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First Try a Trade Show: The Dogwise Success Story

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Linda Carlson writes for IBPA’s Independent magazine from Seattle, Washington. She can be reached at linda@ibpa-online.org.

The Woodward family got into publishing by going to the dogs, founder Charlene Woodward said with a laugh when we talked recently. But the Woodwards are all “small-d” dog people, she explained: “It’s our customers who are the ‘big D’ dog people, the experts and enthusiasts.” While the Woodwards love dogs, they’re not dog professionals. “Our job,” she says, “is to listen to the breeders, the trainers, the veterinarians, the shelter operators, and to serve them.”

And that’s what the Dogwise staff has been doing for close to three decades. The company morphed from something very different in the 1980s, when Woodward’s children were young. Her husband was scouting locations and opening branches for Seattle First National Bank, and she was in business for herself as a book jobber, working exclusively with technical libraries. One of her husband’s colleagues who bred German shepherds after banking hours wanted books about dogs and appreciated the obscure titles Charlene was able to acquire for her. In 1987, she recommended that the Woodwards take a selection of dog titles from their home in Seattle to a dog show a county away.

“It turned out to be one of the biggest shows in the country,” Woodward exclaims. “All we had were sample books, and we told people they’d have to order their copies. They didn’t mind; they were accustomed to that.”

Sales at the dog show were so impressive that the Woodwards acquired some inventory and took to the road most weekends after that, attending dog shows in the Pacific Northwest and eventually splitting the work, with Charlene heading to shows in Canada and husband Larry to shows in Washington and Oregon. Then, when the Woodwards discovered those “big-D” people wanted to order books even when they weren’t at shows, the couple created a simple catalog and got a toll-free number.

“I became fearless about calling publishers,” Woodward says. “I was a bookseller and I had a resale certificate, so they were willing to sell to me.”

Describing a situation familiar to many fledgling publishers, she adds, chuckling: “You know how it goes. First we filled up the garage, then it was the guest room, then we took over the room of the kid who’d gone to college . . . ”

Seeing and Filling a Gap

In those early years, if the book was about dogs, the Woodwards bought it. The longer they listened to their customers and the people they met at dog shows, the more discriminating they became in their inventory, seeking specialized titles that dog enthusiasts and professionals had difficulty finding. The business—by then relocated to Wenatchee, a small central Washington city—was doing well when cutbacks by major publishers created a significant opportunity for Dogwise.

“By letting specialized low-volume titles go out of print, those big companies allowed us to morph into publishers,” Woodward says. Dogwise took “titles that we knew we could sell well, revised them, and then reissued them.”

The first Dogwise Publishing book came out in 2001, and it was quickly followed by some that have become the company’s bestsellers. Published in 2004, Raw Dog Food: Make It Easy for You and Your Dog by Carina McDonald now has about 50,000 copies in print; published a couple of years later, On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas now has about 75,000. These books are also the company’s most popular e-books.

Although Dogwise receives many quality submissions and often approaches experts about topics it wants covered, Woodward says the biggest challenge now is capacity. “Evaluating and developing books on specialized topics isn’t a job you can hand off to just anyone,” she explains. “We’ve employed outside editors, but we rely most on our in-house editors—usually Larry—to have the expertise to understand the nuances of the topics and to do the crucial book development.”

The company, which publishes six to ten books a year, usually has six in the editing stage. From an author’s submission to a finished product ordinarily takes 18 months. An extremely well-written manuscript may be in print in as little as 12 months.

“We emphasize the front-end work,” Woodward says. A submission, usually including a detailed outline and a couple of sample chapters, is evaluated by at least three staff members before a contract is considered. A “dream-come-true author” for Dogwise is one who “writes and researches well, is already speaking and blogging on the topic, and looks good on camera.”

Strong on Systems

In the early 2000s, Dogwise began hiring computer-savvy employees. “Hiring coding expertise was out of our price range, but these young people dug in and started developing computer systems that integrated three different programs,” says the publisher, whose son Nate, never particularly interested in publishing, was among them, stayed with the business after college, and now serves as Dogwise vice president. “Fortunately, he had a head for business,” Woodward notes.

Systems are important at the company because of the different businesses it includes. Today it carries about 1,700 products, with 200 of them dog-related merchandise such as training clickers that provide about 5 percent of the revenue, and the balance books and DVDs.

International Activity

Besides publishing what Woodward calls “from scratch” products (80-plus print and digital books), Dogwise is still doing business as a retailer, now almost entirely online, and through what it calls “marketing partners.” These partners are small publishers, often self-publishers, who sell about 40 titles through Dogwise and for whom Dogwise provides e-book production, promotion, and marketing, including access to Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, specialty retailers across the United States, and Dogwise’s U.K. distributor.

Besides the United Kingdom, the company’s largest foreign markets are Germany, Australia, and Scandinavia. (One of Woodward’s fond memories is of walking into a Finnish bookstore and finding two Dogwise titles in English on the shelf.) Dogwise sells some foreign rights, usually for between $1,000 and $10,000. Most of its foreign rights sales are to publishers in Germany, Japan, and Spain (in that order). “If someone comes to us and wants to translate and market one of our titles, we say ‘Fine, here’s the price.’”

The Internet has helped create international visibility for Dogwise. Type its name into Google.com and you may find the same 50 pages of citations that I did. Or check Amazon.com, now the company’s most important trade customer, which had 180 listings for Dogwise titles on the day I searched. Some titles had more than 150 customer reviews, and some reviews had been evaluated by more than 500 readers.

But the Web, with its plethora of free information, has also changed what Dogwise publishes. With all sorts of breed information free online, “we can’t give away a breed book,” Woodward points out.

And, of course, cyberspace has changed how Dogwise markets. In part because people can buy books “in their pajamas,” as Woodward puts it, and in part because of the increased travel costs of exhibiting at shows, the Dogwise staffers now attend only a few major events each year.

Today, the company’s direct sales are largely through its detailed Web site (complete with virtual “shelf talkers” by staff members), three staff members who handle customer service (and often test products and strategies on the dogs who come along to work), and a newsletter that has 40,000 subscribers. Direct sales, either at events or via the Web, now account for 42 percent of sales revenue.

What the Internet and all its opportunities haven’t changed is how the Woodwards approach business. They’re proud that their books are all printed in the United States, proud they have built a business that can support their families and several others in their small city, and proud they don’t have to compromise their values to be successful. Working on, and with, the Web also hasn’t changed what the 60-ish senior Woodwards believe is key in any publishing operation:

“Specialize,” Charlene Woodward advises. “Get to know your market thoroughly, and don’t be in love with your own opinion—remember you’re there to serve the customer.”

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