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Teamwork Pays Off for Orchard Publications

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Teamwork Pays Off for Orchard Publications

by Linda Carlson

“Do what you love, and the money will follow” is a maxim that seldom rings true in publishing, but California’s Orchard Publications comes closer to exemplifying it than most publishers we know.

That’s because founder Steve Karris has a sweet deal: He can spend almost all his time creating books, and little on the time-consuming marketing required of most small publishers.

How did this come about? In the early 2000s, Karris teamed up with The MathWorks, Inc., an internationally known software company based in Natick, MA. It specializes in advanced math computations with applications in finance and engineering. Because The MathWorks doesn’t want to write, publish, inventory, or sell how-to guides for its applications, it introduced a Book Program that offers authors licenses to create materials based on MATLAB, Simulink, and other MathWorks products.

Besides having their books promoted by MathWorks, authors receive complimentary copies of the company’s new and revised products—which encourages them to produce revised guides.

“This is a win-win situation for any aspiring author,” says Karris, but it’s important to add that those aspiring authors need to be rocket scientists or to have equivalent techie knowledge and skills.

That’s exactly what the Orchard founder has. He’s an engineer who worked for NASA and defense contractors on “Star Wars” programs while teaching on an adjunct basis, and he was introduced to MATLAB in the 1990s, when he taught in San Jose State University’s electrical and computer engineering department. One of the first things he realized then was that few existing books on MATLAB offered practical applications. So he decided to fulfill that need.

Economic Aspects

Like other authors in the Math Works Book Program, Karris bears all the expense of writing his books for it—and gets all the proceeds from the sales of such titles as Signals and Systems with MATLAB Computing and Simulink Modeling, Introduction to Simulink with Engineering Applications, and Introduction to Stateflow with Applications. Although sales per title are low—200 to 1,000 copies per edition—revenues are relatively high, because cover prices range from $60 to $80.

Unit costs tend to be high as well (as much as $15), because page counts are high (usually about 600) and press runs (on a Xerox Docutech) are short. But even so, Karris can underprice, and thus outsell, his competitors.

In addition to offering lower list prices, he encourages direct sales of print books by giving customers at his Web site (orchard publications.com) a 20 percent discount from list. And he makes Orchard titles available through eLibrary and NetLibrary as full-color PDFs priced 10 to 15 percent lower than the same titles in print form. Sales in this format now account for about 40 percent of his annual sales revenue.

Karris also strives to stay competitive by revising his titles more frequently (usually every 18 months) than his competitors update their books.

His margins are healthy, in part because he accepts no credit cards, often insists on prepayment, and keeps his discounts to bookstores modest: 20 to 40 percent. Despite all this, he frequently receives significant orders from overseas stores and libraries, which, he points out, can be a mixed blessing.

Different Kinds of Customers

“Should you receive a large order from someone outside the country, do not immediately discard it as a scam,” Karris advises. “While most such orders are bogus, there are a few exceptions. I recently ran into two,” he explains: “I was firm on prepayment, and after many emails, some of which had all the ingredients of a scam, I proceeded with caution, and sold 200 copies of one title to a large bookstore in Jordan, and 200 copies of another title to a bookstore in Kuwait.”

Since Orchard is based in Fremont, in northern California’s East Bay, and shipping costs are paid by the buyer, they can hamper foreign sales. That’s why Karris suggests to prospective customers that they compare the cost of buying direct with the cost of a purchase through Amazon.com in their country or a nearby one.

One reason Orchard’s titles are popular with foreign buyers, he believes, is that their language and their examples are simple.

“I’m reluctant to sell e-books directly to consumers because I’m concerned that unauthorized copies may be printed in some foreign countries,” Karris notes, and he has not made his e-books compatible with such e-readers as the Kindle and Sony Reader because of difficulties in converting his graphics-laden text.

For the print editions of Orchard titles, the largest single customer by far is Amazon.com, through its Advantage program. Although Karris isn’t pleased with the discount demanded by Amazon Advantage or with the fact that publishers must pay for freight, he does appreciate Amazon’s payment policy.

“Considering the promptness, I think that we small presses are better off with Amazon than without it,” he said.

Because of the very specialized material and the small niche market—engineering students and professionals—Karris can also rely on Amazon and such search engines as Google to connect his audience with his books.

Staying Small

Besides limiting marketing to updating Amazon, MathWorks, and the Orchard Web site, this septuagenarian has found other ways to ensure that he can run his press with only occasional help from his daughter (accounting) and son-in-law (shipping).

He uses templates with Adobe FrameMaker to create book text, sometimes importing graphics from other applications to avoid having to recreate them. And he prints no more than 200 copies at a time at a local printer, which eliminates shipping costs, the need for a large warehouse—and the need to deal with outdated inventory.

Being a one-person press does impose some limitations. Although Karris has an informal succession plan—his daughter has agreed to continue selling existing titles when he formally retires—he has been unable to expand the business significantly.

The problem, he says, is a lack of technical partners. He’s received several proposals for books on other engineering or computer-related topics to add to his 12 titles, the publisher explains, “but none of the people who’ve talked to me are willing to work”; they all want to hire others to do the research and writing.

So, he declares, “I am still the author-publisher of all of my titles, and unless I find someone like me, I will continue at the same pace.”

Linda Carlson (twitter.com/carlsonideas) writes from Seattle for the Independent.



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