BUILDING THE BUSINESS
Patterns for Profits
by Linda Carlson
Pati Palmer was just back from New York City and a meeting with the McCall’s Pattern Co. when she and I spoke one dreary late autumn day, and she was ebullient about its sales reports.
“I am still shocked,” she confided. “They told me that sales of the patterns I license to McCall’s were up 27 percent in 2009 compared to 2008—and that my designs are now 4.4 percent of the company’s total business!”
Palmer, who runs Palmer/Pletsch Publishing in Portland, OR, had lots of other numbers to share about her pattern design, book publishing, and sewing instruction company. Like 10, which is how many weekly sewing classes she taught for Portland retailer Meier & Frank’s five stores (now owned by Macy’s) in the 1970s. Or 500, which is the number of copies printed of her first book, the 78-page Pants for Every Body that she typed on an IBM Selectric and assembled with her parents’ help on their Ping-Pong table in 1973. Or 700, which is about how many days she worked without a break when she was continuing to teach at Meier & Frank and traveling the United States on all her days off to sell those 500 copies—and the 1,000-copy second print run—at sewing seminars in department and fabric stores.
Jumping on Opportunities
Pants for Every Body is what Palmer calls one of those right-place, right-time stories: it was in the late ’60s and early ’70s that slacks became acceptable in many workplaces, and women were anxious for the how-to’s of fitting and sewing them. But Palmer says she’s had three other very important breaks as far as timing goes—and she had very impressive numbers to share about those, too.
The first came just a year or two later, when she and Susan Pletsch Foster, former colleagues from their early work as sewing instructors for an interfacing manufacturer, teamed up to create an UltraSuede sewing guide.
“We ran an ad in the Vogue Patterns magazine—it was so expensive!—and we used Susan’s post office box as the address,” Palmer recalls. “Right after the ad ran, Susan went to the post office, and there was nothing in her box, not one order. Then the postmaster called out to her. He had a huge bag of orders for us.”
How many orders that day? Palmer doesn’t remember precisely, but enough from the ad to pay for it and for printing the book. Before the UltraSuede craze ran its course, Palmer and Pletsch’s book sold 750,000 copies.
Another right-place, right-time break came shortly after The Woman’s Dress for Success Book was published in 1977. John Molloy was dictating three-piece suits for men and women, but tailored jackets were hard for women to find, and the few available patterns were complicated. Palmer, however, had just switched from licensing her patterns to Vogue, which had relatively poor distribution, to licensing them to McCall’s, and the first pattern she did for it was a blazer. The editor of Family Circle spotted Palmer at a New York fabric trade show, decided to run a two-page feature in 1980 on the Eight-Hour Blazer, and history was made.
“In those days,” Palmer remembers, “a new sewing pattern would sell about 1,500 copies a month. But McCall’s sold 20,000 copies of the Eight-Hour Blazer in the first week, 40,000 the second week, and 60,000 the third week.”
In the first year, that single pattern sold a million copies. Of course, that record-breaking sales figure wasn’t all due to Family Circle. By then, Palmer was running a company that produced sewing seminars as well as books and patterns, and in 1980 she offered 900 sewing workshops across the United States with the help of nine other home economists, with each workshop covering the skills shown in a different Palmer/Pletsch book.
That third big break? Sergers. Probably the most significant change in sewing machines since electric motors, sergers—which apply an overcast stitch to raw fabric edges to prevent unraveling—meant a completely different way of sewing, and a very expensive piece of equipment. That meant serger buyers needed an easy-to-read, accurate operating guide—and by now, you can guess which publishing company was offering the only such book.
“We were hot!” Palmer remembers. “All the serger dealers bought our book and resold it to their customers. We’ve sold nearly a million copies since 1985, and the book is still in print.”
That year, 1985, was also when Palmer started four- and five-day sewing workshops. Thousands of people have since completed the courses, and they are among the 10,000 subscribers to the occasional Fashion for Real People newsletter, an online publication that generates plenty of direct sales of books.
Teacher training is an option with the workshops, and today there are about 200 active Palmer/Pletsch instructors. Some buy the books direct; some work at fabric stores that inventory the books and buy their supply through their employers. Fabric stores, like all other specialty retailers, buy direct from the publisher.
Although Palmer avoided trade sales for years because she feared returns, she eventually associated with Independent Publishers Group (IPG). It is now Palmer/Pletsch’s largest customer. And returns are not a problem. “We sell the returns at sewing shows for consumers as used books,” Palmer says, adding, “It’s a greener thing to do.”
What Propels Growth
Thanks in part to the relationship with IPG since 1990, Palmer/Pletsch has been able to grow with only a skeleton staff. During the years that Palmer and Pletsch Foster worked together, they often had only one full-time employee, a bookkeeper who also handled special events and scheduling. Pletsch Foster eventually left the company—she now is “the packing expert” media people turn to, and the author/publisher of Smart Packing for Today’s Traveler—and Palmer now employs a warehouse manager and a design director. Editors, artists, and designers all work on contract.
Because so many of these freelancers are hundreds of miles away, Palmer also credits email with Palmer/Pletsch’s ability to grow without a sizable staff. Although she downplays it, another key element in the company’s success has to be Palmer’s ability—and willingness—to tackle a wide variety of chores. It’s hard to imagine another publisher of full-color books doing all her own photography, for example. That’s what Palmer has been doing since the 1970s, when the photographer she used decided he was tired of fashion shots.
“I bought all his equipment, all his lighting, and learned how to do it,” she says, exclaiming, “I love it!” In fact, she loves photography so much that she spent a couple of years working with Liz Edmunds, a friend of a friend, on her first cookbook, The Food Nanny Rescues Dinner, and Palmer shot the photos for each of the 200 recipes in the 288-page book.
Another Kind of “Normal”
How to style food photos is only part of what Palmer learned with the cookbook project. “Doing that book showed me what ‘real’ publishers do,” she says. “I may have millions of books in print, but they’re all in my industry. With the cookbook, I had to learn all about a new genre, how to promote into that market, and what were ‘normal’ sales.”
This being Pati Palmer, normal is a little different than with other cookbook publishers. When she consulted IPG on how many copies to print of The Food Nanny Rescues Dinner, the distributor recommended 3,000. She was surprised, to say the least: “I wouldn’t have undertaken the project if I couldn’t sell lots more than that.” She settled on 20,000—and 10,000 were sold in the first year. The publisher is quick to credit author Edmunds for the success: “She’s incredible—sells 100 books wherever she appears!”
With her own schedule so full that she doesn’t have the same time for book-promotion travel as Edmunds, Palmer agreed that she has to “appear” more in cyberspace, especially on such networking sites as Facebook and LinkedIn. An IBPA member for less than two years, she’s been focusing on what PMA University, the Independent, and other association programs teach about Internet marketing. With her track record of tackling everything that interests her, I’m predicting it won’t take long before she’s “friended” by thousands and attracting followers online in many other ways.
Linda Carlson (Linda Carlson.com) writes from Seattle. She has never used a Palmer/Pletsch pattern, which is probably why she has never been able to make a pair of pants that fit.