PUBLISHED MAY/JUNE 2019
by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —
Indies are well-positioned to evaluate potential acquisitions of licenses, out-of-print titles, and even entire companies.
Speak with publishers about acquisitions, and they’ll tell you about the new authors they’ve signed. But why limit acquisitions to unpublished manuscripts?
By acquiring licenses, out-of-print titles, and even entire companies, independent publishers tap into alternative revenue streams and accelerate growth. Through persistence, strategy, and careful evaluation, they achieve optimal results.
Licensing: Under-Tapped Opportunities
Properly exercised, rights acquired with manuscripts can yield handsome returns. But separate and apart from the usual manuscript acquisition process, publishers can generate revenue by licensing rights to repurpose within their own markets.
At Ripple Grove Press, publisher Rob Broder conceived of a children’s book based on Harry Chapin’s song “Mr. Tanner.” He contacted Chapin’s widow and, after several months of follow-up emails, Ripple Grove acquired a license to use the lyrics in a picture book. The company also partnered with Chapin’s WhyHunger project, with a portion of the proceeds donated to the charity. Mr. Tanner is now one of Ripple Press’s top-selling books.
When pursuing such licenses, persistence with rightsholders is essential, Broder says. “Do your homework and lay out why this would be such a fun and beautiful project,” he suggests.
Publishers can also acquire licenses through online marketplaces. With years of experience in the field, Jenn Kennett founded MOSAIQ LLC to help publishers buy and sell licensed content in the preK-12 educational market. “Publishers on both sides are happy to have a solution that helps achieve their goals,” Kennett says.
Foreign rights offer another way for publishers to tap into new opportunities. Not long ago, Quercus Books hit the jackpot when they licensed rights to an obscure Swedish crime novel whose author had died years earlier.
“The book was a slow burn,” says Jane Tappuni, general manager at IPR License. But with a push from the publisher’s marketing department, the acquisition launched the hugely successful Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series.
Jane Tappuni, General Manager, IPR License
When deciding which licenses to pursue, publishers rely partly on gut instinct, Tappuni says. Sales in other markets and award recognition can also be good indicators. Occasionally, translation funding can be part of the mix. For instance, grants of up to $19,000 are available for translating the 2018 Sheikh Zayed Book Award titles from Arabic into English.
Majority owned by the Frankfurter Buchemesse as well as The Copyright Clearance Center and CNS China, IPR offers its services at no cost to potential rights buyers. When registering with IPR, publishers select categories of interest. They can then browse rights listings, request manuscripts, preview content, start conversations, and use the Instant Right Feature to make acquisitions.
Tappuni considers foreign licensing an under-tapped opportunity in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Out of Print, Back in Favor
Sometimes the old really can become new again. By reviving out-of-print (OP) titles, independent publishers have enjoyed benefits that offset the industry’s inclination to favor original releases.
Co-founder Andy Komack launched Hamilcar Publications with Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing, a title licensed from the United Kingdom, and two OP titles, Off the Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story and Jacobs Beach: The Mob, The Garden & The Golden Age of Boxing. These books established Hamilcar within its market, Komack says. The titles also helped convince an established author with five original books to sign with the company.
Marketing OP titles has its challenges, Komack admits. “Many book reviewers are not interested in re-issues, and booksellers tend to look for fresh, hot new releases,” he says. But as Hamilcar’s experience shows, the payoff comes through the larger strategy.
Casey W. Cowan, CEO of Oghma Creative Media, acquired exclusive print rights to the entire line of OP titles written by Harold Robbins, one of America’s bestselling fiction writers.
Casey W. Cowan, CEO, Creative Media
Oghma acquired the titles through direct contact with Robbins’ widow, inking the deal in 2014. Increased revenue was but one benefit of the acquisition. The list expanded the company’s contacts with librarians and booksellers, and it also generated publicity. In addition, there’s what Cowan calls a “wow factor” when Oghma displays the books.
“Don’t be afraid to make a deal to acquire a catalog like this, but, at the same time, don’t let it take over the focus of your company to the detriment of other projects,” Cowan advises. “Also, do not allow the person or entity you make the acquisition from wield too much influence over the rest of your company.”
By acquiring an imprint, or even an entire company, publishers can literally grow overnight. In 2018, Publishers Weekly reported 24 major mergers and acquisitions within the book publishing industry. Among the deals involving independent publishers, Sourcebooks acquired Poisoned Pen, adding 500 titles to its list. Start Publishing bought two fiction imprints from Prometheus, which wanted to refocus on its nonfiction emphasis. In the women’s market, Spark Point bought Shebooks.
In another transaction, Daniel Janik, publisher of Savant Books, acquired Aignos Publishing, which he maintains as an imprint. With the increased holdings and new product emphasis line, Savant’s sales have increased, and Janik is hopeful about long-term returns.
Daniel Janik, Savant Books
Still, he urges publishers to weigh all costs before taking the plunge.
Square One publisher Rudy Shur is an old hand at mergers and acquisitions, having acquired four companies since 2006. Each did well over time, he says, through both titles brought in and original work generated by the new authors. One acquisition also led Square One to a different wholesaler.
For publishers seeking to acquire existing imprints or companies, Shur recommends staying close to familiar subject areas.
At Sunbury Books, CEO Lawrence Knorr has also made multiple acquisitions of assets from other publishers. In one instance, a publisher he met at BookExpo approached him about transferring all rights to the company’s titles. As a result, Knorr says Sunbury added two “fantastic authors” to its middle grade lineup, one of whom continues producing for the company.
Publishers looking to liquidate may even offer their assets at no charge, Knorr notes. But he urges acquiring publishers to be selective. “Sometimes there is value that has not been achieved by the other publisher,” he says. “Other times, there are quality issues or other reasons to steer clear. In other words, beware of failing publishers bearing gifts.”
The Indie Advantage
Flexible, innovative, and creative, independent publishers succeed because they make smart acquisitions. But these need not be limited to unpublished manuscripts.
Using at-hand resources, indies are well-positioned to evaluate potential acquisitions of licenses, out-of-print titles, and even entire companies. Strategic and persistent, they use these acquisitions to grow their companies and enhance their bottom line.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are the novel Cold Spell and a biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. She also works as a freelance editor.