Fast-Growing Independent Publishers, 2021

Mango Publishing, along with its marvelous authors, are featured in this Publishers Weekly news article.

Launched in 2013 to publish digital editions of out-of-print genre fiction from the 1960s and ’70s, Las Vegas’s Wolfpack Publishing reports that while revenue growth was steady in its first five years, its strongest growth was between 2018 and 2020. In this period, 90% of Wolfpack’s sales were books in digital formats. The company does things its own way, releasing titles weekly, president and CEO Mike Bray says, rather than seasonally. “We publish four to eight titles a week, both fresh stuff and reissues.”

Though Wolfpack’s list focuses on westerns, it has been supplementing its offerings with adventure, mystery, and historical fiction releases. And series are an essential component in its business model, publisher Rachel Del Grosso says, explaining, “When we are approached by any author or agent, the first thing we’re looking at is how many titles the author is bringing to the table. We invest in an author, not a single book.”

Bray, whose background is in digital marketing, says his marketing focus has been on consumers rather than on the trade. Besides running targeted advertisements on Amazon and social media, Wolfpack has a mailing list of 45,000.

Wolfpack does offer a print-on-demand option for authors interested in print books, but Bray says he’s not interested in pursuing a distribution deal in which he would need to surrender distribution of e-books to another company. Still, he isn’t ruling out some sort of print distribution in the future. “We have original titles from some well-known authors in our pipeline,” he says. “Authors like Max Allan Collins, W. Michael Gear, and Kat Martin would do well in the traditional channels, so we are looking for a print-only distribution deal on select titles.”

Blue Star Press, based in Bend, Ore., turned five in 2020 and has developed enough of a backlist to take advantage of some of the trends that developed during the pandemic. According to COO Peter Licalzi, the publisher worked with one of its house authors to release a series of children’s drawing books to meet the increased demand for activity books for kids, and How to Draw All the Animals by Alli Koch was its bestselling title of 2020. Blue Star’s Our Little Adventures box set of children’s books, written by speech pathologist Tabitha Paige, also performed well at a time when parents were looking for educational and entertaining titles for their children. And its Beautifully Organized books, produced by its Paige Tate & Co. imprint, had a good year, too. Overall, the company’s backlist in such areas as arts, crafts, home organization, and journaling sold well, Licalzi says.

Last year was Blue Star’s first full year as a client of Penguin Random House Publisher Services, and Licalzi credits PRHPS with expanding the press’s reach into bricks-and-mortar retailers, especially independent booksellers, as well as getting it into international markets for the first time.

After posting a 60% sales increase last year, Licalzi says he is confident about Blue Star’s future. To help expand its list, the company added a new designer and publishing operations lead last year.

The Innovation Press, a four-year-old children’s publisher in Seattle, is making its first appearance on PW’s list of fast-growing independent publishers this year, fueled by a 83% jump in revenue in 2020 compared to 2019. Founding publisher Asia Citro, Innovation’s sole employee, thinks switching distribution in 2018 to Baker & Taylor Publisher Services had a significant impact on the company’s financial performance, but she attributes its success primarily to a strong list that emphasizes quality over quantity. Innovation titles have received plaudits from the New York City Public Library and the Chicago Public Library, as well as many organizations dedicated to children’s education and literacy.

Citro launched Innovation to publish her own chapter book series, Zoey and Sassafras. That eight-volume series has sold more than 1.5 million copies to date. Also in 2017, Innovation began publishing the Amazing Scientists series of rhyming picture books featuring famous female scientists. With five volumes published, Amazing Scientists, written by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley, has sold approximately 400,000 copies to date. And last year, two frontlist titles had a good start: the picture book Your Name Is a Song has sold 50,000 copies to date, and Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting has sold 25,000 copies.

Mango Publishing Group, based in Miami, has found different ways to grow in its six-year history—and 2020 was no exception, with the publisher seeing big gains in international markets. According to the company, it sold books in more than 200 countries last year, with “significant” growth in India, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, and South Africa. Mango CEO Chris McKenney says one reason for the growth was more global SEO and social media reach. “It’s really gratifying to see our five-year-old analytics team innovating book discovery and reader conversion to the point that we can generate eye-popping sales increases in all sorts of different countries,” he notes.

Mango is also working to develop global authors, and the company has high international hopes in 2021 for Australian baker and food scientist Ann Reardon, whose YouTube series How to Cook That has been viewed more than 63 million times worldwide since 2019. In June, Mango will publish How to Cook That, Reardon’s book of extravagant cakes, chocolates, and desserts, in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Back in the U.S., Mango’s lifestyle line had another good year, led by Bobbi and Dessi Parrish’s FlavCity cookbook series. Special markets were another source of growth. Becca Anderson’s Badass Affirmations was a hit at Costco and other special markets, and Your Work from Home Life did very well at Target, as did the first two books in Dino Dana’s Field Guides series, which are also seeing strong sales at the warehouse clubs and discovery museums.

A book acquired by associate publisher Brenda Knight before the pandemic hit and released in March was another big seller: Mindfulness for Warriors, a meditation book for first responders, has benefitted from bulk buys by different organizations to give to first-responder teams. Find the Helpers by Fred Guttenberg, father of Parkland victim Jaime Guttenberg, was another title that resonated with different organizations last year, with group orders coming from the American Federation of Teachers and also by congressional leaders and staff.

Though the pandemic forced Media Lab Booksin New York City to alter some of its plans last year, 2020 sales were up 41% over 2019. MLB v-p and publisher Phil Sexton attributes the gain to a range of factors, including an increased focus on specialty sales, custom sales, and foreign-language rights sales.

Another important move was to lessen MLB’s dependence on licensed titles—it has worked with such partners as Disney, Nickelodeon, and Smithsonian—by adding more author-driven books. As a result, 2020 sales were split evenly between author-led titles and licensed properties, and in early 2021 author-driven titles were accounting for 70% of sales, Sexton says. Among MLB’s top sellers last year were The Game Master’s Book of Random EncountersThe Unofficial Harry Potter Character Compendium, and Sweatpants & Coffee: The Anxiety Blob Comfort & Encouragement Journal.

In 2018, MLB began trimming the number of new titles it releases annually to create better books with more backlist potential. Sexton says it had hoped to begin expanding the list again in 2020 but pushed those plans back to 2021 and 2022. The publisher will add a few more new titles this year, among them Cooking for Wizards, Warriors and Dragons by Hugo Award–winner Thea James and The Official John Wayne Handy Book of Bushcraft by Billy Jensen, a retired Green Beret.

Sexton sees the MLB list rising to 20 titles in 2022, and to more than 30 in 2023. Even as the list expands, he notes, MLB will look for projects from authors that have “highly engaged followers” or information to share that will stand out in a crowded market. “We try to maintain a very high bar for what we’re willing to publish, with a clear vision for the channels we expect each book to sell in,” he adds.

Entangled Publishing launched on Valentine’s Day 10 years ago in Denver as a publisher of romance fiction for YA and adult readers. In 2012 it had a national bestseller, The Marriage Bargain, CEO and publisher Liz Pelletier says. The company has evolved over the years, moving beyond contemporary romance into subgenres such as erotic and historicals, cutting its annual title output, and trimming its number of full-time employees (though it recently made four new hires). But perhaps its biggest change was to lessen its dependence on e-book sales and shift to emphasizing mass market paperback romances under its Amara single-title adult imprint.

“We published fewer books, but bigger books,” Pelletier says of 2020. “And there was a more substantial marketing budget. We’re not looking to sell paperbacks that sell 200,000 copies—we don’t need to in order to make a profit.” Initial print runs average 50,000 copies, and company sales are now evenly divided between print and digital.

Another factor in Entangled’s success, Pelletier notes, is that half the list is “collaboration publishing.” The company develops the concepts for certain novels and their packaging based on its own market research. The publisher and author draft a synopsis, and then the author writes the book. Macmillan, which is Entangled’s distributor, also provides feedback on concepts and packaging.

Entangled publishes some of the biggest names in romance for adult readers, such as Amalie Howard, but the company’s current bestsellers are the first three volumes in the Crave series, a YA quartet by Tracy Wolff, which has sold 400,000 copies in the U.S. since its launch in hardcover last April.

Familius cofounder and president Christopher Robbins considered 2020 a success not only because the company increased sales by 12% over 2019 but because it also began several initiatives he is convinced will position the family-oriented children’s and adult publisher for the future. One of its most important pivots last year was improving the discoverability of its books online, as more sales migrated there because of bricks-and-mortar lockdowns. “We realize how important book discoverability is,” Robbins says. “We’ve continued to invest in that initiative as readers explore more online.” In addition, Familius, which is based in Sanger, Calif., increased its consumer-oriented marketing efforts.

Those changes gave a big boost to Familius’s backlist sales, which accounted for 66% of total revenue last year, up from 48% in 2019. Backlist titles that performed well include Made for Me, But First We Nap, Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts, Alphatrain,and The Big Book of Family Games. Another important factor in the company’s growth in 2020, Robbins says, was the shift in late 2019 to Workman for distribution. (Prior to that, Familius had been doing its own distribution since 2015.)

During 2020, Familius launched the Helping Families Be Happy podcast, which was reaching a global audience by the end of the year. The company also completely reengineered its website to provide free family-focused content from Familius’s authors and illustrators, launched a storytime video program to help families discover the company’s children’s content, and began the Familius Helping Families Be Happy virtual conferences, in which Familius authors provide ideas and solutions to help families deal with a range of issues.

Those new efforts notwithstanding, Robbins says all Familius programs begin with the book. “Our responsibility as stewards of our authors and illustrators’ intellectual property is to ensure it is as discoverable as possible,” he notes. “All activities surrounding the book are to execute on that objective.”

Magination Press, the children’s book publishing imprint that has been affiliated since 1997 with the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., reports that sales growth was steady before 2018 but then leapt between 2018 and 2020. Editorial director Kristine Enderle attributes the success to the APA’s strategic focus on reconfiguring and rebranding the press, first implemented three years ago. Changes made include a greater commitment to digital and innovative marketing, the hiring of more editors, and bringing production and design in-house. More attention was also placed on subsidiary rights sales.

Magination has also made its titles more trade friendly, with an emphasis on titles about mental health and wellness topics that can appeal to a range of readers. “We shifted away from publishing books that you would find in therapists’ offices,” Enderle explains. “These are books that kids can go to that are accessible—though still authoritative.”

The press’s bestselling series, What to Do Guides for Kids, launched in 2005 and “showcases the best that we do,” Enderle notes. There are 12 volumes, all written by child psychologists, with a 13th, What to Do When the News Scares You,scheduled for release in 2022. The titles are huge backlist bestsellers, each typically selling tens of thousands of copies annually, and the book that introduced the series 16 years ago, What to Do When You Worry Too Much,sells 70,000 copies per year.

A 2018 Magination title was also pushed onto the bestseller lists after George Floyd’s murder last spring, with 100,000 copies sold to date: Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Book About Racial Injustice has just gone back to print for another 30,000 copies.

Unlike many publishers last year, Chelsea Green’s sales gain in 2020 was led not by backlist sales (up 34%) but by frontlist (up 66%). That was due in part, publisher Margo Baldwin says, to several drop-in titles, including two books tied to the pandemic: The Invisible Rainbow by Arthur Firstenberg and Corona False Alarm? by Karina Reiss and Sucharit Bhakdi.

According to Baldwin, frontlist sales were helped by Chelsea’s ability to work with niche partners to quickly create online events to support new book launches. Its entire list benefited from people being stuck at home and thinking about “growing their own food and becoming more self-sufficient,” she notes. As a result, Chelsea, which is based in White River Junction, Vt., saw an “incredible surge of interest in our how-to books, especially food, farming, gardening, and alternative economics.”

Investments made in several areas also contributed to big sales gains in 2020 over 2019 at Chelsea. Baldwin says investments in its direct-to-consumer website sales and marketing allowed the house to handle the higher demand and volume “pretty easily.” The company had the largest gain in its direct-to-consumer channel, with revenue jumping 130%. Sales through Amazon rose 41%, while business with Ingram increased 76%. Digital sales rose 34%, aided in part by Chelsea’s investment in digital audiobooks.

A final piece to 2020’s growth came from investment in Chelsea’s new U.K. operation, and Baldwin says that division had “huge” gains driven by new releases of U.K. titles and backlist.

Las Vegas–based LMBPN Publishing Worldwide has ridden steady digital sales gains to post a 35% revenue increase in 2020 compared to 2018. Over that same period, the company has increased its number of employees to keep pace with its rapid expansion of annual title output. Its operating model calls for publishing lots of digital content for voracious readers of urban fantasy and science fiction, and though that strategy has paid off, it is looking to add print formats. To date, e-books and digital audio have accounted for nearly 99% of the company’s revenue.

To help LMBPN expand, late last year it appointed a new president, Robin Cutler, who had headed up IngramSpark, with LMBPN founder Michael Anderle focusing on creative direction. Cutler says that in addition to broadening its reach into bookstores and libraries by offering print editions, other initiatives involve promoting its titles directly to readers and fans, and growing overseas by increasing sales of translation rights and expanding distribution in foreign markets.

Bicoastal publisher Ulysses Press, which has 13 employees divided between offices in Berkeley, Calif., and Brooklyn, publishes books on emerging trends in a range of categories, including pop culture, travel, lifestyle, and cookbooks. It had a 20% increase in sales in 2020 over 2018, and publisher Keith Riegert attributes the improvement to a combination of factors, including the move to Simon & Schuster on Jan. 1, 2020, for distribution.

After sales dipped last spring when the pandemic first struck, Ulysses rebounded by expanding its frontlist. A record 65 titles were released last year. Recent bestsellers include sleeper hit The Unofficial Hogwarts for the Holidays Cookbook, which sold 20,000 copies in 2020. The company, which Riegert describes as a “very research and market-driven enterprise,” is also placing even more of an emphasis on digital marketing and consumer analytics to develop its list. And with backlist accounting for 70% of Ulysses’s revenue last year, he notes that the publisher will add resources to promote those titles.

Looking ahead, Riegert says he intends to launch a children’s imprint this summer focusing on hot topics in pop culture, such as diversity and the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

Founded in 2006, Rocky Nook, now located in San Rafael, Calif.,specializes in educational photography books. Its mission is to “help photographers of all levels improve their skills in capturing those moments that matter.” The company has seven full-time employees, but a growing number of freelancers perform a variety of tasks ranging from website development and hosting to database development.

Though sales remained stable throughout Rocky Nook’s early years, a new management team put in place in 2014 built up its web presence, grew its marketing outreach, and enhanced its authors’ visibility. Those changes put the company on a general upward track, and though sales dipped in 2018, they rose the past two years, closing at a record high in 2020. New title output also hit a high last year.

Rocky Nook publisher and CEO Scott Cowlin regards 2020’s strong finish as the culmination of a new business strategy that it implemented in 2019, through which the publisher strengthened its list while adding new topic areas, new authors, new sales channels, and new markets.

Those actions led Rocky Nook to publish more photography books with appeal to the indie bookstore market last year and to hire commission sales reps to call upon both bricks-and-mortar and online camera stores. The company expanded its list by adding a spiral-bound pocket guide series for popular cameras, as well as a deck of posing cards.

Rocky Nook’s efforts succeeded, and Cowlin describes himself as being “blown away with sales across the board, of both our traditional photography titles as well as our diversification titles.” Bestsellers included Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photography Book (17,000-plus copies) and Lindsey Adler’s The Photographer Guide to Posing (9,000-plus copies).

A version of this article appeared in the 04/26/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Fast-Growing Independent Publishers

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