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Mining a Niche with Mickey and Minnie: The PassPorter Travel Route to Profits

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A handful of the titles PassPorter features at its site. For better images and a better sense of how thoroughly the company mines its niche, visit passporterstore.com/store.

BUILDING THE BUSINESS

Mining a Niche with Mickey and Minnie: The PassPorter Travel Route to Profits

by Linda Carlson

How many publishers invite their readers to join them in Disneyland to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary?

That’s exactly what PassPorter Travel Press is doing—and the Disneyland trip follows earlier parties it threw this year at Walt Disney World and aboard a Disney cruise. IBPA members are also welcome at the Disneyland celebration on October 9. (But, no, PassPorter founders Dave and Jennifer Marx are not picking up your tab or anyone else’s.)

Dazzled by Disney World on her first visit as a teenager in the 1980s, Jennifer Marx returned over and over and over again as an adult. As an author of computer books, she yearned to write about the theme park, but was market-savvy enough to realize there was no need for yet another tour book.

One day inspiration struck—and her brainstorm was far more than the light-bulb image we’ve all seen in the comics. Instead of simple text and photos, she and Dave would create a combination travel planner, guide, and keepsake. Today’s version of that first guide to Disney World is a tabbed publication with 300-plus pages of advice, fold-out park maps, photos, worksheets, stickers for relabeling tabs, “KidTips,” and 14 organizer “PassPockets” for passes, receipts, and mementoes. There’s an elastic “belly band” to keep it closed when it’s overstuffed, too.

Initial Advantages

“We set out to follow our dreams by creating a small guide,” the couple says on PassPorter.com, “but, of course, ‘small’ doesn’t describe the task of tackling the biggest vacation destination in the United States.”

Because Jennifer Marx had extensive experience pitching and writing computer books for established publishers, the couple must have been relatively well prepared for their own venture, I suggested to Dave.

“Authors never know nearly as much about the publisher’s side of the business as they think they do, and we were no exception,” he replied. The pair did understand the importance of analyzing the market and competition, and they recognized that they needed what Dave calls a “unique selling proposition” to stand any chance of selling their title, either to a mainstream publisher or to the public as a self-published book.

“We also were coming from a field—computer books—where the collection, validation, accuracy, organization, and communication of huge amounts of information was comparable to the work we’d have to do in our new field of travel,” he continued.

They had another significant advantage compared to many start-ups: “Thanks to our royalty statements, we had a very good idea of how many books we’d have to sell in order to earn a full-time living in the book business, and that was far more books than most self-publishers ever realize.”

Dave Marx pointed out other lessons they had learned through Jennifer’s writing:

 

 

  • Their unique PassPorter format would create nightmares for mainstream production departments, and it would cost more to produce than the typical trade paperback.
  • They would struggle to get a mainstream publisher to provide the promotion and marketing support they believed appropriate.
  • Their input into marketing decisions would not be welcome at a mainstream publisher.

 


A Big Initial Oops

“It became pretty clear pretty fast that, if we wanted to bring our baby to market, we’d have to do it ourselves,” continued Dave Marx, admitting, “In truth, many of our motivations were no different than those of other first-time self-publishers, and perhaps we were just as misguided.”

A decade later, the Marxes have obviously overcome any naivety, although Marx is quick to point out that surviving is not necessarily proof of expertise, and that they have had their share of near-disasters. In fact, he estimates that they just barely missed an 80 percent return rate on their very first guide.

When the books arrived from a Hong Kong printer, the Marxes discovered that the cover stock concealing the plastic coil binding was obviously not strong enough to prevent damage when a book was shelved and browsed. To save the press run, they slip-jacketed the PassPorters in vinyl at a cost of about 90 cents each.

“The whole process cost us about six weeks, but fortunately that happened before we had bookseller orders,” Marx remembers. “The first books were mostly going out to Amazon and to our direct customers, so durability on store shelves wasn’t a concern. By the time we started getting orders from wholesalers, the problem had been addressed.”

The lesson they learned from this? “When you have a novel format, you can’t do enough prototyping,” the publisher emphasizes, attributing the problem to the Hong Kong printer’s substitution of a different stock of the same weight as the prototype and a different approach to the way covers were trimmed.

To avoid similar problems on later guides, the Marxes switched to a die-cut, rolled-edge cover, with the top and bottom edges folded and the inside cover end-papered (as hardbacks are). For additional rigidity, they added French flaps to the front and back covers and then used that extra space for color maps and quick-reference information.

The Amazing Amazon Effect

What the PassPorter Travel Press crew did not know as it was struggling to solve the cover issue on those initial guides was how important they were going to be. The first copies came off the press about a week before BookExpo in May 1999. The publishers went to the show with 200 copies that had been flown in.

“Jennifer had laid the promotional groundwork by opening our PassPorter.com Web site about three months before the pub date, and by reaching out to certain ‘key influencers’ within the Walt Disney World fan community—this was a very early example of ‘social media’ marketing,” Marx recalls. “We planned to depend on our Web site and Amazon’s new-fangled Advantage program until we generated trade orders and could then establish wholesale accounts with Ingram and Baker & Taylor.”

“What we didn’t expect,” he adds, “was the ‘Amazon effect.’ One of those key influencers saw that the book was available at Amazon, bought it, loved it, and immediately started spreading the word on Disney-focused message boards. The buzz quickly became a roar, funneled orders to Amazon, and pushed our book near the top of the Walt Disney World search results.”

For two weeks, PassPorter Travel Press received daily reorders from Amazon, each larger than the one before. The Amazon success—and the demand it created elsewhere in the trade—opened the doors at Baker & Taylor and then at Ingram.

“We sold through our initial 5,000 copies in about five months,” Marx recalled.

Snowballing Printer Problems

Like other publishers doing full-color books, the Marxes have many guides printed in the Far East, which means, Marx notes, “you will have shipping delays, communication problems with your printer, more shipping delays, more communication problems . . . ”

One example: a series of shipping disasters resulted in a two-month delivery delay. It all started with a lapse in communication that delayed the departure of the company’s 40-foot container of books from Hong Kong by two weeks. When the ship did arrive in Los Angeles, it couldn’t be unloaded for three weeks because of mudslides that had closed all the outbound rail lines. Once the container was on a train, a derailment backed up rail traffic.

“The container finally reached the Detroit railyard in time for a one-day job action,” Marx reports, “and all freight that arrived that day sat for more than a week.”

The lessons learned here? “Had the first communication mistake been avoided, we would have missed the mudslides, derailment, and job action—and we wouldn’t have missed the two biggest months of our selling season.”

Another lesson the Marxes have learned about overseas printing: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, including page imposition and collating or gathering,” Marx said.

His advice, based on experience:

 

  • Have printers send proofs and samples at almost every step: bluelines or digital proofs, uncut printed sheets, and bound books.
  • Delay binding until printed sheets are approved.
  • Delay shipment of bound books until the finished product has been approved.


Add a Distribution Disaster

Another disaster that the Marxes experienced was shared with many IBPA members—the PGW bankruptcy. This is one reason that Dave Marx repeated a caution several times: “You can’t have enough working capital.”

Undercapitalization has consistently presented the most challenges for PassPorter Travel Press, he reports, because it affects every aspect of operations. Thinking back, he says: “Our most important title ships in November, so when our distributor’s parent company declared bankruptcy on December 30, we were high on the creditor list. The 30 percent we sacrificed by accepting the Perseus acquisition offer was not the worst consequence—70 cents on the dollar in a bankruptcy is miraculous.

“What hurt most was the disruption of subsequent cash flow. After we received the Perseus payment in March, the normal 90-day payment clock started over. Meanwhile, since the bankruptcy judge refused to deal with the returns from January through March, those plus the returns that accumulated between March and the first payment in early July meant we had no cash flow from bookstore distribution for four months.”

E-book Initiatives

In this case, adversity was the mother of innovation. The Marxes looked at the e-books they were already selling from the PassPorter online store for $4.95 per download.

“We knew they were popular: One had already been downloaded almost 2,000 times,” Marx says. “So we quickly ramped-up an e-publishing initiative that cost nearly nothing in capital and started turning immediate cash.”

In its first six months, this new program more than made up for the 30 percent loss that resulted from the PGW closure, and today e-pubs are one of PassPorter’s best cash generators, in part because they are sold by subscription.

“We took advantage of a feature of our message board software that we were not originally using. It links directly to PayPal, which in turn automatically collects monthly or annual fees until the subscriber cancels,” the publisher explains. “We created PassPorter.com/club, which offers unlimited access (‘all you can read’) to our e-book library plus vacation planning worksheets, forms that members could complete on their computers and then print out. In addition,” he notes, “subscribers receive our best discount on print books, and some personalization features for our message boards.”

PassPorter Travel Press now has 10 e-books and more than 40 planning PDFs. Although the company does sell the e-books on a single-title basis, Marx reports that the subscription concept is far more popular: it reached the first-year goal of 1,000 subscribers within five months.

“We expected this, based on our knowledge of Disney’s all-inclusive theme-park ticket pricing and vacation packages,” Marx says. Like all-you-can-eat meals, another Disney specialty, subscriptions appeal to customers who feel they offer better value or who “simply like the idea of unencumbered use: no nickel-and-diming each time they want something.”

PassPorter’s e-books have not usually duplicated its print titles. Instead, they explore topics that the Marxes originally considered too specialized for bookstores. A few offered via print-on-demand through Amazon have had low sales. “We’ve done best by promoting the e-books within the Disney travel community and selling them from our site,” Marx reports.

Now, however, the Marxes are rethinking that strategy. As Dave points out, he and Jennifer are doing the reverse of what many publishers are doing today. “Once we presented the e-book themes to major booksellers, we learned that we had underestimated the trade interest in some topics; and now, despite their niche nature, some of these titles can be issued in print thanks to the economy of digital printing. We’re also contemplating offset press runs for certain titles.”

What the Web Enables

Since vacation travel is a discretionary expense, it’s impossible to write about PassPorter Travel Press in this economy without asking Dave Marx what he and Jennifer see ahead.

“Our niche in Disney travel destinations is unusually resilient, as we first learned after September 11,” he answers. “Our sales grow year after year, and because overall sales in our niche seem to be falling, that means we’re getting a larger share of a smaller market.” When asked about this shrinking market, Marx says he suspects but has yet to find proof “that this is an Internet effect, that more people turn to Web sites for travel information. Perhaps our books have dodged that bullet so far by having features like the built-in organizer pockets and worksheets. Our huge Web site, 35,000-member message board community, and 50,000-subscriber weekly e-newsletter probably help a lot, too.

“We embraced the Web from the very beginning, and revenues from our Web site sales, Web site advertising, e-books, and subscriptions represent roughly 40 percent of gross revenue,” Marx adds.

Although Disney does not release data on its theme park visitors or cruise customers, the Marxes have information that indicates many of their buyers mirror the Disney customer universe.

“Naturally, we’re strongest among parents in their mid-20s through mid-40s, when children are the prime age for Disney vacations. We also have a strong following among empty nesters and young couples—Disney appeals to a broader spectrum than many people assume,” says Marx.

Probably 75 percent of PassPorter buyers are women, he reports, noting that although he dislikes stereotyping, mothers seem to take responsibility for ensuring that families get maximum “magic” from Disney vacations. One surprise: many of the guides’ most loyal readers (and best generators of word-of-mouth publicity) are frequent vacationers.

“Some make several long-distance visits annually, including participants in Disney’s 400,000-member time-share program. They want to know what has changed since their last visit, or they may be Disneyland regulars making an infrequent pilgrimage to Walt Disney World (or vice versa). They also love our planning tools, and they’ve integrated our book into their vacation lifestyle,” says the publisher.

Another surprise: the PassPorters are purchased by people who also use Franklin Planners and Filofax organizers, people Marx calls “obsessive planners,” people for whom planning is a hobby, not a task.

“Scrapbooking and other crafts, collectibles, and the like also tend to be passions among our readers,” he says, “Considering the many ways readers can personalize our books, that seems a natural.”

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com), who writes from Seattle, has visited Disneyland three times.

Income—and More—from Outdated Editions

Want to build buzz for your company, drive traffic to your Web site—and get obsolete books out of the warehouse? Here’s an idea from PassPorter Travel.

“About a month before the newest edition of PassPorter Walt Disney World hits the streets, we sell our two-year-old hurts, returns, and excess inventory for $1 each plus postage and handling,” publisher Dave Marx explains. “When the offer is announced, the Disney bargain-hunters go wild. Because Disney itself rarely discounts anything, a bargain is a precious thing to them.”

Some people buy the books in quantity to give co-workers, friends, and family considering a Disney trip; and some are purchased by what Marx calls “fence-sitters,” people who don’t want to risk paying full price until they have a sample in hand.

“The buzz is great; the sale helps promote the release of the new edition. It brings many new faces to our Web site, and a surprisingly large number of purchasers or recipients turn around and purchase the newest edition,” Marx adds, concluding: “Overall, it sure beats sending the old books to the recycling depot.”

 

 

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