Market Focus: Tough Sell for Reference Books
A “slow, but steady decline” is how Rhonda Herman, executive vice president at reference publisher McFarland & Co. Inc., characterizes the market for reference books. “We are cautious about sales and will feel lucky if sales remain flat.”
The reality of an economic downturn is starting to sink in—McFarland’s volume is flat, Herman says, “but actual income is down 2 percent. The reason for this is that we are experiencing higher than normal overstock returns, which is not surprising in this market.” Both direct and indirect costs are hitting the bottom line at the Jefferson, N.C.-based publisher. Higher fuel costs are forcing up the price of paper and shipping.
“Indirect costs like health insurance for employees are a chronic concern, but particularly this year when we have less ability to handle an increase,” Herman says.
In response, McFarland is trimming costs, and no new hires or capital expenditures are planned at this time.
The Long Tail
To weather these difficult economic times, McFarland is focused on selling a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities, an example of Chris Anderson’s “long tail” theory, explained in his book “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.”
McFarland has its own printing operation, allowing the publisher short printing runs of its growing backlist of titles, which is increasing around 10 percent each year.
Herman says a broad definition of reference books would place a majority of the publisher’s 3,000 titles in that segment. “Graves’ Disease: A Practical Guide,” by Elaine Moore, is an example of applying the long tail to publishing. The book has been a steady seller since 2001, Herman says, because its author is an active leader of an online community for Graves’ disease—a form of hyperthyroidism affecting 3 million people in the United States. The author’s active participation drives buyers to online retailer Amazon.com and McFarland’s Web site.