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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Small Publishers in A Big Industry

Ready for an understatement? The publishing industry has changed in the last three decades.

Longtime Santa Barbara resident Fred Klein, former Bantam Books vice president/marketing and executive editor, described one aspect of publishing back then:

“The staid established houses, many run by families, published hardbacks. As the 1970s progressed, publishers entered a golden era with the development of the mass paperback. Bantam Dell published millions of paperbacks, which expanded readers and led to new houses publishing to specific audiences.”

Today’s industry has two general levels of publishing houses.

The first are huge conglomerate publishers of bestsellers with big numbers in sales and strong commercial marketing strategies. Meanwhile smaller publishers aim for specific audiences ranging from regional to those looking for particular topics. They are known as niche publishers.

What does a big publisher do these days?

One example happened five years ago when the Penguin Group (owned by British corporation Pearson) and Random House (owned by German corporation Bertelsmann) merged and created the world’s largest trade publisher. Between them, they incorporated 25 publishers, most from the 20th century.

Last year, Penguin Random House had $3.4 billion in global sales, according to Publishers Weekly, with 275 worldwide imprints selling some 700 million books per year and publishing 14,000 new releases annually.

Most of their 10,000 employees will work next year under one roof of the Random House office building in New York City.

Why could this make a small publisher even important? AdventureKEEN, run by president Richard Hunt, fits the definition of a niche publisher.

In 1982 when Hunt finished college and took a job with Bantam Books, he worked part time under Klein. They hit it off, Klein becoming Hunt’s mentor, and have remained close friends.

When Hunt recently visited Klein in Santa Barbara, we had breakfast one summer morning. The discussion turned to the importance of smaller publishing houses in today’s industry.

During Hunt’s New York City days, larger publishers merged and became even bigger. Authors of books with smaller sales potential found getting published even more challenging.

 In 2006, he left New York, moved to Cincinnati and started Clerisy Press, a small publishing house across the Ohio River in Covington, KY. His goal was to print books about some of his favorite subjects — adventure and outdoor activities like hiking, biking and the world of Mother Nature.

These books have both a universal appeal and distinct sense of place often including information about local history, sports, hometown adventure, travel, and business.

One such book is Hiking and Packing, Santa Barbara & Ventura by Craig R. Carey (Wilderness Press, 2012). It includes nearly 100 routes from Gaviota Pass to Lake Piru, all well described and detail informed.

Soon after Hunt started Clerisy Press, he formed a partnership with a similar publisher, Bob Sehlinger, owner of Menasha Ridge Press. They merged and created Keen Communications, eventually adding other niche publishers and imprints.

“Because our other mergers came from regional publishing across the nation, it started as centric spiral and then grew. Menusha, Wilderness Press, Adventure Publications and others also put out books on nature study works,” Hunt said.

Among the most popular is an Adventure Publications book series, The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland series by Bob Selinger and other authors. As Hunt says, “It can save you four hours at Disneyland or Disney World.”

Each year AdventureKEEN has more than 1,000 books on file with 50-55 new books coming out. Hunt compared Bantam to AdventureKEEN.

“Bantam used to sell 100,000 books or more with the first year’s printing, their main effort,” he said. “Our books sell less in the first year but then more within the second and third. We can keep them going year after year.”

Another difference between a large NYC publisher and a niche publisher is the way employees work and treat authors.

AdventureKEEN, according to Hunt, has “38 employees with representatives out in the field. Many have continued working in their four original locations: Cambridge, MN [Adventure Publications, the Unoffical Guides]; Birmingham, AL [Menasha Ridge Press]; Berkeley, CA [Wilderness Press]; and Covington, KY [Clerisy Press]. Each is a different region, although our books serve across the country.”

Staffs of small publishers usually have more personal relationships with authors such as a greater willingness to edit and prepare their manuscripts for print. Hunt said publishing methods have become easier for small presses in many ways, marketing among them.

“With Borders having gone out [in 2011] and Barnes & Noble tightening up, I could see smaller publishers using expansion on where books could be sold. We now sell in retail places like REI and tourist centers besides the traditional bookstores,” he said

Methods of advertising also have changed in the last several years. Niche publishers take advantage of social media, online connections, blogs and attending book events to make personal and friendly contacts.

One area that has always made selling books challenging is getting them delivered to bookstores or wherever needed. AdventureKEEN uses Ingram Publisher Services, fourth largest in the world, to distribute their inventory.

Major publishers can offer incredible advances to draw big name authors with high selling ranks. Publishers Weekly gave an example of a $65 million advance given to Barack and Michelle Obama so each could write a book.

Small publishers cannot offer the same amount, not even close. They can, however, work more intimately with authors and get feedback from readers.

Last year, AdventureKEEN took an additional step on their “dedication to literacy, community, the First Amendment and superior customer service.” They became the first Publisher Promotion Partner of nonprofit Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) established in 1996.

Its mission is to strengthen the bookselling community by supporting employees and their families and helping thousands of booksellers across the country overcome personal financial hardships.

AdventureKEEN’s mantra is Shop Local Live Local, which supports brick-and-mortar retailers. They share part of their profits from independent bookstore sales.

Hunt sums up his work: “This is a great time to have a niche publishing company. Like most changes, there is the good news maybe mixed with the bad.

“In the case of small publishers, the drastic changes in the publishing industry have given small publishers a chance to exist, grow and be successful. People care passionately about our books because they are about what is around them and nearby.”

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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