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Publishing’s Own Survival Show

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While the big picture indicates that bookselling has been “flat” since 9/11, many midsize publishers–especially those relying heavily on trade markets or on niche customers hurt by the recession–have found the past few years to be anything but smooth.

Think of our collective experience getting through these lean years as material for a TV reality show about the survivors of book publishing. Would C-SPAN air it? We could score a foot-tapper by the Bee Gees from Saturday Night Fever (“Staying alive, staying alive . . . “). Better disco than a dirge.

Our ensemble cast comprises smart, hard-working publishers, attractive people all–and many of us a little eccentric too, but hey, save that topic for another column. Our diversity is our strength. Our story line has many twists and turns as we face the villains of declining sales, slow receivables, loss of vendor credit, cash-flow issues, lack of capital, layoffs, delayed or canceled projects, and–the final descent into publishing hell–bankruptcy.

Where would you cast yourself on this story line? Nowhere near the end, I hope!

Midsized publishers have dealt with all these issues. I have a sense the publishers hit hardest are staying alive and anticipating improved sales in 2004. (For the record, it should be said, many midsized publishers are doing fine, thank you.)

Bigger Companies’ Tactics for Tough Times

How have we coped?

Recently I e-mailed a few questions to 100 PMA publishers with 100 titles or more in print. Without asking questions about their bottom lines, I invited them to share ideas for increasing backlist sales, finding new revenue, and cutting costs.

● Jack David at ECW Press in Toronto speaks for many of us when he says simply, “We’ve cut back our list and tried to sell more copies of fewer books.”

● For several years Linda Ligon at Interweave Press in Loveland, Colorado, has gone online with an annual “garage sale,” offering hurts at discounts from 50 to 80 percent. “We got 990 orders the first day after the sale was announced in an e-mail blast,” Linda reports.

● Cynthia Frank at Cypress House of Fort Bragg, California, is looking into selling e-book editions of older titles to libraries via security-locked PDFs. Cypress House saved about $1,000 a year following an energy audit and another $1,000 by changing long-distance carriers. The company also has become more diligent about scheduling printing when printers offer off-peak discounts as high as 5 percent.

● Tad Crawford at Allworth Press in Manhattan says his company has gotten tough with authors who submit overly long manuscripts. Noting that a tolerance policy had cut into margins, Tad says, “We decided to be very strict. This allows us to produce books at the number of pages indicated in the catalog while keeping costs under control.”

● Brenda Myers at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis reports small but satisfying gains from re-jacketing older bestsellers to find new readers and using new titles as catalysts for promoting backlist.

● Robin Bartlett at the American College of Physicians sends more postcards to his house list these days, luring customers to his Web site while downsizing more expensive mailings. Because he’s mailing less information to the customer, he says, it’s crucial to have effective sales copy. “This technique works exceptionally well when there is a large collection of photographs or illustrations in a book or product,” says Robin, because it entices prospective buyers to the Web site, where they find out all about the new books.

● Larry Rood at Gryphon House in Beltsville, Maryland, describes a company working hard to survive, yet determined to preserve its core. Gryphon House focuses on teachers and education, where public funding has been cut with devastating results. “We pared our budget to the bone,” Larry says. “Twenty-seven people work here, and we are committed to not laying anyone off. ” All the midlevel and senior management people voluntarily took pay cuts, he reports, adding, “It probably helps that everyone in the company has access to our financial statements, and that when things are good, we issue nice profit-sharing checks.”

Let’s hope those profit-sharing checks are seen again, sooner rather than later.



I welcome ideas for PMA. Please contact me at gksturgis@earthlink.net.–Kent

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