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Making Change: The Champion Press Success Story

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Champion Press succeeds by
championing change for itself and its readers. The tag line on its Web site
proclaims: “Champion Press . . . believing books can change the world.” And the
Belgium, WI, publisher practices what its books preach. Founder and CEO Brook
Noel has embraced innovative business practices, including outsourcing
inventory management and using a variety of ways to market on the Web, all the
while getting advice from more experienced entrepreneurs.


It’s hard to see the common thread
with a quick look at Champion’s 100 titles and 50 ancillary products, which
include DVDs, CDs, and workbooks. The company publishes cookbooks and fiction
as well as books on health and wellness, parenting, self-improvement, and
education. “I hired a consultant who came in and said to me, ‘I’m surprised
you’re in business,’” Noel recalls, adding, “I said, ‘Gee, I’m glad I’m paying
for this advice.’”


But the common thread is there.
All Champion’s products are designed to provide a “solid source of comfort” for
readers, Noel says. Common
Sense Organizing
by Debbie Williams promises to help people take
control of their homes and their lives. <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The Frantic Family Cookbook
class=95StoneSerifIt> by
Leanne Ely gives busy families recipes for healthy meals made in minutes. Even <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>The Pearls of the Stone Man,
a novel by Edward Mooney, Jr., offers life lessons through its story of the
relationship between a husband and wife over more than 50 years.


With its broad, benefits-oriented
niche, Champion doubled 2004’s sales in 2005, and Noel projects growth of 80
percent this year, to revenues in excess of $1 million.


Revenue Puzzle Pieces


While Noel jokes that Champion’s
fast growth derives from “luck, Prozac, faith, and coffee,” on a more serious
note, she explains that she has slowly and carefully been adding one piece of
the revenue puzzle at a time since the firm’s founding in 1997.


Those revenue-building puzzle
pieces include:


Strengthening management
by hiring Sara Pattow, a manager with 11 years of experience in sales,
marketing, and operations, to serve as president.

Building an informal
advisory board of industry experts, including the former COO of Workman Press,
and getting their input on running the company.

Working with agents to
find market-savvy authors who will be partners in promoting and selling their
books. “The author is just as vital as what the book is about,” Noel says

Entering the e-product
market and using the Internet to connect directly with customers via its own
site as well as Web sites devoted to particular books or their subjects.

Outsourcing vital
business tasks such as inventory management and distribution to partners with
better skills and resources for handling them.


For distribution, Champion uses
Ingram Publisher Services. “Champion Press is successful because they build a
specific publicity and marketing plan for each of their titles and do a great
job executing their plan,” says Phil Ollila, who heads IPS. Also, he notes,
“They don’t fully rely on the trade market for all of their sales, but treat
the trade as an additional channel.”


Adapting a page from Wal-Mart’s
playbook, Champion has handed off much of its inventory management. With vendor
inventory management (VIM), a retailer’s inventory is overseen by
manufacturers, which use point-of-sale data to know when a store needs to
order. In Champion’s case, its printer, Total Printing Systems (TPS) in Newton,
IL, gets data from Ingram about inventory levels at Champion’s retail accounts,
and restocks as needed.


The arrangement shrinks the amount
of inventory Champion, TPS, and Ingram have to hold. It also lowers returns and
ties up less of Champion’s cash, since the publisher doesn’t have to warehouse
a large number of books.


TPS gets more control over the
process and gets a loyal customer in return. According to co-founder Richard
Lindemann, the margins are about the same whether or not the printer manages a
client’s inventory. “The publisher does pay us a small premium to manage everything,
but over the course of time, it’s not really any more profitable,” he says.


Assigning inventory management to
your printer won’t work for all publishers, Lindemann adds, but he believes
it’s ideal for those with more than a few and less than a few hundred titles.
What’s made it work for his firm, Champion, and Ingram is that all three
parties are willing to communicate constantly and share data freely. Also,
Lindemann notes, TPS has a digital printing system that can print 56 million
pages a month, which helps make just-in-time ordering practical.


Good Connections, Good


To connect directly with
customers, Champion runs interactive message boards and sends email newsletters
about many of its books and the topics they cover; last year, the company
launched both an e-book and a Web site entitled <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Change Your Life
. It has also sponsored
Web sites such as GriefSteps, a “portal of support” for those who are grieving.


To stay on top of Internet
marketing, “we’re trying different advertising tools like Google Ads Words,”
Noel says.


In a large part because of its
activity on the Web, Champion’s direct sales now account for about 30 percent
of revenues, Noel says, up from 4 percent a year ago.


Like many an author turned
independent publisher, Noel founded her publishing company after she couldn’t
connect with a publisher for her first book, a guide for single parents written
from the perspective of children. In her early 20s, she used $5,000 she had
saved, while working as a freelance writer and waiting tables, to publish it,
and then she started searching for other titles for Champion to do.


One early author was Deborah
Taylor-Hough, “someone I had consulted with on meal management for
single-parent families,” Noel says. “She had a Web site and 40,000 subscribers
for her newsletter.” Her book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Frozen Assets: How to Cook for a Day and Eat for a
has now sold 50,000 copies and spawned two more titles: <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Frozen Assets Lite
and Frozen Assets
Readers Favorites


While sticking with its broad
niche, Champion picks books that play off its strengths of being small and
nimble. “Look at the bestselling health titles from the big publishers,” Noel
says. “They’re authored by celebrities who have health shows [on television].
We won’t go there because it’s well covered and we can’t compete. Instead, give
me something like a grief title. Our sales rep at Barnes & Noble has told
us ours is their bestselling grief book.”


Always quick to respond to a
question, Noel draws a blank when asked about her biggest challenge in 2006.
“I’m stumped. If you had asked me any other year it would be easy to list
challenges,” she says. “I’m just feeling really good about 2006. We have great
momentum. I guess we have our good karma.”


Jenny McCune is a business
writer who has worked in book publishing and reports regularly on publishing
and publishers for PMA
. To reach her, email jennymccune@imt.net.



Brook Noel, Quick-Change


Noel, Founder and CEO





luck story:
“I started my book on
single parenting when I was 12 or 13. . . . [A few years later] I went down to
the University of Wisconsin at Madison and met with an agent who said I would
be famous and on Oprah.
I gave him $1,000 and never heard from him again.”


style=’font-size:11.0pt’>“Every day we get emails with great stories about how
one of our products changed readers’ lives. There’s nothing more motivating
than knowing that you’re making a difference.”


favorite part of the job:
more successful you become, the more people there are who don’t like you. My
attorney said, If you’re not fighting with someone you’re doing something
wrong, but I don’t like it.”


“One of the things I teach
everybody that works for me is to ask questions all the time, not of everybody
else, but of themselves: Why was today a good day or a bad day? And why did
this work? And what would I do differently? It’s a great exercise that helps
you be open to seeing new things.”


of success:
“ADD, OCD, and a
Starbuck’s addiction? I’m joking, but being compulsive and an inability to stop
have helped me be successful. I won’t take no as an answer.”



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