One of the benefits of writing a column here is that I get to stick my nose into everyone’s business. I always learn something. This month I looked into comeback books–titles that get legs long after their initial release. The research was satisfying. What’s not to like about success stories whose plots include elements of surprise, luck, and smart publishing rightfully rewarded?
When I asked PMA members to share their experiences, I defined comebacks as “titles that suddenly go ballistic, for whatever reason, creating a delayed or repeat bestseller.” Since bestseller is not definable only in terms of absolute numbers, sales levels varied widely in the reports I received.
TV Fuels the Takeoff
The most common story had to do with out-of-print titles given a new life, like the inspiration for this column–the phenomenon of One Man’s Wilderness by Sam Keith, published in 1973 by Alaska Northwest Books, now an imprint of Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co. in Portland, OR (which distributes our books). The book is about a city-dweller who fulfills his dream of living in the wilderness. After it went out of print in the 1980s, word-of-mouth demand persisted, and eventually it was reintroduced in a new edition in 1999–with modest expectations. Then, in the fall of 2003, a companion documentary, Alone in the Wilderness, aired on PBS stations across the country.
Ka-boom! By January 2004 the book had soared to the no. 6 seller among travel books listed by Nielsen Bookscan. In eight months, the publisher shipped more than 40,000 copies. Wait, there’s more! This month, by popular demand, the documentary that sent sales skyrocketing will run again on PBS. The publisher recently reprinted 18,000 copies and plans yet another reprint.
The wilderness dream struck a responsive chord across America, “perhaps because of the complexity of the times in which we live or the intrigue of solitude and self-sufficiency,” according to Mike Jones, director of sales and marketing for Graphic Arts Center Publishing.
Profiting from Major House Myopia
Jennifer Bunting at Tilbury House in Gardiner, Maine, tells a charming personal story about how her association with one of America’s literary heroes opened a door. Before becoming a book publisher, Jennifer was offered a job moonlighting as E.B. White’s “Sunday help” on White’s farm in rural Maine. “I was working full time at Wooden Boat magazine as an editor, but figured this was too good an opportunity to miss,” she reports. White offered her a martini before lunch on the first day but Jennifer was too shy to accept, though she says the offer was tempting. She handled a variety of chores for White, including retyping his correspondence.
Several years after White’s death, his son called to report that HarperCollins had decided to let One Man’s Meat go out of print. Annual sales for this book of essays about life in rural Maine had dwindled to about 2,000 copies. Was Jennifer interested in acquiring rights for a reprint? “By then I’d taken the position of publisher at Tilbury House, and of course my answer was yes!” she recalls.
Tilbury’s new trade paperback edition, published in 1997, sold more than 8,000 copies the first year. It continues to sell well and generates an inordinate amount of subsidiary rights income. “An ad agency recently paid $5,000 to use fourteen words from one of Mr. White’s essays,” Jennifer says. “That would have amused him immensely.
Meanwhile, from nearby Center Sandwich, NH, Donald MacDougall revealed an unusual publishing partnership with his wife, Ruth Doan MacDougall, author of 11 fiction titles, including The Cheerleader, published by Putnam in 1973. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, inspired an NBC pilot, and became a national bestseller in its Bantam paperback edition.
In 1998, after The Cheerleader had gone out of print, the MacDougalls founded Frigate Books and republished the former bestseller as a trade paperback. “The edition is now in its fourth printing, having sold nearly 10,000 copies,” Donald says.
Encouraged by this success, Frigate Books also reprinted Snowy, a sequel, after St. Martin’s allowed it to go OOP. Frigate’s success and the enthusiasm of Ruth’s readers inspired a third novel, Henrietta Snow, in what is now a series, except this time Frigate Books published the new work as an original trade paperback. It was released last August and is selling well.
What Made Sales Spurt Up
In 1994, Upper Access Inc. of Hinesburg, VT, published 5,000 copies of Death Notification, a how-to book by R. Moroni Leash, who worked at a major trauma center and had some good ideas about breaking the bad news to family and friends of the deceased. Prospects looked good. The title filled a need. It had little competition then. Upper Access sent more than 1,000 promo copies to medical-school faculties. And the reviews were positive. “Yet, we were selling very, very few copies,” recalls Steve Carlson. Six years after pub date, only 1,000 copies had been sold.
Then, the book began to move, seven years after its release, thanks to word-of-mouth demand and penetrating academia. “Physicians, social workers, clergy, police, and other professionals were ordering copies from our Web site,” Carlson says. “Several medical schools adopted the book. Suddenly, with no effort, it was selling 1,000 copies a year. That initial printing is almost gone, and we will probably do another printing soon. A book that had been our worst failure, from a sales standpoint, has become a respectable backlist item.”
A story from Al Canton at Adams-Blake Company, Inc., in Fair Oaks, CA, illustrates how a well-placed review can revive a title. Six years ago, the company published MoveIT: The Complete Guide to Moving a Corporate Datacenter. Listed for $90, the guide sold 500 to 800 copies a year for a while, retail only; then sales drooped to double digits. The turnaround came after a review appeared on a Web site for data-center managers. “All of a sudden, we were getting credit card orders like crazy,” Al says. “We had no idea why. Well, it seems this review got read by everyone and their dog in our market, and they all wanted the book.” In two months, Adams-Blake sold three times the number they had sold the previous year.
Meanwhile, in Wenatchee, WA, after two decades of serving its niche market, Charlene Woodward at Direct Book Service, a.k.a. Dogwise Publishing, learned to harness the sales power of its customer base to bring back classic dog books. Among its 25 titles are four new editions of classic dog books of the past in their original forms, which have become big sellers for Dogwise.
My thanks to others who responded to the survey, especially Nancy Reid of Great Plains Press, Jack David of ECW Press, Francis C. Ponick of the Music Educators Journal, Tad Crawford of Allworth Press, author Hiep Vo, and Bryan Aleksich.
As always, I welcome your comments and ideas for PMA–on this subject and any others. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.