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More Than Books

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by Deb Vanasse, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Deb Vanasse

Journals, stationary, music, posters, plush toys, and other products — some packaged with books, some not. With these products, booksellers enhance their bottom line. Should book publishers do the same? A peek inside the book-plus trend.

At the 2012 American Book Producers Association Conference, panelist Jim Becker of becker&mayer! book producers discussed changing market conditions that were eroding the profit potential of traditional book-plus product—that is, merchandise packaged with books. Fast-forward three years, and becker&mayer! associate publisher Lynn Brennan reports a resurgence in book-plus.

STAR WARS DELUXE EDITIONS from becker&mayer! (copyright TM 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd.)

STAR WARS DELUXE EDITIONS from becker&mayer! (copyright TM 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd.)

“Some of our strongest sellers include our Star Wars Deluxe Editions, which feature a molded interactive case with sound and lights and include removable books and artifacts,” Brennan says. “We’ve also just launched Star Wars: Build the Millennium Falcon, which follows in the footsteps of Star Wars: Build R2-D2 and Star Wars: Build Darth Vader. These are adult book-plus kits that include templates to build a 12-inch model complete with LED lights and authentic sounds.”

Jurassic Farts Image1In terms of other licensed craft series, Brennan reports an expansion in the company’s adult crochet line—up to 13 titles next year—along with paint-by-number, embroidery, and felt kits. And what’s a book about farts without an embedded audio track? For Chronicle Books, becker&mayer! has expanded a popular Fart series with two new titles—Farts: In the Wild and Jurassic Farts.

“Our clients are seeing success in key licensed as well as non-licensed formats,” Brennan says. “I think publishers, and in turn consumers, are looking for new angles on activity-based books, in addition to quality and value.”

To succeed with book-plus product, as well as with products sold alongside books, independent publishers rely on the same strengths that help them succeed with books: creativity, innovation, and flexibility.

Developing Products In-House

For 35 years, Whole Person Associates has published books with content aimed at therapists, counselors, educators, trainers, and other professionals who assist clients with stress management, wellness promotion, mental health, and life skills. The company’s foray into book-related products began with an idea proposed by author Ester Leutenberg, who has coauthored 70 workbooks published by Whole Person—producing card decks sold alongside each of the workbooks. “The reason was to give practitioners yet another great tool for working with their clients,” publisher Carlene Sippola explains.

As a result of Leutenberg’s suggestion, Whole Person now stocks Group Starter Cards that feature open-ended questions designed to encourage discussion, each question corresponding to a workbook activity. “Because the questions on the cards are inspired from the content of the workbooks, the product itself is easy to write,” Sippola explains. “It’s basically repurposing material already written.”

At the Culture C.O.-O.P, Publisher Sandy Holman also discovered ways to repurpose material from books in her list. Several years ago, she began producing and marketing posters created from illustrations included in various books. “It’s free advertising and the posters generate revenue,” says Holman, who has received inquiries from new customers who found the Culture C.O.-O.P from the contact information printed at the bottom of the posters.

As she expanded the company’s inventory to include posters, Holman also began producing music CDs. For these, she drew on her expertise as a songwriter to create original material, penning lyrics and then working with a local band to set her words to music. The band produces a master CD from which the product is cut to fill orders as they come in, a model that Holman likens to print-on-demand publishing.

“We’re fortunate to sell a lot of our products through our website, at trainings, and through online providers,” Holman says.

Acquiring Products from Other Vendors

By offering products that are relatively simple to design and produce, some independent publishers have circumvented one of the primary book-plus challenges cited by Becker—the rising cost of having products manufactured China.

Another strategy is to offer pre-manufactured products for resale alongside books—essentially, the publisher acting as retailer for products other than books. At Dogwise, a publisher that got its start as a special-order book retailer in the mid-1980s, offering products created by other companies was a natural expansion.

“In the early days, as a special (dog) event retailer, we started adding cutsie head magnets, dog statues-things like dog, and other dog-related gifts to our selection,” explains Dogwise co-owner Charlene Woodward. “We really didn’t know anything about anything so we tried non-book items to test the market.”

The expansion proved successful until the items Dogwise was stocking—mass-market representations of purebred dogs—became ubiquitous. Demonstrating the flexibility that characterizes independent publishers, Dogwise pursued new product lines, focusing on items that are hard to find elsewhere as well as items that are mentioned in the books on their list. Sales are primarily at dog-related events and through mail order.

“Our [content] focus was on serious topics like dog behavior, training, and health,” says Woodward, so the company has added—and sometimes dropped—products such as high-quality leashes, collars, supplements, toys, and training tools. “We try to think more like a shopkeeper—shorter, more faddish life-cycles for products,” Woodward says.

BooksPlus_Peanuts Crochet Image1While Dogwise invites supplier inquiries on its submissions web page, Woodward says that they most often acquire products from vendors they meet in person at dog-related special events. In addition, they identify new inventory items via trade industry magazines, social media, and customer contact.

To succeed with book-plus product, as well as with products sold alongside books, independent publishers rely on the same strengths that help them succeed with books: creativity, innovation, and flexibility.

“Integrating non-book items is simple for us because we know our dog-enthusiast niche and we stay away from things that are easily found at chain stores,” Woodward explains. “We monitor sales and add or drop inventory based on that information. And unlike the books we retail or publish, we pick up and drop these non-book items very quickly because we carry small quantities and try to limit the number of suppliers we deal with to make inventory management easier.” The company’s sales remain mostly in books and DVDs, with less than 10 percent generated by other items, Woodward estimates.

To Package or Not

Traditional book-plus product is packaged with or even embedded in books. But for independent publishers who conduct much of their sales at special events, Holman of the Culture C.O.-O.P notes the problem of customers not being able to fully view and handle the products. She likes the flexibility afforded by keeping inventory separate and bundling for special offers, using in-house packing as simple as brightly colored ribbon. In the future, Holman plans to offer kits that include a CD, a poster, and a book, not packaged together but priced as a bundle and shipped in the same box.

Likewise, the card decks at Whole Person are treated as separate inventory—the workbooks selling for $49.95 and the card sets for $16.95, though bundled pricing at $59.95 is offered if they are purchased together. “One of the appeals of producing the card decks was to be able to offer our customers a less expensive and very creative tool to use in their work,” Sippola says. There’s also an advantage for Whole Person’s resale accounts—mostly other publishers—who can purchase the products individually and then choose to offer a bundle discount if they wish.

Cost is another reason Sippola has opted not to pursue traditional book-plus bundling. “If we wanted to somehow attach the card deck to the workbook,” Sippola says, “the challenge would be to do so without spending a lot of money on the packaging.”

At Dogwise, DVDs created as companion merchandise are packaged with books by the same authors. All other products are cross-promoted but sold separately from books. “Maybe we should do book-product pricing,” says Woodward, “but the non-book part of our business is more of an afterthought these days when our profits are increasing on wholesaling published titles. We consider non-book/ DVD sales as add-ins and definitely not a major income generator.”


Marvel The Avengers Paint-by-Number Image1_NeedsCopyright_MARVELWhen serving niche markets, independent publishers typically reach consumers online and through special sales events such as programs, training sessions, and conferences. But if a publisher opts for traditional book-plus packaging, retail outlets can be another point of sale.

“We usually bring in book-plus product during the holiday season,” says Sheng Moua, account manager for American West Books, estimating that these products account for 25 percent of all holiday orders. “Selling book-plus items adds value to books. It’s like a one-stop shop for the end user, and the products are great gift items.”

Retailers favor products with recycled packaging, Moua notes, and labeling must clearly indicate what’s inside. “Otherwise, consumers may open the products, leaving the product in unsellable condition,” she explains.

Weighing the Options

For publishers considering the addition of non-book items to supplement sales, Moua recommends considering the end user and the ways in which consumers will benefit from the products.

Woodward suggests seeking out products that are add-ons to the current publishing focus. “Don’t add unrelated products unless you are prepared to enter an entirely new market,” she warns. “And if you are shipping products, be sure they are shippable. We’ve dropped low-margin items which are awkward to pack and expensive to ship.” Postal regulations governing shipment of certain items may also be a concern, as is production time.

Some product-book pairings will be more successful than others, according to Holman. “Research, research, research,” she suggests. “What are the main ways of distributing the product? For those of us who are smaller, we have to be creative. Your products have to be unique and stand out in some way.”

Holman recommends starting with small quantities of new products and testing the market to see how they sell best—bundled, packaged, or as stand-alone inventory. In keeping with her company’s mission to promote understanding and respect, she also suggests investigating the working conditions at factories where imported products are made.

Specialty companies such as becker&mayer! are well positioned to assist publishers with developing their book-plus product. “While we have packaged some of our own products with key licensed partners, the majority of our business is still as a packager and creating unique items for publishers,” Brennan says. “Even though the majority of our ideas are generated in-house, we are always open to assisting clients with transforming an idea beyond their expectations and making it a reality.”

To offer products alongside or packaged with books is a challenge that involves financial risk, Holman admits. But it’s a challenge she takes on because products—posters, music CDs, classroom kits, and of course books—help the Culture C.O.-O.P. reach people. “We don’t offer just products,” she explains. “We offer passion and impact.”

Deb Vanasse, who co-founded the 49 Writers and founded the author co-op Running Fox Books, is the author of 16 books. Her most recent are WRITE YOUR BEST BOOK, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and WHAT EVERY AUTHOR SHOULD KNOW, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, as well as WEALTH WOMAN: KATE CARMACK AND THE KLONDIKE RACE FOR GOLD (April 2016). To learn more: debvanasse.com.

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