BUILDING THE BUSINESS
Publishing Plus Distribution Fuels Success for John F. Blair
by Linda Carlson
John F. Blair, Publisher, is no slouch when it comes to issuing well-respected regional titles and developing excellent relationships with booksellers and movie script scouts alike, but what’s kept the staff of nine hopping the last several months is distribution for other publishers.
Established in 1954, Blair began handling smaller presses’ books in 1998 with Down Home Press, a publisher for which it now distributes more than 50 titles. Today the distribution business means that Blair can routinely offer 25 new titles a year. One, which it distributes for Lookout Books, hit the front page of the New York Times Book Review this January with an overwhelmingly positive review. And another—the NewSouth Publishers edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—generated news in all sorts of media.
As soon as Publishers Weekly came out with its story about NewSouth eliminating the words nigger and injun from Mark Twain’s classic, “the barrage” hit, Blair president Carolyn Sakowski exclaims. It was continuing weeks later when she and I spoke, and after that, an op-ed in the New York Times, “Send Huck Finn to College,” drew almost 400 reader comments within 48 hours of its publication.
Committed to chronicling the history of civil rights and its leaders at all levels, NewSouth was shocked by attacks on its efforts to publish an edition of Huckleberry Finn that can be used in Deep South schools and libraries, and by the negative media attention the edition attracted. And so was Blair, which has had to repeatedly point out that it’s only the distributor of the title and had nothing to do with the content.
Dealing with 33 distributed publishers is an important part of the job at Blair, where these publishers accounted for about 45 percent of net sales in 2010, having boosted the company’s net sales to above $1 million for each of the past five years. With 333 distributed titles and 214 titles of its own, Blair can offer an excellent range of regional nonfiction to trade and specialty retailers alike. There’s at least one fiction title a year from Blair, too, and although it no longer issues children’s books or poetry, some of its distribution clients do.
Win, Win, Win
The Blair relationships with smaller presses can also pay off for writers. It means that Blair can occasionally help place manuscripts that don’t seem quite right for it. Because Sakowski is hesitant to offer contracts when she isn’t convinced a book will sell 5,000 copies in its first 18 months, she may refer writers with quality proposals to one of the publishers Blair distributes. “Sometimes we can find the manuscript a home,” she explains.
And sometimes these seemingly niche titles far exceed Sakowski’s sales projections. Of one memorable guide that she sent elsewhere, this veteran publisher reports: “I thought it would sell, oh, maybe 2,000 copies. It sold at least 20,000 and went through three editions!”
When she’s considering a distribution client, Sakowski looks for titles that complement Blair’s line, and she takes publishers on as clients only when she believes Blair can add value for their titles. “Many books we distribute come from one- or two-title presses, where the publisher doesn’t have relationships with buyers of chains or with national wholesalers,” she says. Blair’s distribution services include handling all sales and fulfillment, creating a Web page for each book, making all submissions to industry databases, and including client publishers’ titles in its twice-yearly print catalogs, which are sent to some 10,000 customers and prospects.
Blair’s relationships with specialty retailers provide a huge advantage both to its authors and to its distribution clients. Sakowski estimates that as much as 40 percent of the company’s total sales occur outside the book trade. Gift stores, museum stores, and state and national park gift shops buy titles as long as they’re available, whether the books are frontlist or four decades old, she notes. Legends of the Outer Banks, for example, was first published in 1966, and as of year-end 2010, Blair had sold 121,000 copies.
On track for a similar record is one of the company’s 2010 releases, Banktown: The Rise and Struggles of Charlotte’s Big Banks, which sold 30,000 hardcover copies and an additional 300-some copies as an e-book between September and December, in part thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s Deal Journal blog, which gave an overview of the book and an interview with the author in June that ran almost 700 words.
In August, just before its publication, the book was again featured in Deal Journal. On the same day, an excerpt appeared in Fortune and was picked up by CNNMoney.com. Just a week later, the New York Times gave the book a lengthy review in its Business Day section.
What’s also interesting about Blair is how its staff combines traditional publishing practices—and what some would call old-fashioned values—with an embrace of the new. That’s “new” as in social marketing, e-books, and up-to-the-minute design.
Four members of the team have been with Blair since the 1980s, and they have more than 100 combined years of experience with Blair’s books. One staffer’s Blair tradition goes back much further: Margaret Couch is the grand-niece of founder John F. Blair and started work in 1980. She became president on Blair’s death in 1986 at age 84.
Sakowski, who joined Blair in 1986, came to the company with significant trade experience; she had been the founding manager of Watermark Books in Wichita, KS, and spent a decade at that well-known indie bookseller before returning to her home state of North Carolina. After following Couch as sales and marketing manager, she became president in 1992. Another staff member has been handling shipping and receiving for Blair since 1990.
Blair staff members who know what publishing was like before electronic prepublishing, before national chains, before online retailers, and before big-box stores work as a team with four employees added since 2004. Everyone understands the importance of the others’ contributions.
The company’s ambitious move into e-publishing is facilitated by the four younger staffers. For more than a year, all new titles have been simultaneously issued in electronic and print format; the backlist is being converted to e-pubs; and the company uses social marketing, online sales, blogging, and e-newsletters.
Foreseeing and Spurring Sales
No publishing operation is without its challenges, and one of Blair’s is returns. “Early in my tenure here, sales were lower, there were fewer chain stores, fewer big-box stores—and fewer returns,” Sakowski says. “But now—now you never know what you’ll get hit with in the first quarter of the year, when you find out which stores overbought from our fall list.”
This risk is one reason that the publisher counsels novice presses to budget carefully and not spend all their available capital on startup operations. “Consider returns and how they will impact your cash flow,” Sakowski warns. “And even if initial sales are good, be aware that not every title is an evergreen—and that even evergreens usually have dramatic sales declines after the first season or so.”
Realism about lifetime sales is also important, Sakowski says, noting that sales of 2,000 copies is very, very good, especially for a startup press. She expects each of Blair’s fiction titles to have 3,000 to 4,000 lifetime sales in hardback, and occasionally to bring in “found money,” as she calls payments for paperback rights and the few thousand dollars for 12-month movie options.
“Most of our nonfiction is not optionable,” Sakowski continues, “although our Torso: The Story of Eliot Ness and the Search for a Psychopathic Killer, about the post-Untouchables career of Ness, has just been optioned for the fourth time.”
Creating awareness of titles without big-publisher-style advertising is another challenge, one that Blair handles with an unusual contract clause. Each author is required to spend between five and ten weekdays a year on tours, usually of bookstores, arranged by Blair. “Weekday” is key to the success of such tours, the Blair staff believes. Although many authors assume they’ll make appearances on weekends, Sakowski wants them available during work days, when reporters are more likely to be available.
Because titles Blair sells are regional, these tours are relatively affordable for both publisher and authors, and Blair helps defray author expenses with a per diem. “Our goal is to interest the media in writing feature stories about the authors and their books,” the publisher explains. That’s a goal the Blair team is meeting, as the recent publicity in high-profile publications—and those record-setting sales figures—show.
Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she spends a lot of time trying to get the media to write stories about the authors she promotes.
How’s Huck Selling?
Publishing deadlines for the Independent make it impossible for us to provide current sales reports on the NewSouth edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being distributed by John F. Blair, but company president Carolyn Sakowski has promised to update us frequently. So watch the Independent for news from her on reviews, sales, and returns of this controversial title.