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Allworth at 20: What Keeps Working; What Works That’s New

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Allworth at 20: What Keeps Working; What Works That’s New

by Linda Carlson

Tad Crawford is a straightforward kind of guy who has more than 30 years’ experience in the book business. When we talked recently, he in Manhattan and I in Seattle, I was instantly comfortable, and it was easy to ask him for pointers.

He’s a credible source, too: his Allworth Press has some 300 titles in print; it’s reached the significant milestone of a 20th anniversary; and it’s moved to Random House Publisher Services after using several other distributors.

On its Web site, Allworth describes its titles—business and self-help books for artists, performing artists, authors, and other creative people, and legal and personal finance guides for the general public. Examples include the book that got Crawford started as an author, Legal Guide for the Visual Artist (now in its fourth edition and still an Allworth bestseller), The Complete Guide to Book Marketing, and Your Living Trust and Estate Plan. Many of the books have time-sensitive information and so are frequently updated. A small number of Allworth books—Crawford guesstimated 25 percent—have had such low lifetime sales that they have been allowed to go out of print.

When asked what advice he’d give start-ups, this attorney turned author and publisher was careful and thoughtful in his response.

“Ideally, you’d be well capitalized and have both excellent expertise in your field and a good distributor,” Crawford began. For the many IBPA members who do not have those advantages, he advised, “especially today, keep your expenses low; stay out of debt. Learn as you go.”

A long print run for a new book in an untested market is “very dangerous,” he says, also warning publishers to consider price points carefully: “You have to price books so that the public will buy them, and so that you can stay in business.”

Allworth’s usual policy has been to launch a book in an edition of 5,000 to 10,000 copies printed by offset, with the quantity reflecting Crawford’s estimate of adequate inventory for 18 to 24 months. When it’s time to reprint, Allworth is now converting backlist titles that don’t sell more than 40 to 60 copies a month to POD to reduce production costs and risk.

Talking about the expertise publishers need, Crawford refers both to book topics and to publishing. “The expertise of our staff is very important, and we are fortunate that half of our staff has stayed a long time,” he says, adding that staff stability is critical when you employ only six people. Even in the position with the highest turnover—editorial assistant—a recent college graduate might stay at Allworth for two or three years, Crawford reports. He says he rarely uses interns, in part because of the time involved in supervising them.

Distribution Decisions

Crawford considers distribution one of the keys to success. “Producing books seems easy compared to distribution,” he says. “This has been our greatest challenge through the years.” Recently, Allworth was distributed by Watson-Guptill, a larger publisher, but Crawford was forced to make a change this year because Watson-Guptill was acquired by an even bigger house and eliminated its distribution program.

When you’re evaluating a distributor, a major consideration should be how well your titles complement the distributor’s current lines, Crawford points out. In some cases, he notes, the distributor’s other lines will benefit more from access to your existing customers than you will benefit from access to theirs.

He sounds confident about the choice of Random House, which has impressed him with its systems, its sense of the current marketplace, its strong sales reps, and what he considers “dynamic management.” And he is especially pleased about a sharp reduction in replenishment time. Random House encourages chain stores to check inventory and reorder at least every four weeks rather than on the 12-week schedule some previously used.

Allworth has never distributed its own books and sells most of them to the trade. Today Amazon.com is its largest customer, responsible for a third of its business. Allworth’s own online sales are only about 3 percent of its total, despite the fact that the company discounts all its titles by 20 percent on its Web site in an effort to be competitive with online retailers.

Supplementary Sales Channels

Allworth continues to sell direct to some extent, although direct sales were a greater percentage of the company’s revenue stream in the 1980s, when extensive use of direct mail was much more affordable and before the rise of online bookselling. It also continues to promote through professional associations, offering discounts for members of groups such as the Graphic Artists Guild and the Society of Media Photographers. This can entail reducing book prices by as much as 30 percent, but the program attracts an insignificant number of customers today.

Another marketing effort that contributes modestly to sales is an affiliates program that rewards other Web-site owners for advertising Allworth books.

To promote direct sales, Allworth maintains its own database, which includes entries for previous customers and for people who have opted in by subscribing to the publisher’s newsletter. Crawford is careful about how often any of the 10,000 contacts receives Allworth email, to ensure that these customers and potential customers don’t feel spammed.

Although Allworth seeks publicity via both traditional media and appropriate blogs, it has done little social (or “viral”) marketing to date, in part because of the labor that Crawford perceives is needed. “With that staff of six, we don’t have any free time,” he points out. For the same reason, the company no longer exhibits at conferences; exhibiting is “tremendously” time-consuming, he says, and it is hard to measure the effect on sales.

Commenting on another time- and energy-consuming challenge many publishers face today, Crawford talks about fragmented markets and how difficult it can be to identify a large, single block of potential buyers for a single topic. “We can target our potential buyers more easily than we can the general public,” he says, “but not to the depth that we’d like.”

For example, Allworth can promote an interiors book through the American Society of Interior Designers, but that promotion will directly reach only the society’s members, not everyone who works in interior design. As Crawford points out, “The market for books is an ocean with lots and lots of fish, and we can only catch so many.”

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) is enthusiastic about the market for how-to books for creative professionals because her first book was conceived as a marketing guide for architects. She writes for the Independent from Seattle.



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