Far-Flung Regional Houses Hit the Heartland Bull’s-Eye
Just one word: scrapbooking. Yes, scrapbooking is the fastest-growing hobby sector in the United States, with sales of related supplies — presumably including books — quadrupling in the past five years to an estimated $2 billion, as the New York Times recently noted, and projected to grow as much as 80% annually over the next five years. Perhaps that’s why an entire continent of hell-bent hobbyists is converging upon Dallas next week for the Hobby Industry Association Convention and Trade Show — you know something’s up, anyway, when Microsoft is an exhibitor — where a phalanx of publishers will be roving the aisles with eyes peeled for the next big thing. Among them you’ll find folks from F+W Publications (see article), the how-to house which acquired Denver-based scrapbooking publisher Memory Makers in 2001. Their flagship magazine has 206,000 paid subscribers, and the company has been revving up its book program — 15 titles are expected this year — while membership of 41,000 in the unit’s year-old ScrapBook Club has “exceeded goals dramatically,” says Publisher Bob Kaslik. Total revenues? Up 60% last year.
Scrapbooking, in fact, is just the tip of the iceberg of a whole other publishing world out there on the nether side of Hoboken. Whether it’s big-time crafts titles from Meredith Books, or off-the-beaten-path picks from Woodinville, WA (quilting titles from Martingale) and Layton, UT (Gibbs Smith’s bestselling 101 Things to Do With a Cake Mix), savvy houses outside the orbit of the New York publishing biz are finding a bonanza in books that mainstream houses might never have the foggiest idea of publishing. Latching onto rip-roaring lifestyle trends and holding on tight, these publishers are scoring via markets such as Jo-Ann, Wal-Mart, and craft retailing giant Michaels Stores. The latter reported that December sales jumped 10%, and credited among the “strongest contributors” to growth the scrapbooking, books, needlework and yarn, and kids’ crafts categories.
CAN YOU SAY, ‘STITCH ‘N BITCH’?
“Most Americans don’t live east of the Hudson,” says Linda Cunningham, Editor-in-Chief of Des Moines–based Meredith Books. “I think we really have our finger on where middle America is and where most Americans are.” The company just signed former Entertainment Tonight anchor Leeza Gibbons for a scrapbook line, but there are other categories of moment. Take slow cookers. “Most New York publishers would say, ‘It’s been done. There’s nothing more to say,’” Cunningham says. “Well, there’s a lot to say. There was a lot of money on the table in slow cooking books. Our titles have all done very well.” And don’t even get Cunningham started on the latest craft renaissance: knitting. Prescient New York house Workman published Stitch ’n Bitch last fall and is now up to 117,000 copies in print, inspiring knitting clubs that are taking the nation by storm (dozens are listed at www.stitchnbitch.org). Indeed, the percentage of women under 45 who knit or crochet has doubled since 1996, with 38 million knitters nationwide (Newsweek’s take: “They May Have Blue Hair, But They’re No Grannies”).
Scrapbooking and such is well known turf to Birmingham-based Oxmoor House, which publishes a niche-focused program going from branded books for Pottery Barn all the way to Flea Market Finds and the long-running Leisure Arts series Trash to Treasure (17 volumes strong). “Those books just fly off the shelves in their market,” says Gary Wright, Director of Business Development for Oxmoor House. Executives “fan out like missionaries” to every trade show imaginable; once they lock on to something like scrapbooking, the next step may be to find a “spokesbrand” as a partner. Thus they stumbled upon scrapbook ’zine Creating Keepsakes in a tiny trade show booth and embarked on a book program that helped propel the magazine to a subscriber base of 750,000 (it’s now owned by Primedia). The big breakthrough for crocheting, meanwhile, came when they discovered that celebrity Vanna White was a crocheting addict. “We contacted Vanna and we have about four books that were enormously successful at retail,” Wright explains. Leisure Arts (which, with Oxmoor and parent Southern Progress Corp., are owned by Time Warner) has even been profiting from the “plastic canvas” rage (it’s a variant on needlecrafting), which has now given way to the scrapbooking bug. “It’s rather infectious when you publish for what the market requires,” Wright says. “But it’s also smart publishing. Our returns are extremely low.”
And if you’re talking quilting, it certainly doesn’t hurt Martingale to be smack in the unofficial quilting capital of the world, which is how Publisher Jane Hamada describes the Pacific Northwest. The company boots out three new quilting titles per month, and although Hamada says she’s always looking for new topics, “the more general crafts are a little more difficult” due to stiffer competition. Shoppers in the paper and floral crafts are not as “faithful,” and tend to pick up titles on a whim. The upshot? “It’s harder to hit the right title at the right time.” So the company concentrates on winners such as The Simple Joys of Quilting, which has sold at least 50,000 copies and helped Martingale lift overall sales last year, Hamada adds. While the Northwest locale does have drawbacks — “Hiring is a stumbling block,” as it can be tough drawing publishing types outside New York — in the end the company could be located anywhere. “We’re a niche publisher,” Hamada says. “Authors come to us.”
NOTE TO WRITERS: GOT FLEECE?
Being o’er the Hudson River has its down side for other publishers as well. Susan Reich, President and COO of the Avalon Group (with offices in Emeryville, CA, Seattle, and New York, and distributed by PGW), says getting the same attention from agents that the big New York publishers do is hard. “We have to find books other ways because agents often ignore us,” she says. One solution for Avalon Travel Publishing (which includes Foghorn, Moon, etc.) is advertising on its website, www.travelmatters.com. The pitch reads: “Do you wear a lot of fleece? Can you identify poison oak? Do you hear the call of the wild? Most importantly, can you write? If you answered yes to the above questions, you could be the writer we need.” According to Reich, there is a good network of writers who respond. Though many Avalon imprints are located in New York, some, like Seattle-based Seal Press, depend on a local community of writers and readers. That’s one reason Avalon is about to host the first in a series of dinners for booksellers in Seattle and San Francisco.
Like Seal, other houses turn adversity into cash by mining local authors that large houses may overlook. Brandon, MS–based Quail Ridge Press, for instance, focuses on the Gulf Coast states, but founder and owner Gwen McKee says once an author or series grabs readers’ attention, she sticks with it. The house’s popular Best of the Best state cookbook series began locally, but now includes all but three states in the union (the others are on the way). In order to reach the right audience, Quail Ridge plies nontraditional sales channels such as home parties, restaurants, and QVC to promote its books. The publisher also lets authors sell their books on personal websites. “Our authors work very closely with us,” McKee says. “I’m sure they do that in New York initially, but we work closely with our authors throughout the process and on future books.”
At Storey Publishing in North Adams, MA, the non-Manhattan scenery is all part of the job. “Country life is our corporate culture,” says Publisher Janet Harris. “Most people on staff garden. Nearly everybody hikes and cooks. Our knitting editor keeps Romney sheep. Storey’s horse editor rides horses.” Storey, which is distributed by majority-owner Workman, “also has a very strong sense of our constituency,” Harris says. “To chart our reader’s responses, we enclose a ‘We’d love your thoughts’ card in each book. And it is astonishing how many readers jot down their comments and mail them back.” Such reader loyalty helped make 2003 the best year in the publisher’s 20-year history, with sales up significantly over 2002.
They take a different approach to regionality over at Gibbs Smith. “We try pretty much at all times to forget that we’re in Utah,” jokes Director of Marketing and PR Alison Einerson. To succeed, she says, it’s not where you are, but what you do, and Gibbs Smith is doing well with the NYT-bestselling 101 Things To Do With a Cake Mix. Although such titles seem targeted to heartland buyers, Einerson says: “We have not seen lower numbers in major cities for those titles. Really what it’s about is time-saving and ease, and that appeals to everybody.”
Back on the left coast, Seattle-based Sasquatch Books has also learned to relish its own quirky discoveries, sans agents or agencies. One recent hit is librarian and local NPR personality Nancy Pearl, whose Book Lust now has 60,000 copies in print. Sasquatch joined PGW in 2002, and since then its degree of “regionality” has changed a bit, says Susan Quinn, VP and Associate Publisher, Sales and Marketing. “We were only regional, but now, when we’re acquiring, we think of books that are rooted in the West” but have broader appeal. The distance from New York allows Sasquatch staffers the freedom to indulge their wild hunches. “We have the opportunity to think up who’s cool in the Northwest and then nurture it,” Quinn says. “As a result, we act as a launching pad. We’re really good at PR. Once New York publishers catch a whiff, they come calling.”