Look at any big market for books and you’ll spot PMA members reaching and helping readers. Within the broad “Education” category, small and independent companies are actively–and successfully–competing for business from big customers in a variety of well-defined arenas. And as you’ll see in the stories that follow, their niches span a wide spectrum.
Resources Focused on Writing
We sell solutions for teachers. Until recently, most of those solutions have come in the form of books–specifically, classroom-proven, supplemental professional resources for writing education, language arts, and grammar, usage, and mechanics.
Now we’re beginning to expand our solutions to music and text CDs, which we are including with many of our new titles. We also will be publishing a comprehensive K-5 school-wide writing program presented on 16 videos as a staff development resource because we believe passionately in effecting a sea change in writing education–a change we think will happen only if all teachers can participate in sustained, ongoing, quality writing-education at their schools.
We are responding, of course, to an increasingly sophisticated market and betting that the educational climate is ready for this resource, and that it will indeed increase our book sales.
While it’s a little too early to pass on many lessons learned, here’s the main one I can share. “Add-on” products can be expensive. Make sure that you believe in the products, that they support your mission, and that the products are the best you can make them for an audience who wants them.
Julia Graddy, Maupin House Publishing, Inc.
Web site: www.maupinhouse.com
Technical Help Tied to Software for Math
About three years ago–having produced technical materials since 1992–we decided to begin publishing technical books, primarily textbooks for high school seniors, junior-college students, and four-year university students. Our decision was primarily influenced by the introduction of two outstanding products of The MathWorks, Inc.–MATLAB® (MATrix Laboratory) and Simulink®. Relatively inexpensive and simple to learn, this software is designed to let users perform practically all advance mathematical computations easily and rapidly.
Almost all large corporations, colleges, and universities use this software as part of their regular curriculum. They are applicable not only in the engineering field, but also in business, economics, forecasting, and other related fields.
Because we were so impressed with these products, we recommend them for all students who plan to enter any technical or scientific field, and four of our six titles contain an introduction to them along with several applications students can use to obtain accurate and quick answers and to verify answers that were obtained “the hard way.”
Being in the technical manual preparation and book publication business for more than 10 years, we learned that it is hard work, the profits are marginal, and there’s no lack of frustration. However, the personal satisfaction of accomplishment eclipses all of the above.
Steven T. Karris, Orchard Publications
Web site: http://www.orchardpublications.com/
Inside the Transportation Industry
We publish textbooks and training materials for the transportation industry–Bumper to Bumper, The Complete Guide to Tractor-Trailer Operations(third edition), plus a Spanish translation thereof and an edition for tractor-trailer diesel mechanics students.
We didn’t start out as publishers. We went into business to produce curricula and supporting student texts, under contract, for truck driving and heavy equipment operation training schools offering combination home study and in-residence programs; i.e., we developed the curriculum and produced the student textbook for the home study part. We did a number of such programs, plus one on heating/ventilation/air-conditioning and another for travel agents.
Then the Feds changed the rules about Title IV funding and students couldn’t get loans to attend the schools that were our clients. The schools dropped the home study portion of their programs and went to 100% in-residence training. Our insightful president reckoned that they would need a textbook to support the classroom portion of the training. So Bumper to Bumper was born.
We still consult on curriculum development. However, we have yet to develop a curriculum for which it has been appropriate to specify our textbook in the list of materials because most of our curriculum development work has been in other fields.
Still we think consulting is important. It requires us to stay current in our field, keeps us from getting stale (or bored?), and establishes us as the “go-to” guys. Plus, consulting is a non-inventory item that doesn’t have to be warehoused, so
it’s quite profitable. All it requires is time–and decades of experience.
Devorah Fox, Mike Byrnes & Associates, Publishers
Reaching Teens Who Have Kids
Morning Glory Press publishes books and other resources for pregnant and parenting teens. Since most 15-year-old pregnant teens probably don’t have much money or time to spend in bookstores, teachers of special school programs for teen parents are our primary purchasers. Independent Publishers Group sells our books to the trade, but we sell far more items directly to schools.
Good teachers tend to be too busy teaching and interacting with their students to have time to develop new curricula. Yet the standard parenting resources are generally not appropriate for teen parents. (Those resources tend to assume that the reader will have a baby 10 years down the road, and then Mom will stay home with Baby while Dad’s out earning a living.)
Since we began publishing 25 years ago, we’ve offered curriculum guides and workbooks along with our books. We publish these guides separately because we don’t want our books to look like the texts many students try to avoid. Also, the workbooks aren’t simply “Read the chapter and answer the questions.” Instead, we include activities to expand students’ learning, for group and independent study; the activities often involve both parent and child. We figure the more the parent reacts with the child, the better their bonding.
Of course, we always include answer keys for our curriculum materials. Most teachers may already know the material they’re teaching, but they can check their students’ work in less time if they don’t have to think through each response. Saving a teacher’s time is a great gift, and we like offering that gift.
And we deliberately price our workbooks a little lower than profitability suggests because the teacher who buys them is more likely to buy our texts in greater quantity. This ploy has worked. For example, we’ve sold more than 70,000 each of two of our parenting texts and about 55,000 workbooks for each book.
As our company grew, we developed videos based on some of our books. A teacher in the program where I had taught developed three board games and a Two-in-One Pregnancy Bingo game. The board games reinforce the learning in three of our parenting texts; we’ve sold almost 6,000 of them.
Last spring, we created a Comprehensive Curriculum Notebook for each parenting text–including teaching objectives, teacher tips, activities for group and independent study, quizzes, workbook, and quiz keys–priced at $125, five for $500. Teen parent teachers are notorious for having very low budgets so, because of their higher cost, we didn’t print many Notebooks the first time. However, they’re selling well, and we’ve reprinted twice.
We also offer a Complete Parenting Curriculum Special that includes the books, workbooks, Curriculum Notebooks, eight videos, four games, and two books for the teacher, with a 20% discount. (This is the biggest discount we offer our school customers.)
A primary rule in promotion is to provide the customer with what they think they need. Teachers need teaching help. It’s our job to offer that help. It also sells books.
Jeanne Warren Lindsay, Morning Glory Press
Web site: www.morningglorypress.com
[subhead] Research Adds Luster to Music Titles
Musical School is an affiliated partner of an Institute, so we’ve inherited its structure–educational organization + nonprofit research center + publishing house. Three-in-one vertical integration allows us to retain full control over all projects. Thus, our researchers work on various subjects supported by international foundations and also teach our students and write books. Of course, such a structure affects our sales because teachers naturally recommend their own work to students.
But this is not essential. It’s much more important that our research activity builds the reputation of our organization and our authors in the small professional community of musicians for which we publish very specialized (and high-priced) titles. An example is Igor Stravinsky’s Orchestrations of Beethoven’s and Musorgsky’s “Song of the Flea” in Russian and in English.
I think such a strategy can be very effective for small publishers who specialize, since organized research activity not only reinforces your reputation but also helps your authors to keep themselves up-to-date.
Ivan Fedorenko, Musical School Publishing House
Centered on Graduate Courses
Performance Learning Systems’ primary product since its inception in 1971 has been graduate courses for teachers. We design our own courses, publish our own textbooks, and create instructor materials (including a text, videotapes, etc), and then sell the courses through colleges and universities as part of their education department offerings. Often they are integrated into the master’s degree program in education. We have 13 courses and 7 on the drawing board.
We do not sell the materials for the courses to the general public; we sell them only to people registered for our courses in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. In other words, you can’t call us and ask to buy these materials; you have to take a course or teach a course to get them. And these course materials are the bread and butter of our company.
Besides that, we have published 5 trade books and created 11 videotapes that support various topics in our courses and we sell them through the courses, our online bookstore (www.plsbookstore.com), an annual mail order catalog, and retail stores (we do our own distribution).
The most popular product we created, beside our courses and books, is a learning styles inventory, The Kaleidoscope Profile®, which represents 50-70% of our monthly bookstore sales. (There are four different versions of the profile; this tool helps uncover how people prefer to learn and work.) Developed after requests by schools whose teachers had taken our graduate course Teaching Through Learning Channels™, it uses colorful stickers with phrases you peel off instead of the usual paper-and-pencil type approach, and it’s inexpensive–$4 to $10 each, depending on the version. We have sold more than 400,000 of these profiles in the last six years to schools and businesses.
The profile opened another market too–books that explain how to use the results of the profile. We published two of these support books and are working on two more.
We have also had busts over the years. Logo products for our company, for example–mugs, mouse pads, bags, etc.–have not done well for us. Mugs with cute phrases for teachers have not sold well. But linking one product (a graduate course) to another product (the profile) to another product (books to support the profile) has been successful.
Barbara Brown, Performance Learning Systems
Web site: www.plsweb.com
Prepping for Standardized Tests
Show What You Know® Publishing produces K-12 educational books that offer
test preparation for teachers, parents, and their students for state standard
based assessments. The books focus on test anxiety, test-taking
strategies, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills through a subject
review/tutorial followed by practice assessments. Other general supplemental
books focus on reading and writing, but complement the test preparation
books and workbooks. Over 88% of our sales are to schools, 8% are to bookstores and teacher supply stores, 3% to public libraries, and 1% to individuals.
In addition to the books and workbooks, we sell flash cards and software. The flash cards are grade level appropriate and subject specific. The software is an interactive version of our books that gives students feedback and practice on assessments. The teacher/administrator application provides a way to monitor students’ progress through the software program.
Books are still 75% of our business. Because the books are “consumable,” they must be reordered for each new school year. Repeat sales are not as frequent for the other products as they are for our books, but these products do add sales to orders.
Once you have a customer on the phone and interested in your book, it’s easy to have them add another product or two to their order. We were originally worried that the other products would take sales away from books, but we took the chance. Now that we have three product lines–books, flash cards, and software–we sell more of everything. Other bonuses we discovered are that our catalogs are bigger so our company appears bigger, more established, and more successful, which helps us succeed even more.
Cynthia Englefield, Show What You Know® Publishing
Web site: www.showwhatyouknowpublishing.com