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When the Diagnosis Was Autism: Future Horizon’s Outreach to Affected Families

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R. Wayne Gilpin gave hope to
parents of autistic children, and they gave him profits. His Future Horizons
Inc., founded in 1996, now publishes 60 books and videos a year on autism and
Asperger’s syndrome, and it puts on 30 conferences on those subjects annually
in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. It expects around $6
million in revenues for 2005.

 

Gilpin’s story shows the power of
passion. Talking of his son’s diagnosis of autism back in the early 1990s,
Gilpin recalls: “Professionals looked me dead in the eye and told me to get
ready for the fact that Alex would not be able to learn to read and write and
would never have friends.”

 

While Gilpin knew that there was
no cure for autism, his experiences with Alex revealed that there’s a lot of
humor associated with communication disconnects between a family and an
autistic son or daughter, and he decided to show families that the diagnosis
was not a life sentence of unhappiness.

 

Not What the Pros Were
Saying

 

So five years after Alex was diagnosed,
Gilpin wrote Laughing
and Loving with Autism
. In that book, he tells story after story
about what it’s like to live with someone with autism. For example, take the
time when Alex was nine years old and Gilpin laid down the law about not
leaving his clothes strewn all over the house. In his stern-father’s voice,
Gilpin told Alex: “I’m not going to tell you again about picking up your
clothes.” Alex’s cheery response: “Good . . . I hate when you tell me that.”

 

As Gilpin explains it: “Alex heard
what I said, not what I meant.” And from such miscommunications and
disconnects, Gilpin’s book was born.

 

“I wrote something that I felt
good about offering to parents,” Gilpin says, “a different point of view than
what the professionals were saying. I printed 500 copies and figured once all
my friends and family had bought theirs, it would take two years to sell the
rest.” But “they went in two weeks. I realized there was a real interest
there.”

 

Not only did families affected by
autism want books; people started coming to Gilpin to publish <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>their
books
on the topic. And that led Gilpin to see both that there was a market for such
books and that this was the market he wanted to pursue.

 

At the time, his
business—publishing high-margin books on automotive repair—was
humming along like a well-tuned engine, but he put it on the back burner and
started focusing exclusively on books on autism. “Over the course of the years,
the autism books kept getting stronger and stronger and pushed our other books
into the warehouse,” Gilpin reports.

 

It was a leap of faith at the
beginning. “In 1996, we were a $100,000 company, and the money I made from
Future Horizons made me eligible for every government assistance program
available,” Gilpin says with a laugh. “I didn’t take any of it, but I really
was eligible.”

 

Skip Over the Guys in the
Middle

 

Early on, Gilpin realized that he
didn’t need a sales force to sell books to families with autism, and he didn’t
want to over-rely on the big book chains and (later) Amazon for sales. “I was
horrified at the percentages and the terms they dictated, and I felt I had to
find a way to get to the marketplace past these guys,” Gilpin recalls.

 

To connect directly with buyers,
he started putting on autism conferences that featured his company’s authors as
speakers. “Nobody was offering conferences when we started,” Gilpin says, and
the first was basically a loss leader. “We used the conference as a vehicle to
help people buy books,” he remembers. “We charged next to nothing to get in.”

 

Today, average attendance is 350,
and the average attendee pays $115 for admittance. Spending on books, which can
range from nothing to $200, averages about $30 per person, Gilpin says. Because
Future Horizons mails brochures to everyone on its mailing list in a three-state
area around each upcoming conference, it also gets “a fair amount of sales from
people who do not attend.” The brochure, Gilpin reports, “publicizes our
authors, and many people call or write in to buy books who do not want to, or
cannot, come to a conference.”

 

Currently Future Horizons’ mailing
list numbers around 100,000, and the company constantly adds to it. It has a
“special friends” email list of 18,000 clients. And Gilpin uses his Web site
not only to advertise titles and conferences but also to forge a direct bond
with every customer.

 

Gilpin believes that other niche
publishers can use conferences to advantage too, and he says that arranging
them doesn’t have to be a lot of work. Three of his 14 staff members currently
put on 30 conferences each year. His advice, in brief, is: pick authors who are
the draws in your field, get a hotel for a meeting place, advertise the event,
and “get ready to put on the conference.” And he has special advice for
first-time conference organizers: choose a location close to home to make
planning go more smoothly, and because the logistics will be easier to carry
out.

 

Two Keys to Success

 

Future Horizons has been
successful partly because its market has grown over the years. When the company
began, only one out of every 25,000 children was diagnosed with the disease.
Today the estimate is one out of 500.

 

But attitude seems the most
persistent explanation of why Future Horizons has taken off. Gilpin recalls
that he had no preconceived notions of how far Alex would go: “I never had any
expectations for Alex. I felt like just by saying where I thought he would be
when he was 21, I would be setting a ceiling.”

 

Similarly, Gilpin doesn’t set a
ceiling for what his business can do, and he doesn’t let himself get bogged
down with conventional wisdom about its operation. In his view, the only limits
people face are those that they put on themselves. It may sound like self-help
pabulum, but seeing the bright side of life has allowed Gilpin to enjoy life
with his son and build a profitable publishing company at the same time.

 

 

 

R.
Wayne Gilpin, Owner

Future
Horizons Inc.

Arlington,
TX

www.futurehorizons-autism.com

 

Company:<span
class=95StoneSerifIt><span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>World’s largest publisher of materials on autism and
Asperger’s syndrome.

 

On
bookstores:
“I view bookstores as
very friendly enemies. I’ll gladly sell to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and
companies in Canada, England, the U.S., and our distributors, but in a very
real sense, I try to beat them on every sale that I can.”

 

Best
advice:
“The main thing I would
say is, Think outside of the box. Don’t accept that everything must be this
way. Look for new avenues. There are new dynamics of communicating. Things are
entirely different than they were 10 years ago. When we come up with a new
book, our 18,000 best clients know about it within 30 seconds.”

 

Biggest
challenge for his company and the industry at large:
<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>“Keeping an eye on technology and how it is changing
how things are done.”

 

 

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