PUBLISHED JUNE 2015
by Deb Vanasse, Founder, Running Fox Books
It begins with one person, one vision, one book—a book that flourishes with a press that knows how to make the most of the strengths that come with being small. Building on that single success, the vision expands, and with it the press. As IBPA members showed in responses to a recent blast, single-book publishers can successfully grow into multibook, multiauthor companies by working a niche, taking calculated risks, and staying flexible.
Noticing a Need
One such company, Auricle Ink Publishers, began in 1996, when, after 35 years of clinical practice as an audiologist, Richard Carmen envisioned The Consumer Handbook on Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids, with chapters to be written by various scholars in the audiology industry. “Little did I know the work behind the scenes,” says Carmen, who had previously written books that Prentice Hall and Little Brown published.
Carmen believed that the impact of his consumer-focused book would be life-changing for new users of hearing aids, a market best reached through “special sales”—that is, through channels other than bookstores. He approached hearing aid manufacturers to suggest packaging the book with their deliveries. When they told him a 250-page book was too big, Carmen demonstrated the sort of flexibility that contributes to small publishers’ success: he shrank the book.
Carmen’s analysis of consumer need, market niche, and special-sales partnerships proved correct: After manufacturers started including his Consumer Handbook with hearing aid deliveries, their returns of the devices fell by 46%.
Today, nearly 20 years after its release, Auricle Ink’s first book is in its fourth printing, and the publisher offers seven additional titles, three by Carmen himself. “None of our books are backlisted,” says Carmen. “They seem to remain current or go into multiple editions or revisions.”
Like Carmen, Sally Fallon Morrell built her publishing company on the success of a single title. After numerous rejections from traditional publishers, she established NewTrends Publishing in 1999 to release her book Nourishing Traditions, a cookbook that challenges certain trends in nutrition and diet.
“To date, the title has sold about 650,000 copies,” says Morrell. “Several publishers have offered to purchase the rights to Nourishing Traditions, but none can offer me the kind of income I get from publishing my own book—plus I want to make sure I have complete control over the content.”
Also like Carmen, Morrell recognized a niche market. Her company provides health-conscious consumers with what she calls “accurate information about nutrition, not colored by government or industry demands.”
Sixteen years after it published this first book, NewTrends now publishes ten additional titles, seven by authors other than Morrell. The company’s successful trajectory over the years illustrates another strength of smaller publishing companies: While big publishers fixate on bestsellers destined to soar and then nosedive, small publishers tend toward the long view, allowing for titles to achieve bestseller numbers over a period of years instead of weeks—and to keep on selling well.
“I can count on Nourishing Traditions to sell 2,000 to 4,000 books per month,” Morrell notes. “That gives me a certain amount of capital to work with.”
With Adding Authors in Mind
Other IBPA members have created full-fledged publishing companies by starting with titles that weren’t a good fit for bigger presses.
Greg Lilly, who had been published by a traditional press, wrote a historical novel called Under a Copper Moon that lay beyond the interests of his previous publisher. “I had technology, operations, graphic arts, and magazine publishing experience,” he says. “So I decided to try publishing that book myself—to test the procedures and technology. If all went well, I’d look into publishing others.”
In 2008, a year after releasing his novel, Lilly issued his first call for queries from authors through the press he called Cherokee McGhee. “As an author, I saw so many really great novels rejected,” he says. “My critique-group friends and people I met at conferences talked about how difficult it was even to get an agent or publisher to ask for samples.”
Today, Cherokee McGhee publishes work by eight authors, including William Torgerson, whose novel The Coach’s Wife received an endorsement from bestselling author Pat Conroy.
Sheyna Galyan quips that she started Yotzeret Press in 2003 with “an excellent manuscript and an available author (me).” Investing $776 in capital, she set up the company so she could bring in other authors. At the time, Galyan says, “self-publishing was still a dirty word, and I was looking for something to help legitimize my company.” It worked. Focusing on books written by women from a Jewish perspective, Galyan built an award-winning list that now includes titles by authors in the United States, Israel, and Canada.
In the process of expanding from one title to many, publishers take calculated risks, which Carmen recommends assessing in terms of what you can afford to lose.
Some risks, obviously, are financial. “Were it not for the emotional and financial support of my husband, and the support of one very generous friend, my company would have folded years ago,” says Galyan. “But I didn’t get into this industry for the money. I got into it because I love books, and I love being part of bringing new stories to eager readers.”
Burnout is a risk as well. “There are days that I think I should go back to the corporate world with a steady paycheck and good benefits,” says Lilly. “But nothing is as exciting for me as receiving the printer’s proof for the newest book—seeing all the work in a physical product.”
To succeed financially, these and other one-to-many book publishers work flexibility to their advantage, adjusting their strategies and sometimes even their vision as conditions warrant.
When Douglas R. Brown drew on his experience in the hospitality industry to write and self-publish The Restaurant Manager’s Handbook back in 1982, he had no way of knowing that his Atlantic Publishing Company would grow an award-winning list managed by a staff of seven, including Brown and his wife.
As the company first began to expand, the Browns filled every spare corner of their townhouse loft with inventory for what was essentially a catalog business, selling books published mostly by others who catered to the hospitality industry.
“We were doing well until about 1998, when that little company Amazon.com came along,” says Brown. Once “customers could source these hard-to-find books on the web and at better pricing, we had to reinvent ourselves and learn how to run a publishing company and every aspect involved,” he explains.
Five hundred titles later, Brown reports that a strong percentage of the company’s sales now come through Amazon, in categories that include business, investing, hospitality, education, and boating—a range so large that the company’s slogan is “We have a book for that.” Its emphasis is on authoritative, readable how-to books in 27 categories.
Galyan echoes the need to continually learn and adapt, noting that publishing entails a steep learning curve. With her first title by an author living overseas, she had to learn how to pay royalties in another currency and how to deal with the tax implications of working with a foreign author. A special order for 5,000 branded copies of another title forced her to learn how to manage and fund a larger print run than she’d done before.
To ensure the success of his company, Lilly found himself adjusting his acquisition standards. Rather than evaluating only the manuscript, he now also considers the author’s willingness to be edited and to promote the book, noting that he has canceled contracts with writers who refuse to help promote.
Wisdom Gleaned Along the Way
While publishers succeed in expanding their lists by leveraging niche markets, taking calculated risks, and staying flexible, it’s also true, as Carmen points out, that “Good timing, coincidence, and just plain luck may play as important a role as what may appear to be ingenuity and inspiration.”
For self-publishers who are thinking of taking on multiple authors and books, Lilly advises gathering a great team instead of trying to do everything yourself. Morrell recommends pacing your growth and making sure there’s enough working capital to finance each new phase.
“Have not only a one-year plan, but a five-year plan and a ten-year plan,” Galyan recommends. “What will you do when you need to start publishing 10 to 12 books a year? How will you fund them? How will you handle the workload? Will you hire a staff? What happens then when sales tank? What happens when, in order to make enough money to pay staff, you need to publish 25 or 35 books a year?”
In the end, Galyan says, “You as the owner have to do what serves you best. And always remember the human element: books are just paper, sales are just dollars, and marketing is little more than noise, but the readers, the authors, and you are what we’re all doing this for, and if your readers, your authors, or you are unhappy, then something needs to change. Never lose sight of that.”
About the Author:
Deb Vanasse is co-founder of the 49 Alaska Writing Center, founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, and the author of 16 books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; along with Cold Spell, a novel set in her home state of Alaska. To learn more: debvanasse.com.