On Beyond the Niche: From
Aquariums to Mainstream Markets
by Stacy Nyikos
Stonehorse Publishing is a
small independent press in Tulsa, OK. It began after I devised a clever way—or
what I thought was a clever way—to persuade a large publisher to buy my picture
books about sea animals, which have two pages of fun facts at the back. My plan
was to help the books sell by pairing each one with an aquatic venue. The venue
would get a portion of the publisher’s revenues in exchange for featuring the
book for a year.
One problem: I could not get a
single big house interested in the approach. Although large publishers do
sometimes team up with zoos, aquariums, or other nontraditional venues, they
were concerned that the aquatic venues would want to own these titles or that
dealing with those venues would be too much trouble.
Consequently, I decided to open my
own publishing house in the fall of 2004. I found a talented illustrator, Shawn
Sisneros, who had graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago but was local and
willing to help with the nontraditional marketing strategies that I had
planned: signings and events at the aquarium, including a free
author/illustrator half-day visit, and a citywide drawing contest with the
aquarium for local schools.
With our first title—<span
story of a cantankerous young squid who watches so much TV that he loses his
imagination—teaming up with the aquarium worked well, and so did another
nontraditional approach. The international TV Turnoff Week sponsored by the
NPO, Center for Screentime Awareness, in Washington, DC, put <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Squirt on its
suggested reading list. That honor got us a press conference with Oklahoma’s
first lady as we brought the TV Turnoff Week into Oklahoma, making it the first
state in the United States to embrace the program. To date, we’ve sold
approximately 4,000 copies and 800 of our plush Squirt toys. Not bad for an
unknown publisher’s first picture book.
Time to Tap Trade Markets?
With the 2006 launch of our second
which is about a shy lemon shark and how she finds her courage, we found that
the aquarium–publisher synergy was sort of like that second hamburger, not
quite as good. So, as we launch our third title—<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Dizzy, the story of a dolphin who is
faster than a speeding torpedo, able to leap ocean waves in a single bound, but
. . . he can’t stand still—we are combining our aquarium-based marketing with a
slightly more mainstream approach. I believe this makes sense because <span
our earlier two titles, is a trade hardback children’s picture book that has a
niche audience, rather than a book only for readers in its niche.
If there is one lesson I have
learned during the short time I have been in the publishing business, it is
that you have to be ready to alter, spice up, and be dynamic and flexible with
your marketing campaign. I believe this is one area where small publishers can
outshine the larger houses. Size does slow a company down when it comes to
Nevertheless, I have studied what
the big houses do. Clearly—dare I say this as a small press?—they must be doing
something right. Now that our titles are in aquariums and zoos nationwide, we
believe they can attract mainstream librarians, booksellers, and readers, and
since we are going after the same piece of the pie as larger houses, we are
adopting some of their traditional marketing strategies.
This year, for the first time,
Stonehorse Publishing has taken ads in <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>School Library Journal, and <span
We’ve bought mailing lists for regional associations of independent
booksellers. We’ve hired a national firm to send press releases to national and
regional media. We will be taking part in ABA’s Advance Access program to get
advance copies of books into the hands of indie sellers on the national level and
regionally. We will be working to book radio and television interviews for
author and illustrator not just locally, as in the past, but across the
Our most important—and most
costly—move so far has been taking a 10¢<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> booth at BEA in the Education Pavilion, just off the
main drag for children’s publishers and with some of the mightier smaller
presses. At $2,225, it is our biggest marketing cost, but we have also spent
roughly $1,500 for additional marketing through Reed, for myself as <span
author; a podcast for Kary Lee, the book’s illustrator; a mailing list of 500
registered attendees who are K–12 library media specialists or children’s
booksellers; and online highlights on Reed’s BEA Web site.
Will it work? Will these marketing
efforts be worth what they cost?
I will let you know as time goes
on whether we threw money away on traditional marketing, or began to carve out
a name for ourselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace for children’s
Stacy A. Nyikos segued from
academic writing to children’s literature in 2003 thanks to numerous
visit—perhaps, she says, one too many—to zoos and aquariums with her two
children. To learn more about her Stonehorse Publishing children’s picture
books, visit www.stonehorsepublishing.com.