In early December, The New York Times published its annual winter lists of notable books, and my heart swelled with pride. Not that any of my books made the cut, but a few small independent publishers’ books did. There was one publisher in particular. Timber Press of Portland, Oregon, swept the gardening category, having published six of the 22 books mentioned in that group. This was far more than any other publisher (most books were from large New York or European houses).
Timber Press started as a fairly casual sideline enterprise a number of years ago, dabbling in regional subjects. But a definitive book on Japanese maples–a hugely popular ornamental landscaping tree in the Pacific Northwest–set the press on a carefully targeted long-term course. They became the tree book publisher. The Very Serious tree book publisher. Their books, though not terribly attractive in the beginning, were exhaustive and authoritative, and thus commanded substantial cover prices.
A Perfect Example
The company developed breadth, taking up shrubs, flowers, vines, grasses, herbs, bulbs, ferns, moss, fungi, and more. They added color, increased design and production values. They kept their books in print, which helped attract respected authors. Today Timber Press produces some 30 titles a year, with a backlist of more than two hundred. They win prizes. They’re a perfect example of a company that’s developed a successful niche one book at a time by concentrating on quality of content and not getting distracted.
Theirs is a story that’s been played out successfully many, many times by independent publishers in this country. It’s an organic approach to growing a company in a way that’s easy on capital resources and not terribly risky. It’s based on identifying an under-served market, publishing the very best books for that market, and not straying from the mission. The marketing model is to sell books through many channels, some that take low or no discount, some that are returns-proof.
This is not the only way to succeed, but it’s a fine way. And it is inspiring to see one of our fellow publishers succeed so well by doing good work, by adhering to a small-press model, and by building a strong backlist rather than chasing quick results.