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From Self-Publishing to Success in Multiple Markets: The Penfield Books Story

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What keeps a publisher at her keyboard—and camera—after a career that’s already more than six decades long?


“A desire to learn, to search, to explore, and to share,” says Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret, now in her mid-80s, with more than 110 titles to her credit—and still turning out books in areas as diverse as photography, ethnic studies, and humor.


Liffring-Zug Bourret founded Penfield Press in Iowa City in 1979 with her late husband, John Zug. In 2002 the name was changed to Penfield Books. In  her teens, she had been a photographer, and it was that background that led to the pair becoming publishers. Among her projects was a book about Iowa artist Grant Wood that an Iowa municipal gallery chose to produce with an inexpensive low-quality printer.


“I was so angry I suggested to John, a former newspaper editor, that we start our own publishing company to control the quality of printing,” she recalls. “We began with a regional title, The American Gothic Cookbook, using the famous couple painted by Grant Wood on the cover. We also produced a little collection of recipes from our annual Fourth of July potluck picnic for friends and relations. Both books sold immediately and incredibly well.”


Liffring-Zug Bourret, who had already been creating features about ethnic groups in Iowa as a contributing editor and photographer for The Iowan magazine, used recipes as a start for the next project, an Iowan feature on Czechs that Penfield expanded with enough recipes and cultural information for a saddle-stitched book, which sold 5,000 copies.


The sales show Penfield’s understanding of its market: At least 30 percent of Cedar Rapids-Iowa City residents are of Czech descent, the publisher estimates (a Website for Iowa teachers says that more people of Czech ancestry live in Cedar Rapids than in any other city in the world, except for the Czech capital of Prague), and the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is in Cedar Rapids.


No surprise, that first book on Czechs led to more similar titles. Just last month, Penfield launched yet another, Czech Touches, this one with 32 pages of color in print. A Kindle edition is planned too.


Branching Out with Content


After the initial success of her Czech books, Liffring-Zug Bourret pursued titles with German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Ukrainian themes.


“We were commissioned by HarperCollins to produce Italian American Ways and Polish American Ways,” Liffring-Zug Bourret says. “When those two books went out of print and the rights reverted to me, I repackaged and reissued the Polish title. With its new larger format, the Polish-American book, retitled Polish Touches, was chosen by public television stations as a membership premium in the 1990s.” Penfield’s German titles have also been national TV premiums.


Penfield titles such as Polish Folklore and Myth resulted from contacts the couple had with ethnic artists and specialists. Other titles are reissues of books long out of print despite strong ethnic interest.


“We have a proverb series, for example,” Liffring-Zug Bourret points out, “and we brought works back in print by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, including Gösta Berling’s Saga and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. We also brought out her Memories of Mårbacka  back in print.” In autumn Penfield Books launched Augusta’s Daughter: Life in Nineteenth Century Sweden, and author Judit Martin’s arrival in Iowa City for a couple of weeks of appearances and a visit with the publisher.


There’s far more to Penfield than ethnic titles, important as they are, as Liffring-Zug Bourret explains as she talks about Finding My Way, a humor book purportedly written by her dog that features people who sleep with their dogs. “And we published a collection of my photographs of people who are happy,” she adds. Other humor titles include CDs such as Holy Hysterics: Bible Study, Laughter Workout, Silly Singing, and Guided Meditation by a Lutheran minister, “Laughing Laura” Gentry.


Penfield’s regional titles cover such topics as Iowa’s round barns, the Amana Colonies, Old Order Amish, and Midwestern Christmas traditions. The company also publishes many cookbooks with themes such as Colorado and Texas. And, of course, there are the photography books, most notably the publisher’s own acclaimed Pictures and People: A Search for Visual Truth and Social Justice. Besides print, Penfield makes many titles available as e-books.


Branching Out with Services


Penfield also distributes for others on a nonexclusive basis, including children’s books written by Jan Brett and published by G.P. Putnam, which she believes are ideal for her specialty retailers. “I love Brett’s art and books and wanted to introduce them in a market not familiar with her. It took about three years for our Scandinavian outlets to order them in any quantity,” the publisher says.


“It sometime takes three years to get many of our titles flying out the door,” she adds. “When we are about to give up, the market is finally there. Patience is a good trait if it’s affordable.”


What helps make patience affordable for Penfield is having more than 100 titles available in stock, strong regional tourism-related books, and distribution for other publishers.  Penfield also packages about one book a year for an author. “The authors who approach us first pay a consulting fee to see if the book has potential in our opinion, and whether the subject is suitable for having Penfield Books as the publisher,” she explains.


Penfield also watches its receivables, and that means refusing to ship to wholesalers with past-due balances. Although it does sell to chain stores through Partners, the company sells directly to about 500 individual outlets as well as to online retailers. And Liffring-Zug Bourret continues to look for more: “We print a new catalog every other year and we send these along with ethnic-theme magnets and postcards to our regular wholesale customers and also to prospects we’ve found in regional magazines.” Succession plans? You’d think Liffring-Zug Bourret might have considered them. But I didn’t get a chance to ask. She was too busy getting ready for that lengthy visit with novelist Judit Martin and the launch of Augusta’s Daughter.


Linda Carlson writes from Seattle, where she celebrates her Norwegian heritage on May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day, when an entire neighborhood closes its streets for the 100-plus entries and 20,000 spectators in the Syttennde Mai parade.


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