A Look at Fast-growing Independent Publishers

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SATURDAY WRITERS’ WORLD

As highlighted last week, some self-published authors are smiling to the banks and so are some independent publishers. In this review by Jim Milliot and Claire Kirch, almost half of the companies on this year’s list of Publishers Weekly posted triple-digit gains between 2014 and 2016. It is a good resource material for authors.

Five of the 11 publishers on this year’s list posted triple-digit revenue gains in 2016 compared to 2014, and two publishers saw their revenue shoot over the $10 million mark in the past year.
Cottage Door Press: This Company that had the biggest gain on this year’s list was founded in 2014, but it didn’t sell its first book until 2015. Cottage Door Press, which publishes children’s books, released 18 titles in 2015 and another 82 titles last year. It plans to publish 50 in 2017. Between 2014 and 2016, the press also doubled in personnel, from nine to 19 employees, and it is preparing to move from Barrington, Ill., to a larger facility in the Chicago suburb of Deerpark.

Cottage Door’s 2016 revenue skyrocketed 558% from the previous year’s figure. The publisher’s debut list in 2015 focused on titles for babies and toddlers up to age three, but the publisher intends to expand its target audience to include four- and five-year-olds, beginning with a line of titles published in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution.
Though Cottage Door is a young company, its apparent overnight success might be due to the fact that most of its staff are children’s publishing industry veterans—most notably its founder, Richard Maddrell, who served until his retirement as president of Publications International. Cottage Door’s creative team conceives, designs, and produces the press’s list with the assistance of freelance illustrators. The emphasis, says marketing manager Melissa Tigges, is on high-quality books that are “on top of current trends”—such as STEM and STEAM—and “hot formats,” including padded board books, lift-a-flap, touch-and-feel, books that make sounds, and books made with engineered paper.

Every Cottage Door book has a removable sticker it calls the Early Bird Learning Guide: the sticker informs the buyer of the book’s appropriate age range and which skills the child is developing when that particular book is read. “We believe in educating and entertaining both children and their grown-ups,” Tigges said. “We choose artwork and language that interests, informs, and stretches their growing minds.”
Callisto Media: Ever since it released its first list in 2012, it has relied on the same formula for success: increasing title production, selling more copies per title, and broadening distribution. Those goals were achieved in 2016, according to v-p for marketing Holly Smith, and revenue jumped by 111% compared to 2015. Last year’s revenue soared 286% above the 2014 figure, and the company surpassed the $10 million sales level last year.

Smith says that in 2016, Callisto had some “extremely successful” frontlist releases, including Instant Pot Electric Pressure Cooker Cookbook, Kid Chef, and The Whole 9 Months. And, she adds, the publisher’s backlist, now at 383 titles, has become a “very strong component of our success as well.” New areas for Callisto, which continues to use data analytics to spot consumer trends, include parenting and kids, fitness, and self-help.
Europa Editions: The popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet has increased steadily over the past few years, propelling a sales gain of 156% in 2015 over 2014 and another 47% revenue rise in 2016. Editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds acknowledges the importance of Ferrante to the 12-year-old company’s success, but he notes that the balance of its list, focused on publishing authors from all over the world in the British and North American markets, has also contributed to its growth.

The company’s backlist has performed solidly, with two titles that Europa released in 2015, The Distant Marvels and The Pope’s Daughter, continuing to sell well into 2016. Frontlist books that did well last year included The Natural Way of Things, Shelter in Place, and The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery, whose The Elegance of the Hedgehog was one of Europa’s first hits.
Reynolds thinks the success of Ferrante’s series has helped Europa’s entire list gain more visibility in the market, but he also believes the company is doing a more effective job marketing its books. Title output has remained around 29 per year, and its four-person American office shares staff (designer, financial officer, production manager, and typesetter) with Edizioni E/O, its sister company in Rome.
Greystone Books: Canada Greystone has flourished since it was relaunched as an indie press in 2013, when former publisher Rob Sanders led a consortium that bought the imprint from its bankrupt parent company. With Sanders as publisher, the press, which is best known for its books on nature and the environment by authors from Canada and elsewhere, has grown its revenue. Its 2016 sales were more than double the 2015 figure, and were up 253% compared to 2014.

Greystone, which counts among its 14 employees a U.K.-based publicist to promote books and authors there, attributes its success to a focus on international sales. According to sales and marketing manager Jen Gauthier, “Publishing worldwide is a key strategy.”
A glance at Greystone’s top sellers also reveals a savviness about making acquisitions that appeal to a broad market. Almost every year, the publisher has released a bestseller, beginning with 2013’s pictorial chronicle of devastating floods in Alberta in partnership with the Calgary Herald. The Flood of 2013 has sold 55,000 copies to date. In 2015 Greystone acquired North American English-language rights to the German bestseller Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders, which has sold 90,000 print copies and 24,000 e-books to date.
But it was a 2016 release that caused Greystone’s sales to skyrocket this past year: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, originally published in Germany, was translated into English and released simultaneously in North America and in the U.K. The Greystone edition has sold 240,000 copies worldwide (150,000 in the U.S.). The press hopes to keep up the momentum by releasing another book by Wohlleben, The Inner Life of Animals, in November.
Page Street Publishing has continued its rapid sales growth since it was launched in 2013 by Will Kiester. The press’s revenue was 31% higher in 2016 than in 2015 and up 117% from 2014. Page Street’s early success has helped to propel more success, as Kiester says he feels confident reinvesting in the company by continuing to add new employees and titles.
In fact, Page Street expects more increases in the next few years and is upping its title count to around 70 for 2017. Earlier this year, the company hired Kristen Nobles to head its effort to establish a new children’s book list. Kiester hopes the list “will serve as a significant growth engine starting in late 2018 and hitting its stride in 2019.”

In 2016, Page Street expanded beyond cookbooks, its core focus, to other lifestyle subjects. Kiester says A Touch of Farmhouse: Easy DIY Projects to Add a Warm and Rustic Feel to Any Room was a good example of a book “outside of our comfort area” that performed very well, even selling out shortly after its release in December. He notes that he is prepared to slow Page Street’s growth if he believes the quality of its products is starting to decline, but adds that “that hasn’t been the case to date.”
Diversion Books has undergone quite a metamorphosis since Scott Waxman launched the company as the e-book publishing arm of his literary agency in 2010. Diversion was spun off as its own company several years ago and signed with Ingram Publisher Services in late 2014, and the addition of print publishing and distribution components sparked a 84% increase in revenue in 2016 compared to 2014.

The lack of quality backlist e-book rights to acquire, combined with the resurgence in print sales and the decline in digital sales, convinced Waxman that more changes were needed. So in late 2015 he hired Jaime Levine as Diversion’s publishing director, and Levine began a program to put out 50–60 frontlist books annually in both print and digital formats. Waxman says the change in strategy yielded immediate dividends last year, with a doubling of print sales compared to 2015 offsetting a 30% decline in e-book sales.
Last year also saw the launch of two new divisions of Diversion: EverAfter Romance and Radius Book Group. EA is a print distribution service that offers bestselling indie authors the chance to reach more bookstores, Waxman explains. It works on a royalty-split model and requires authors to deliver ready-to-print book files and handle their own marketing.
According to Waxman, authors are joining EA due to “its flexible model—authors can retain digital rights—as well as the potential for significant bookstore distribution through IPS.” EA distributed close to 500 titles in 2016 (both new and backlist books) and plans to release roughly the same number in 2017. It accounted for about 40% of Diversion’s revenue last year, and Waxman is looking for a 50% increase in revenue in 2017.

Waxman describes RBG as a “high-end custom imprint serving entrepreneurial authors who want to self-publish by partnering with a top-tier publisher.” It offers full-service publishing but not à la carte services. He hired Mark Fretz in February as editorial director and is looking to increase sales in the unit more than 300% in 2017 over last year.
Haymarket Books is a nonprofit publisher of political and social justice titles that celebrated its 15th anniversary last year. In an October PW profile, marketing manager Jim Plank attributed Haymarket’s recent success to its commitment to “putting out books that speak to the current moment.” These include one of its all-time top-sellers, 2014’s Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit.

Since the election of Donald Trump as president in November, Haymarket’s sales have, Plank says, “shot through the stratosphere,” with such frontlist releases as Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions, which has already sold almost 20,000 copies in paper since its March release. Solnit’s earlier work, Hope in the Dark, which was originally published after the 2004 election, has sold 32,000 copies in paperback and 5,000 digital copies since November. (In addition, Haymarket gave away more than 31,000 Hope e-books as part of a promotion.)

The press finished 2016 with a 21% revenue increase over the previous year and a 67% gain compared to 2014. And Haymarket is off to a good start in 2017, with net revenue to date of almost $700,000.