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Building the Business: Thistle Hill’s Pictures-and-Partners Success Story

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Thistle Hill published this book with help from a foundation and from an advocacy group focused on the trail it covers.

BUILDING THE BUSINESS

Thistle Hill’s Pictures-and-Partners Success Story

by Linda Carlson

Vermont’s Thistle Hill Publications is proof that it’s possible to survive—and have fun—by publishing coffee-table books without printing overseas, and without many sales through national wholesalers.

Not that founder Jack Crowl ever expected to be a book publisher. He spent years in Washington, DC, as publisher of both Chronicle of Higher Education, which now has daily online issues and 43 print issues annually, and Chronicle of Philanthropy, which has 18 print issues annually, and he took early retirement because of his diabetes. His insulin requirement doubled when he returned to DC after extended vacations in Vermont, he reports, citing “the pressure of deadlines and running the business side of a $20 million company.”

Crowl says he “vegetated” for a while after settling full time in the ’90s in North Pomfret, a Vermont village of about 200 people that’s 50 miles south of the state capital. Then, in 1992, he started the Woodstock Farmer’s Market, a homespun deli and grocery that is still operating today (despite severe flood damage in August and a lengthy closure for repairs). After that, he got involved in a few local political controversies and did freelance writing and editing, mostly for Vermont-based publications.

Twelve years ago, that freelancing led Crowl to launch Thistle Hill, and today he has six books in print, all on New England topics, all created by other writers, photographers, and artists. Most feature art or photography, and they have the advantage of being “evergreen”—always of interest—and especially likely to sell in certain seasons.

That means he works hard to launch a new title before a tourist or holiday season—and to keep retailers interested in backlist titles year after year. With a new title, he starts promotion as early as possible. “I’ve often hooked up with organizations dealing with a book’s subject matter for either co-publishing or bulk sales in advance,” Crowl says.

Rewarding Relationships

When Thistle Hill published Untamed Vermont, Crowl worked with the Vermont Natural Resources Council and generated a large advance order. Granite and Cedar, about northeast Vermont’s vanishing rural culture, was co-published with the Vermont Folklife Center. And Northeast Passage, about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, was published with the financial assistance of a foundation grant the photographer secured, as well as with the help of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail advocacy group.

Because of the books’ regional focus, Crowl and his part-time assistant, Ron Rhodes (who knows the state well through his other occupation as a fly-fishing guide), work hard to forge relationships with bookstore owners and managers. “We want them to know we produce quality books,” Crowl notes. That makes it easier to prompt reorders with a phone call, an email, or an occasional in-person sales call. “Our biggest challenge,” he says, “is to keep bookstores ordering books. So we regularly contact them.”

Crowl can run his publishing business with just that one assistant partly because he can draw on his experience in the newspaper world. “I understand the production process well,” he says. “I know what’s possible and what’s not.”

Another advantage: the relationships he’s developed with freelancers and vendors. “Early on, I ran into Mason Singer of Laughing Bear Associates, a designer whose aesthetic and temperament is matched so well with mine that I have used him for every book I have done,” Crowl explains. Singer scouts out printers and handles most of the prepress work.

Fulfillment—from single-copy sales to chain and wholesaler orders—is handled by Enfield Books of Enfield, NH. “Enfield is very good at what it does,” Crowl reports. “And they keep impeccable records. They do not, however, do promotion, other than offering suggestions to their publishers.”

Production Procedures

Although the publisher says he originally vowed to produce all his books in Vermont, that hasn’t been possible. “We have printed in Canada, but not overseas, primarily because of scheduling problems,” Crowl notes. “As an old newspaperman, I am always working on tight deadlines, and the long time it takes to ship books from abroad has thwarted several attempts to save money by printing in Italy or China.”

For others who want to publish coffee-table books, Crowl has two recommendations.

First, use digital images for photos and illustrations. “A couple of my early books were extremely expensive because we had the expense of scanning all the art in addition to the high cost of good color printing.”

Second, “shop and shop for printers.” Color printers, he says, usually take great pride in their work and like to show prospective customers their best work. “Most of the time,” he has found, “you can gauge their quality from what they have previously printed.”

Although he believes that working with a distant book manufacturer is not as great an issue as it once was because a printer can now send digital images to proof, Crowl emphasizes that “there is no substitute for being on site during the production process.”

He learned that the hard way when the first book he produced was printed in Vermont but bound in Boston, and he was not present during binding.

“The bindery used too much water in the process, and the end papers were wrinkled on nearly half the copies when the completed books were returned to me,” says the publisher. “We had to painstakingly go through every book in the 3,000-copy print run to segregate the bad copies. Fortunately, we had enough good copies in the beginning for the upcoming holiday season, and the bindery was later able to salvage most of the wrinkled copies.”

Crowl also stresses the importance of a quality product. “I get more submissions than I could possibly ever use, and I have the luxury of being very picky. I find it extremely satisfying to produce quality work,” he says, adding that all Thistle Hill books have won regional or national awards.

What is not so satisfying? The work involved in selling. Books don’t sell themselves, and Crowl points out that he was unaware he’d spend about 75 percent of his time on promotion and sales.

Linda Carlson, who writes for the Independent from Seattle, likes spending 75 percent of her time on promotion.

 

 

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