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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Building a Brand, Pt. 4

Acquiring the right staff was even more important than finding the right distributor. I had access to and had worked with one of the best cover designers in the business (Jim Zach), as well as a couple editors, indexers, and formatters (more on that in the next entry), so I felt comfortable in those areas. The question I kept asking myself was, "What sort of person do I want to work with day after day, and who has the ability and desire to learn the intricacies of the publishing business?"

Sarah Stephan (now Keeney) had been a family friend for seventeen years. Initially, I hired her to edit, transcribe, and proofread an early project during her senior year at Cal Poly in San Louis Obispo, California. That toe in the water led to a full time job offering upon graduation.

When it came time to hire a key "partner" to help me grow the business, I wrote down a list of the key attributes I was looking for and took my wife out to lunch. She has a knack for reading people, and her advice--especially about people--is ALWAYS right. (Don't tell her I wrote that.) When I showed her the list, Carol took all of five seconds before proclaiming, "You are describing Sarah, and she would be a perfect fit--if she can work with you." [I have a unique way of working, and sometime I might blog about it.]

Many people are hired out of college to do the same monotonous thing sitting in a cubicle day after day, and often year after year until they simply burn out. I did not learn that way. In fact, I learned the old fashioned Greek way at the elbow of my grandfather while cleaning his restaurant with him on the weekends. "Always know how to do everything," he sagely advised. "And, make sure the key people who work with you know how to do everything, or at least know how it should all be done--just in case."

I promised Sarah her responsibilities would be legion, and I know I have kept my promise. Her functions initially included everything from proofing and editing to coordinating authors, marketing, mailing, invoicing, etc. In other words, whatever it took to build our foundation. However, I wanted her to get a good "education" at the same time, both for her benefit and for the company's future.

Two years ago Sarah assumed the mantle of Marketing Director. It is a perfect fit because of her strong people skills, amazing organizational abilities, and stellar gift of communication. Today, she spends most of her time branding our titles and helping our authors "brand" themselves. She does this while coordinating with Casemate on distribution issues and opening new sales channels. When I could not attend Book Expo last year, Sarah ran the entire show with Casemate. Her ability to obtain and coordinate publicity is better than many of the high profile "publicists" we have worked with over the years.

Sarah writes about these and other related issues on her new blog called On Marketing. Give it a read and bookmark it for helpful information you can really use.

Sarah is the cornerstone of our company. If you doubt me, just ask any of our authors.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Building a Brand, Pt. 3

[Note: On the left side of this blog is a poll on some of our early books. Feel free to do your duty: vote!]

The right opportunity came along in 2003 when Russel H. "Cap" Beatie and I teamed up to form Savas Beatie LLC. Cap had a vision that matched mine. We both believed there was something missing from the military history arm of the independent publishing world.

The decision to rejoin the publishing ranks required me to dust off my networking channels, contact the right authors, and decide how to positon the company for growth, mixing the right titles and authors with the right vision and direction.

The first major decision was finding the right distributor. David Farnsworth, formerly of Greenhill Books of London and then Combined Publishing in Pennsylvania, branched out on his own when Perseus Books Group consumed Combined (and Savas Publishing) in 2001. Because of his wide experience marketing and distributing books, building a first class distribution outfit was right up his alley. I had known and worked with David in a variety of capacities on a number of projects over the years, so I believed in his abilities. His Casemate Publishing Company seemed like the perfect fit for the nascent Savas Beatie. We could grow together. And indeed the marriage has been a solid match for us both.

There are many distributors available to book publishers. Each comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. Our first distributor during the early 1990s (with Savas Woodbury) proved unreliable. Although it sold a couple titles surprisingly well, it did not pay us on time, its fulfillment services were hit and miss, and communication was nonexistent. When we made the leap to Stackpole Books, our company jumped up several levels in terms of sales and visibility. Stackpole was a good fit for us because it was (and remains) a company with a proud history of publishing good military history, and the people working there (save one) were a pleasure to deal with. And they always paid on time.

Casemate was a young entity, but I knew Farnsworth and Company understood the military history sales world, had access to the distribution channels, knew how to work both sides of the ocean, and had a good warehousing facility. Most of Casemate's distribution clients were (and remain) European-based publishing companies. When I approached David about representing us, he was looking for a strong foothold in the US with a solid independent American publisher who knew the Civil War.

But publishing Civil War books was only part of the equation. My earlier companies had already done that, and I think had done that very well. Beatie and me had a different vision for Savas Beatie LLC. We wanted to splash about in a larger, deeper pond. When I explained to Farnsworth that we intended to form a core around good original Civil War titles, but also expand our publishing operations in several different directions (ancient history, American Revolution, WWII, etc.), he enthusiastically welcomed the idea. Our agreement divided up the world in a simple fashion: Casemate would handle all book trade sales, and Savas Beatie would handle everything else (special markets, non-trade sales, academia, individuals, etc.)

Putting the staff together to make it happen was the next item on the agenda.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas

It has been a wonderful year for Savas Beatie. All of us wish you a Merry Christmas, and a safe, healthy, and prosperous New Year.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Building a Brand (Pt. 2)

In 1996, David Woodbury and I decided to head in different directions. David continued to work on some projects for us, but the company named changed to Savas Publishing Company. Ostensibly, the branding thrust remained the same: find and develop quality original Civil War titles.

But was it time to change that thrust?

Our new titles included some real blockbusters for us, including (those that leap readily to mind): Last Rays of Departing Hope: The Wilmington Campaign, by Chris Fonvielle; My Life in the Irish Brigade, edited by Kevin O'Brien; Triumph & Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign, Vol. 1, by Terry Winschel; The War in Kentucky, edited by Kent Masterson Brown; Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion: The Petersburg Campaign, by A. Wilson Greene, Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign, by Scott Bowden and Bill Ward (winner of 7 awards), and many, many others.

By 1998-1999, it became obvious even to me that there was a larger military-history market out there waiting to be tapped. Was it time to broaden our horizons? I decided the answer was yes, and we placed a large toe and part of a foot into the Indian Wars with Journal of the Indian Wars based upon the style and format of Civil War Regiments). Our new books included one by our good friend and indexing guru Lee Merideth called 1912 Facts about Titanic, and another by friend Deborah Petite called 1836 Facts about the Alamo. A final triumph was the appearance of Silent Hunters: German U-boat Commanders of World War II, by Theodore P. Savas (editor).

Thankfully, every book sold well, some sold more than we expected, and some sold exceptionally large numbers given our limited marketing abilities. Titanic continues to sell strongly, edging its way toward 100,000 copies, thanks to Lee's indefatigable efforts. When our distributor called the book "dead" several years ago, we crafted a deal for Lee to pursue sales under his own imprint, retaining an interest in the title.

In 2000, Combined Publishing in Pennsylvania decided to make an offer to purchase the company. An arrangement was reached and a deal struck. It was almost as difficult, from an emotional standpoint, as selling my law practice in 1998. Combined, however, was almost immediately acquired by Perseus Books Group, which pulled in the Savas line, but was not interested in either journal. Left without a base in book sales, I reluctantly decided to stop publishing them.

Both journals had a strong base, and I often think about resurrecting them.

The die was cast, however: the last incarnation of Savas Publishing had successfully peeked above the breastworks without taking a bullet through the forehead. We had dabbled outside the Civil War arena, and had done so successfully.

The years 2001-2003 were spent writing and ghost-writing, editing, consulting, teaching, and coaching little league. It was a period of rejuvenation that only in hindsight makes sense to me now. I needed that time to think about how to advance the cause of history I love so deeply.

Throughout that period I worked up ideas on how to roll out a new company. What would I do differently? What had I learned? What worked and did not work? Given the radical changes taking place in publishing, was it even viable to consider reentering the business? I decided the answer was yes, but I wanted to do it on a larger scale.

The questions were how, when, and what the branding goal would look like--should the right opportunity come along.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Building a Brand (Part 1)

As the managing director of Savas Beatie, it is my responsibility to brand the company. As with any publishing house, the "brand" that defines us is largely determined by the titles we publish. Deciding which to select is often quite difficult, especially now with the mountain of manuscripts we receive each month. It was not always this way.

The decision making process is akin to standing on the bridge of the ship and looking into the distance. While watching for whales and icebergs, I continually ask myself, "What is our goal? Will this manuscript help us reach it?" "We have a destination. Will this author help us move in that direction?" This process is harder now than it used to be.

When I began publishing with David Woodbury (Savas Woodbury Publishers) in 1990, our small house produced only Civil War titles. We launched the new quarterly journal Civil War Regiments, and we knew the topic very well. Our goal was to produce original titles on largely overlooked topics that deserved scholarly treatment.

We also loved maps. Most publishers avoided the expense altogether, copied something unreadable from Battles and Leaders or the OR Atlas (shockingly, many still do), or hired a third-party to draft a couple expensive pieces. I remember one publisher laughing at us when I told him we were going to use a lot more maps in our books. What he did not know is that we had a secret weapon: our own naivety. David and me learned how to draft them ourselves.

Although we did not have a large "slush pile" to select manuscripts from during those early years, we were blessed with outstanding authors and topics. Since our goal was to produce quality Civil War titles only, selecting the right books was not that difficult.

Producing them, however, consumed endless blocks of time. We met each weekend for 18-hour marathon workdays, worked most evenings, and often neglected our regular professions during the 8-5 shift to meet deadlines. Many times each year one or both of us would also fly across the country from California to the East Coast, attend a book show, and then fly back late Sunday night.

Looking back, I know we are both proud of our accomplishments. Savas Woodbury produced a number of high-quality titles and journal issues that "branded" the company as an independent Civil War publisher of strong titles. Those that come readily to mind include: Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville, by Mark Bradley and Mark A. Moore; The Campaign for Atlanta & Sherman's March to the Sea," (2 volumes), Theodore P. Savas and David A. Woodbury, eds; Secessionville: Attack on Charleston, by Patrick Brennan; The Peninsula Campaign, vols. 1-3), William E. Miller, ed.; Abraham Lincoln, Contemporary: An American Legacy, by Frank J. Williams and William D. Pederson, eds; and Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron, by John Coski.

When the first couple of titles sold out quickly through direct mail alone, and Last Stand was selected by the History Book Club (an almost unheard-of event for a small house), we obtained national distribution and the real climb into the world of publishing began.

So, too, did the difficulties in selecting manuscripts.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Are you an Active Participant in Helping Make Your Book a Success?

This post might be better of under Sarah's insightful marketing blog, but I wanted to begin a thread on this since it does relate in some ways to my recent posts.

Dimitri Rotov, one of the sharpest minds in the Civil War blogosphere, has an interesting post about HarperCollins and its "toolkit" for allowing HC authors who do not have a website to create one.

He quotes Booksquare as saying, "the truth of the matter is that publishers simply don’t have the staff and budgets to market each and every book published." Although Dimitri ends with a one-word conclusion--bogus--I think he is only partially correct.

For most medium and large houses, the Booksquare comment is true. A few titles are targeted with money and time, and the rest are put into the stream of commerce to see what happens. If a title sells a certain number, then it has a proven "viral" ability to sell and be read, and so would benefit from an infusion of cash and time.

"Authors," continues the Booksquare article, "must be active participants in marketing themselves and their work." We have the same attitude at Savas Beatie.

We are a small independent press, but we have a dedicated marketing program for every title. We work it into the budget based upon a number of factors. One of the prime determinations is, "How hard is the author going to work to sell his book?"

Most of our authors are very hard working. They lead tours, give talks, drive hours to bookstores to sign books, mail signed copies to customers, establish websites, and so on. The smart authors know that the real work starts AFTER the book goes to the printer.

However, a few are not all that motivated. They sign a few books, rarely give talks, refuse to establish a website, and generally do not cooperate when we suggest action, and do not go out of there way to sell books. In the real world, here is what happens to titles written by these authors: the books that flood out onto the shelves of bookstores flood back in again. Then these authors complain that their royalty checks are not large enough.

The simple fact is that authors who sign books, write articles, host an active website, maintain blogs, and deliver talks generate sales across the country by word of mouth and viral marketing. Sell a book to a customer at a store in Virginia, chat a while, and establish a relationship, and you have also sold one to his friend, cousin, brother, or neighbor in Oregon. That, in turn, prompts a good review on Amazon, which in turn prompts a stranger reading the review to buy a copy. And so it goes. I do not care how many books blast out into the stores in Month 1 nearly as much as I care about the sell-through of those books during Months 2-12 (and beyond).

So, you ask, how does this relate to Dimitri's posting? Simple. We have a finite marketing budget each season, and we allocate as best we can at the beginning of each season. Which books get mailings? Which get radio, TV, print ads? Who gets a plane ride and costs to X number of cities for signings? As soon as an author demonstrates a disdain for pushing his own title, however, he is sending us a message: "Hey, Mr. Publisher--reevaluate the allocation of your resources!" My answer is always the same. "I will, thank you." This generally means we withdraw marketing funds and man hours and use that money and time on other titles and more determined authors.

Dimitri is right: there are to-do lists in marketing departments, where some people go through the motion and mistake busy work for productive time that sells books. Presses with more modest budgets can't afford that luxury.

Authors--are you paying attention?