As I write this article, my wife Lorraine and I are about to depart for Bucharest, Romania. Is it a place we would have chosen to go on holiday? Perhaps, perhaps not, but we’re going nonetheless. Why? Because we’ve sold translation rights to Nemira, a respected Romanian publishing house, and we’re going there to sign books and promote Nemira’s efforts. Over a period of three nights, we’ll meet with people from the Israeli Embassy, the Jewish-Romanian Trade Association, and others from every walk of life. And we’ll love it-even though, in other circumstances, we might not love it.
Welcome to the world of the small publisher. We’re not Bertelsmann and we’re not Simon & Schuster. Heck, we’re not even a middle-sized house yet. But what we don’t have in size or money, we certainly make up for in heart and spirit. We’re building partnerships for the future. That’s why we’re making the trip to Romania, the trip to Croatia, the trip to Israel, and trips to places which might seem out of the way. The big boys on the block regularly sell to Germany, France, Japan, England, and Spain. Ours is a smaller market, one where you sell to small countries and third world countries, one where you get $500 or $1,000 advance on a book rather than megathousands, one where you do what you have to do to help out your foreign partner-on a very personal level.
Am I crazy or what? I left a very successful, 32-year practice as a trial lawyer (where I was making a comfortable six-figure income each year) to buy into a company where, after 2 1/2 years, I have yet to take out my first dollar.
I defied “conventional wisdom”-more than that, I defied unconventional wisdom-to put together controlling interest in a small publishing house and believed it could be built up. I soon learned that except perhaps motion pictures, this is the craziest industry in the world. For instance, in publishing, you put out a lot of money up front, consign books to a seller for 90 days, and then hope to get paid in five months! Yet I can’t think of anyone once in publishing who voluntarily wants to leave it.
You can’t say that about law. In a recent State Bar article, I read that 81% of lawyers would not want their children to go into the profession. I believe it. I’m one of those 81%. I backed into the publishing field after being a frustrated novelist. It took several well-meaning, truth-saying people to convince me that a small, underfinanced publishing house that concentrated on novels was doomed to failure-at least in the United States. One had to find a very special niche, they told me, and then find a niche within the niche if one was a small company and wanted to be successful.
Enter Kathleen DeVanna Fish, who had been both my client and my friend for 18 years. We decided to become business partners. It is her publishing company, Bon Vivant Press, that I invested in. Kathy, who maintains the stunning good looks of a blonde goddess and the business acumen of a worthy captain of industry, had started Bon Vivant Press in 1988 on a dream, a prayer, and a single book, Monterey’s Cooking Secrets. The book is still actively selling in its sixth or seventh incarnation.
on Bon Vivant Press
Kathy had found the niche-within-a-niche. To create Monterey’s Cooking Secrets, she approached the best-known chefs of the best-known restaurants of the Monterey Peninsula-a world-renowned tourist spot a little more than one hundred miles south of San Francisco-and asked these chefs to provide her with one or two recipes. She combined their input with a guidebook-of-the-heart to the Monterey Peninsula and Voila!-the beginning of a publishing company.
Kathy proceeded slowly and deliberately-one new book a year, but always a book which would have “legs”-one which could be revised and updated as often as need to keep it fresh and glowing. San Francisco’s Cooking Secrets was next and it was followed by California Wine Country Cooking Secrets. Kathy and her husband, photojournalist Robert Fish, took a “working holiday” to the East Coast. The result was New England’s Cooking Secrets and then Cape Cod’s Cooking Secrets.
As Bon Vivant Press grew from its infancy, it started to win awards, the Publishers Marketing Association Silver Medal Award for The Great California Cookbook (still our all-time best-seller after five years) and the Gold Medal Ben Franklin Award for The Great Vegetarian Cookbook.
The Secrets of Our Success
Over the years, Bon Vivant’s theme has stayed primarily the same: Use great chefs, simplify and adapt their recipes for the home cook, and give your reading audience more than a cookbook, more than the big publishers give their readers!
Bon Vivant pioneered the cookbook-guidebook concept. If we went off our regional “plate” like we did in The Gardener’s Cookbook, we taught our readers how to plant edible gardens reflecting the four corners of the world. And in our Jewish Cooking Secrets From Here & Far, we went beyond the cuisine to explain Jewish holidays and customs to a not-necessarily-Jewish audience. We even listed Jewish world celebrities.
Millennium/Bon Vivant likes to believe it publishes not only books to look at, but books to read, books to use and books to enjoy. It’s easy to recognize our books when you visit someone’s home. They’re the ones that are marked up, dog-eared, and they never find their way to the garage sales.
Even when we “bet the farm” last year on our full-color, hard-cover coffee-table book, Cooking With The Masters Of Food & Wine, it was as much a celebration of the beauty of the Central California Pacific Coast as it was a celebration of a premiere cooking event that brings together the best chefs of the world.
We’ve found that as we’ve grown, we’ve taken unique, unusual, sometimes quirky directions to pursue success. Our authors do numerous book signings. Since we primarily publish cookbooks, we feel it appropriate to take spreadable food products to book signings so that customers can taste as well as look. One of our products was homemade roasted tomato-and-garlic spread. While we were doing a book signing for a large West Coast Department Store, the buyer came up to us and ordered 25 cases of the spread.
We quite properly replied, “You don’t understand. We’re a book publisher, we’re not in the food business.” To which the buyer replied, “You don’t understand. We are ordering twenty-five cases of this product and we are one of your biggest customers. Do you want our business of not?” Needless to say, we did, and we somehow found a way to comply.
Thus was born Bon Vivant Foods. We now produce 15 different gourmet products and the food division is expected to overtake the book division by next year! We were blessed when Publishers Weekly recognized the original complementary cookbook-food idea in its July 14, 1997 issue. The article was invaluable to us. Over time, we’ve blended in more complementary products: book + apron gift pack, book + food gift pack, book + spice gift pack, and so on.
Learning from the Experts
When you’re smaller than the next guy and you have to try harder, you have to be one step ahead. You have to treasure your customers and your partners. And you have to learn from the experts.
Edouard Cointreau and Tom Kallene have been among those experts who have given so generously of their time and knowledge. These fellows, the glue that holds International Cookbook Revue together, have always been available to give us their time, their advice, their understanding, even when they had 5, 10, even 20 appointments waiting for them. If you’ve ever met these gentlemen, you know exactly what I mean. They are perpetual motion machines-but with very big hearts. I marvel as I watch them balance so many things on their plate at once: a stunning and beautifully polished quality magazine, the cookbook fair at Perigueux, and intercontinental shuttling from one event to the next, all the while keeping their sense of humor, proportion, and humanity in the process. These are people to emulate!
Where We Are Now
Since Bon Vivant has become Millennium/Bon Vivant and has gone from 7 books in print to 27 in print in little more than two years, we’ve quadrupled our sales and our mix. Our crew of six beautiful women and three lucky men are not only co-workers but friends. We work together and we play together. We are each others’ families, as much as our respective husbands and wives.
And if we’re far from the wealthiest or biggest player in the game, we’re certainly the happiest. We’re all getting in more traveling than we’ve ever imagined-Frankfort, Chicago, New York-working harder, longer hours than we’ve ever imagined, and having the time of our lives doing it. And that’s why my wife Lorraine and I are on our way to Romania. And why, no matter what, it will be one of the best destinations we’ve ever had.
And so I’ve left the safe, secure, well-moneyed world of law to dive into the deep ocean of cookbook publishing. As I asked at the beginning of this article, “Am I crazy or what?” I guess I am crazy. Like a fox.Hugo Gerstl is President and Chief Executive Officer of Millennium Publishing. Visit www.millpub.com to take a look at their books and food products.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor June, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.