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Fueling Success: What Makes Octane Press Prosper

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by Linda Carlson, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Photo of Linda Carlson

Linda Carlson

“Create quality books” and “Sell outside bookstores” may sound familiar, but those time-tested tactics are what spell success for Octane Press. And publisher Lee Klancher has proved that you can do both those things with titles about tractors—and taxi drivers, and motorcycles.

Klancher had years of experience in book publishing when he founded Octane in Austin, TX, less than five years ago. He was operating on a shoestring, but he had help from contacts he’s been making since his time as the student editor of a magazine at the University of Minnesota College of Engineering, and since his first assignments at Motorbooks, the transportation-book publisher. His most important relationship, he reports, has been with Case IH, the parent company of the agricultural equipment manufacturer International Harvester, which patented the Farmall tractor back in 1923.

Early in his career Klancher had photographed equipment for a calendar featuring that tractor, which his then-current employer produced on license from Case IH, and in 2010 he was able to acquire the license for Octane.

His success with that calendar led him to publish Red Tractors 1958-2013, a history of International Harvester and Case IH tractor models, which now has more than 20,000 copies in print in three editions priced between $50 and $400. Twenty-seven more books followed, almost all of them still in print. That Farmall calendar? It’s still in print, too: in fact, sales for 2015 reached 11,000 copies, and Octane publishes four other calendars, on topics ranging from canning to the Can-Am sports car race series.

As Octane’s price points suggest, many of its publications are coffee-table books, high-quality hardcovers with the photography that excites equipment collectors. But browse Octanepress.com, and you’ll also find practical information for vehicle and equipment enthusiasts, including the Triumph Bonneville and TR6 Motorcycle Restoration Guide and How to Restore Tractor Magnetos.

Besides Red Tractors 1958-2013, Octane bestsellers include Beast: The Top Secret Ilmor-Penske Engine that Shocked the Racing World at the Indy 500, which was in its third printing, with more than 6,100 copies sold, within nine months of publication in mid-2014; and the Adventurous Motorcyclist’s Guide to Alaska, with 7,200 copies sold since late 2012. The first Octane children’s book, A Year on the Farm, has had average sales of more than 1,000 a month since a limited trade launch in August 2014.

Connections for Children’s Books

That children’s book, a 32-page full-color $14.99 hardcover for ages 4–8, provides another example of how old contacts can pay off. It’s the first of 10 Octane children’s books scheduled for publication between 2014 and 2017 as a result of Klancher’s relationship with Case IH. Executives there were familiar with the success of books for kids from its competitor John Deere, and they wanted to add something similar to the Case IH line of branded merchandise.

A Year on the Farm is now sold partly through Case IH equipment dealers, as are many of Octane’s other books. The enthusiasm of those dealers for the title, along with sales through specialty retailers such as toy stores and sales at school visits by the author and illustrator, led to the high early sales. Now the Octane staff is outlining a marketing strategy that will emphasize communities that have Case IH dealerships and elementary schools and bookstores in or near those communities.

Website Sales Specifics

Along with its publishing triumphs, Octane has had its share of challenges, and Klancher says one of the lessons he has learned is: “Don’t cheap out.” He knew from the beginning that he was going to select the best quality photography, paper, and binding so that his books would appeal to collectors. But the first website host he chose was low-cost, and its limited capacity and lack of customer service personnel torpedoed a calendar launch.

The launch involved a link from Bikeexif.com—a popular motorcycle site that receives more than a million visits each month—to the Octane Press site. Usually, this offer attracts hundreds of buyers a minute. But one year, at exactly the time Bikeexif.com went live with the offer, Octane’s site went down. “And it stayed down for 18 hours, with no response from the staff about what was happening,” Klancher remembers.

Today, the publisher is strongly committed to quality website service, which is vital since Octane makes lots of direct sales online. “We sell more of our merchandise in dollar volume than Amazon does,” Klancher points out. That’s partly because of the visitor volume but, even more important, it’s because of the high percentage of visitors who make purchases. “We convert 3% of our visits to sales, far higher than the industry average,” Krancher reports. One reason: 30% of those visits are by repeat visitors, and probably repeat customers, especially for products such as the calendars.

Calendar Challenges

Selling calendars is a highly competitive business with a strictly limited sales window, and production and shipping issues can ruin sales for a year. Klancher spent much of one vacation on the telephone and e-mail trying to get copies of one calendar out of China and into the US so his distributor would have them on schedule. “Everything that could go wrong in production already had, and then we had trouble with customs,” he recalls. “I’ve got a great distributor, but every calendar distributor has the right to reject an order if you don’t deliver it on time.”

Octane sell-through on calendars is at least 65% and sometimes 100%, Klancher says, crediting that to the care he and his distributor, the Calendar Club, take in determining press runs.

Sometimes, sales of calendar titles have outpaced his expectations, and he has struggled with out-of-stock problems. For example, Octane got about 8,000 copies of the $50 edition of Red Tractors 1958-2013 in September with its first press run. September “was a little late,” Klancher notes, “and then Case IH dealers started ordering the book 100 or more at a time.” Within two weeks of delivery of the first press run, Klancher ordered a second printing, but those copies arrived too late for the holiday season display he’d arranged at Barnes & Noble stores.

And then there are the problems no one can anticipate, like entire loads of books that go missing. “I had 2,650 copies of a $75 title that weren’t shown as received at the warehouse,” Klancher recalls. “I figured it was a paperwork mistake, and that the warehouse manager would find them.”

But he didn’t, and the publisher says he spent a couple of sleepless nights until someone at the company that had trucked the books discovered—after 48 hours—that the trailer with the books in it had inexplicably been dropped in a trucking company yard instead of going to the Octane warehouse.

Despite such challenges, Klancher remains upbeat about publishing. “Be realistic,” he advises. “Know your audience, and know that only a small percentage of your audience is likely to buy your book. But don’t let the industry fool you into thinking that publishing can’t be a good, profitable business.”

Having spent three years building his company before he took any money out of it, Klancher continues to work today with only two full-time staff, a publishing assistant and a sales director. Accounting, book design, media relations, print buying, and website maintenance are all outsourced, as are copyediting, proofreading, sales consulting, website development and design, technical support, and legal work. “Like most things, book publishing isn’t rocket science,” this publisher observes.”It’s just a lot of hard work.”

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Washington State, where she started her career editing a newspaper that served several wheat-farming communities.

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