Angling for a Bigger Piece of the Pie
From its humble beginnings publishing a few fishing books, The Lyons Press today casts out 220 titles a year in 14 different categories.
The Lyons Press is a classic business-school case study in the value of keeping a sure and nimble hand on the company keel to achieve a well-defined vision. Begun in 1984 by Nick Lyons, a former professor of American Literature at Hunter College and an avid angler, the New York-based company's first year revenues were only $300,000. By 1990, revenues reached $1 million; by 1998, $5 million. And by this coming March, the company's fiscal year earnings are expected to reach $10 million—effectively doubling in only two years. Its backlist counts more than 1,000 titles.
Such solid growth compelled one magazine to name The Lyons Press one of the top small publishers in the United States. Company officials cite myriad reasons for their success: staying flexible, nurturing good authors, a depth of knowledge in their chosen niches, co-branding titles with other companies, and staying as lean as possible—all while growing the number of book categories and titles within those categories. Today, the Lyons Press publishes not only its trademark fishing books, but has expanded into other topics, such as adventure, travel, food and wine, fiction, golf, fitness and more.
"We want to stay in the categories we know, and publish more titles within those categories," says Tony Lyons, president, publisher and son of the company's founder who stays active as chairman of the board and part-time editor. "In addition, we do all of our own selling in-house. And this year, we plan to hire more salespeople and one more production
editor. We think this will add to the likelihood of growth." Lyons describes his company not as a general trade publisher, but as a privately owned, multi-niche, small press.
By far, one of the most interesting business initiatives of this company is its extensive list of
co-branded books. Partners include such well-known companies and brand names as L.L. Bean, Orvis, Field & Stream, The Nature Conservancy, Golf magazine, Walking magazine, and others.
"Each partnership arrangement is different," Lyons offers. "Some are straight licensing agreements, while other partners provide the content to us and collect royalties on sales."
The challenge, he notes, is to find a company with wide-spread name recognition and officials who want to use their brand in a specialized publishing format. "Our pitch is that we're essentially a backlist company," says Lyons. "We often keep books in print for 10 to 15 years. So the partner will get many years of publicity out of our books."
Partners often buy large quantities of the books for resale through their own channels, such as catalogs or Web sites. "It's often much simpler for these companies to deal with a small publisher like us," says Lyons. "We don't have layers of bureaucracy like most larger publishing houses."
While the sideline is lucrative for the publisher, generating 10 to 15 percent of annual revenues, the titles aren't necessarily easier to produce than regular books, Lyons continues. For example, a recent release, The Orvis Fly-Tying Guide, by Tom Rosenbauer, includes 450 pages, 1,000 pieces of artwork and a design theme that was extremely difficult to
implement consistently. "Each step in the fly-tying explanations includes artwork and text whose length varies from picture to picture. It took us nine months to produce this book; it certainly wasn't easy," recounts Lyons.
Lithe and nimble
"Challenging" is also an apt description for another Lyons Press title, 101 Survival Secrets, by Richard Hatch, star of the popular TV show "Survivor." Because the book was expected to have a short shelf life (another "Survivor" winner is slated to be named this year), a short production time and consequently a longer sales tenure were critical to the title's success, says Steve Bedney, production director. Their goal: Put this book on store shelves in two weeks.
Following was the production schedule for what has come to be known as an "instant book." Immediately after the contract was signed, Hatch and a Lyons Press editor sat down for one week to write the 101 survival tips, which were emailed to the publisher at the end of the week. The text was approved in one day, and forwarded to Comp Set, a book compositor in Beverly, Mass., with whom Lyons Press does most of its one- and four-color design and composition. Comp Set designed the entire book in one day, and sent a first round of proofs to Lyons Press for quick approval. The next day saw a second round of proofs, quick changes made, and pages sent to the printer, Webcom, in Toronto. In only four days, Webcom printed and bound 250,000 copies, and shipped them to stores.
"Our flexibility is essential to our success," says Bedney. "There's no stagnant behavior here. It's also our versatility that enables us to produce a book by Ernest Hemingway and Rich Hatch simultaneously."
In addition, having a small staff can help projects whip through production more quickly than at larger publishers, says Bedney. The Lyons Press employs nine acquisitions editors, a managing editor, two production editors, one book designer (who does only jackets and covers), a small in-house sales force, a few accounting folks, and Bedney, the publisher's only production professional and a 21-year industry veteran. Much of the work is farmed out to compositors, text-page designers, copyeditors, and the like.
Most of the publisher's hardcovers are printed by large-scale book manufacturers such as R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Maple-Vail and Hamilton, Bedney notes. Webcom handles most of the paperback work. Both Lyons and Bedney say they look for good quality and reasonable costs when selecting a printer — but mostly they want fast turnaround.
"We have serious capacity issues now that we're publishing more than 200 titles a year," says Bedney. In addition, their recent success in selling to book clubs, e-tailers and others with tight shipping deadlines compels Bedney to keep searching for printers "who can deliver in our time frame."
Not only have the number of titles gone up. The average print run for Lyons Press books has gone from 3,000 in 1997 to about 10,000 in 2000. "With this kind of ever-increasing volume," says Bedney, "fast turnaround time from printers has become critical to our continued success."
How does Bedney handle such a break-neck speed and still get quality work out of his vendors? "Whenever possible and appropriate, I take a minute to thank the customer service reps with whom I've been dealing," he notes. "It's important to treat these heroes with the courtesy and respect they deserve. We're all on the same team."
At a Glance
The Lyons Press, New York City
Owners: Nick and Tony Lyons (father/son team)
Production Director: Steve Bedney
Annual revenues: $10 million
Produces: about 220 titles a year
Primary book categories: fishing, outdoors, "The Quotable" series, cooking, travel
Interesting initiative: co-branded books with companies such as L.L. Bean, Orvis, and Field & Stream
A significant recent offering: Hemingway on Fishing, a collection of the great author's writings