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How Skyhorse Continues to Grow in an Age of Contraction

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Things change so rapidly at Skyhorse Publishing—one of the fastest-growing independent book publishers—that this column will be out-of-date by the time you finish reading it. When I started here six months ago, I was told to bring my running shoes; I’ve already worn out the tread.

Founded nearly a decade ago by president and publisher Tony Lyons, an attorney and former publisher at the Lyons Press, Skyhorse publishes a broad mix of books. It started as a small team of people—some of whom still work for the company. There were 60 employees when I got here and now there are 83. With $43 million in revenue for the year ending in 2015 (30 percent growth from prior year), the company will publish 980 books in 2016 and has 6,000 backlist titles; 40 of them have been New York Times bestsellers.

At the time of its inception, Lyons set the then-ambitious goal of publishing 100 titles. “I think it is difficult for an independent publisher to survive at anything under $5 million and that’s why I’ve raised enough money to get us to that level within two and a half years,” Lyons says.

When the company started, the list had some similarities to the old Lyons Press—with books on sports, fly fishing, nature, and history. “Our eclectic list reflects areas that people are passionate about,” Lyons says. In that regard, nothing has changed. What has changed is that we publish in many more genres where there is a strong reader affinity. Our editors are encouraged to explore new areas. There is a relatively low risk to trying new things.

Skyhorse has grown organically and through the acquisition of smaller companies such as Arcade Publishing and Good Books, which features the best-selling Fix-It and Forget-It series. Lyons has always believed in niche books publishing to a distinct population—fishermen, golfers, Minecrafters, Lego enthusiasts, homesteaders, science fiction readers, political junkies, and many others. Our staff is interested in anything new and exciting and they are great at spotting trends and riding them—for example, we have sold over four million adult coloring books.

With 15 imprints and so many titles, we divided the company into six publishing units: Sports and Outdoors; Fiction and Literary Nonfiction; Cooking and Lifestyle; Instant and Promotional Books; Children and Young Adult; and Politics, History, and Reference. Included in that last unit is our “Hot Books”—a series of short books by investigative journalists about important political, cultural, and social issues being overseen by Salon founder and New York Times best-selling author David Talbot. Each unit has its own editorial director, staff of editors, and production and publicity teams. This organization allows us to focus our efforts more effectively.

Many potentially great books are no longer being acquired by the big guys whose corporate overseers demand that they only publish “big” books. As a result, we have been offered books by agents and authors who find us to be good partners. We believe we have some break-outs that will be published in the next couple of months, including Framed by Robert Kennedy Jr., a true crime book about his cousin’s wrongful conviction in the 1975 Martha Moxley murder, and The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs, a well-reviewed novel about our founding fathers that will be published in “the phenomenal summer of Hamilton.”

When I got to Skyhorse, I often found staff who started out as interns or assistants before being promoted to larger roles. We’ve also been able to give people the opportunity to apply their skills to other parts of the business. Everybody works hard but there is room for experimentation and opportunity to flex creative muscles in all areas. My mandate has been to not only acquire good books and edit them well, but also to mentor the staff. Lately we have attracted talented individuals from some of the corporate publishers.

Friends in larger companies ask how, in this age of contraction, Skyhorse continues to grow. There is no easy answer. Perhaps being smaller we are more nimble. The image of a huge ocean liner out at sea comes to mind. We are the speed boat that can maneuver around the iceberg looming ahead and get to our destination more quickly.

Former corporate publisher employees are surprised to find that we don’t make our editors do acquisition profit and loss (P&L) statements. We also don’t have a lot of meetings and when we do, they are short and to the point. Communication is key and we encourage everyone to get up from their desks to talk to their colleagues. Perhaps the biggest change for me is in how we acquire books. At larger houses, I presided over editorial meetings. With the imprint P&L always on my mind, I listened to editors present perfectly good books. My job was to find creative ways to say no; at Skyhorse we are encouraged to take a positive outlook and ask, “why not?” Here, we embrace the attitude that we are doing 20th century publishing in the 21st century.

About the Author:

MarkGompertz_HigherResMark Gompertz is group editorial director at Skyhorse Publishing.

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