver decided on a multichannel promotional campaign
for a 20th-anniversary edition of <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Sharing Nature with Children
.

 

They also started the <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Sharing Nature Newsletter

for current customers and for people whose names they collected at shows, from
specialized ads to teachers, and from working with environmental groups. “We
became much more active in working with all of our buyers and with libraries,
environmental organizations, and reviewers of all kinds,” Weaver says. “We
attend at least a half dozen shows each year, and find teachers and retailers
who are interested in what we have to offer.”

 

Selling to Schools

 

Although a small group of teachers
and librarians review manuscripts before acquisition, Dawn does not attempt to
design titles to meet state K–12 curriculum standards.

 

“Our niche has always been a
combination of education and inspiration. The inspirational quality in both
text and art—that element that motivates kids to take another look and explore
nature—is Dawn’s unique contribution,” Weaver says, adding, “Inspiration
doesn’t always fit well with the needs of standardized curricula.”

 

To increase school sales,
marketing director Julie Valin has established relationships with state
environmental and science educator coordinators, and they have incorporated
many Dawn titles into teaching workshops. She also ensures that review copies
of most new Dawn books are sent to Accelerated Reader and Scholastic Reading
Counts!—two popular reading assessment and incentive programs tied to state
educational achievement standards and the federal No Child Left Behind
requirements. Many Dawn titles are included in these programs.

 

School sales are also enhanced by
author visits, which generate about 12 percent of the company’s overall sales,
mostly via appearances by Christopher Canyon, the illustrator of the books
based on Denver’s lyrics. A man Weaver calls “perfect” for several reasons,
Canyon is not only an avid John Denver fan; he’s a guitarist who spends several
months each year in schools doing singalongs.

 

Email Builds Sales

 

In the last five years, the
company has expanded its email marketing. Its Dawn Buzz, a quarterly
e-newsletter of 300 to 600 words, goes to stores, distributors, reviewers, and
libraries, and special sales offers are emailed to individual customers and
schools every quarter.

 

Through email, Dawn usually offers
25 percent off new titles, reports Richard Rodrigue, whose responsibilities
include marketing and the Web site. In fall 2006, a three-book set offered at
35 percent off retail was particularly successful. Every email offer has a
significant impact on sales, he notes, with the email marketing campaigns for
Denver titles doing especially well.

 

“Our John Denver fans are very
loyal customers and we can always count on a high response,” Rodrigue says.
Many have purchased every book in the series, and have written Dawn to describe
how Denver’s music and the books have touched their lives.

 

Oh No! Experiences

 

When Hovemann and Weaver bought
Dawn, their goal was to make it profitable by 1999. Getting from red to black
meant cutting costs wherever practical and deferring part of their own
paychecks. But five very popular titles generated significant revenue starting
in 1997.

 

Reaching profitability didn’t mean
Hovemann and Weaver were past all the obstacles, however. In early 2000 they
received bound copies of three new titles that Weaver describes as “looking
good—but only for a while.”

 

As they packed these books when
filling orders, the Dawn crew noticed a few copies with cracked lamination on
the covers. By summer it was obvious that all the books had to be replaced.
Although their printer accepted responsibility, Dawn still had the work and
expense of contacting every individual and business that had received books and
replacing books that had been sold.

 

It was an ordeal, Weaver sighs—but
nothing like a later delivery that resulted in both an ordeal and an odor. Not
long after the company received a large shipment of <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Birds in Your Backyard
for Scholastic
Book Fairs, the staff smelled a rat—or what they assumed was a dead rat.

 

“It wouldn’t have been the first
time, but we couldn’t find the poor critter,” Weaver explains. They pulled out
desks, checked under computers, and were ready to rip into walls to look for a
rodent corpse when they started receiving calls from the 20 warehouses that had
been drop-shipped books from the same print run. Everyone noticed the smell.

 

A little detective work with the
printer eventually uncovered the problem: a different paper stock had caused a
strange—and smelly—chemical reaction with the ink. The printer redid and
reshipped the books, but Dawn didn’t get another order from Scholastic for
quite a while.

 

Other challenges are the same ones
many publishers face: returns, receivables, and discounts. The company has a
straightforward response to the returns issue. It tracks returns carefully and
simply discontinues its relationship with any distributor whose returns are
excessive. The result? Returns for the past several years have averaged 7
percent, with about a quarter of those unsaleable as new.

 

“We also have the frustration of
big distributors that don’t pay on time,” says Weaver. “Renee Bryan, who joined
Dawn in 1999 as ‘office mom,’ is on top of all the AR and being sure that
customers do pay. With some of the wholesalers that is not an easy task. If
customers are not a good pay, we are willing to let them go.”

 

Discounts are a newer challenge,
partly because Dawn books are now sold both in and outside of traditional trade
book channels, and its different markets have different expectations and
demands.

 

The All-Important Staff

 

What is perhaps most impressive
about Hovemann and Weaver? When you ask them to describe their luckiest breaks,
they tell you about their staff.

 

“We look for people who take
initiative,” said Weaver, “and we encourage everyone to feel they are an
essential part of Dawn’s success.”

 

Employees participate in a
profit-sharing program. And, Weaver notes, “One of my greatest feelings of
accomplishment comes because we have almost doubled everyone’s salary since we
began; we have added medical and dental benefits and IRAs, and we increase
vacation days with each year of employment. No one is getting rich, but it’s a
good living wage. We all love what we do, and we know that we are contributing
something positive to the world.”

 

One factor that contributes to
Dawn’s efficiency and profitability: staff turnover is almost nonexistent.
Valin, who arrived in 2001, is the newest employee. Everyone wears several
hats—and they’re all capable of pinch-hitting for each other.

 

“Having more than one person
familiar with most aspects of Dawn gives us more flexibility,” Weaver says,
“and it allows each of us to feel more connected to the whole.”

 

 

 

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