Navigating the Niche
At the 2010 Independent Book Publishers Association's Publishing University, marketing guru and keynote speaker Seth Godin advised a room packed with independent publishers that, in order to thrive in today's marketplace, they need to build a tribe—or niche—and produce and distribute books to benefit that tribe. That formula for success is not a new one for C&T Publishing, a Concord, Calif.-based independent publisher that has been putting Godin's theory into practice and producing books and other products for the quilting, paper craft and fiber art markets since 1983.
While C&T's niche hasn't changed in more than 25 years of publishing, the company has changed, adapting its business models to reflect a transforming book marketplace and publishing industry. In recent years, it has spearheaded a flurry of initiatives, launching a new imprint, Stash Books; mobile applications; e-books; and a print-on-demand (POD) program, among others.
Success has followed for C&T, even at a time when many other publishers are struggling not only to increase sales revenues, but to effectively solve the print-digital puzzle as it relates to their businesses. In February, C&T announced record sales growth in 2010: a 47-percent increase in book trade sales, more than a 100-percent increase in sales of its e-products, and nearly a 1,000-percent increase in its POD sales.
So, how is C&T achieving such significant increases? Sales Director Sandy Balin attributes last year's book trade sales increase to the new Stash Books imprint, which launched in April 2010.
A Multichannel Sales Strategy
"While Stash Books titles have been well-received across all channels, the most exciting response has been in the book trade," says Balin. "With this new line of books, we are reaching a different group of consumers than our traditional quilting titles [do]—young craft sewers who are looking for ideas and inspiration."
"With our C&T titles, we had become used to a sales model that was proportionally more reliant on our niche market sales—direct to quilt stores, to craft chains and through craft distributors—than on book trade sales," adds Gailen Runge, creative director. "In the business model for the new imprint, we predicted Stash Books titles would sell as well into our core quilt market as our [other] C&T titles, and that they would sell exponentially better to the book trade. That has definitely been the case. Each of our Stash Books titles has been reprinted multiple times in its first year."
According to Runge, C&T conducted "an enormous amount of due diligence" before the launch of Stash Books, which was the brainchild of Acquisitions Editor Susanne Woods, to identify exactly who the target reader was and how to best meet their needs. A key differentiator between Stash Books titles and other C&T titles is lower price points.
"Appealing to the book trade played a large roll in setting our price points. The book trade has different expectations and understanding of value than our core quilting market," says Runge. "Many of our Stash Books titles appeal to craft sewers. They are more general sewing-related [titles] than hard-core quilting. You get people who are dabbling in the craft or trying new things and are less committed. The book is competing for the customer's entertainment budget, and there's a lot of competition for that money.
"Luckily, we were able to use many of our key brand decisions as cost-saving measures," Runge continues. "The use of more white space and lushly minimalistic design is a key to our books' visual appeal, but it also helps us cut our per-page costs for text contracts. The smaller trim size that sets the Stash Books titles apart also lowers printing costs. By lowering costs like these, we are able to produce books cost-effectively while still spending the resources on additional set-shot photography and on ensuring the books' technical accuracy."
Effectively utilizing multiple sales channels has been an important component of C&T Publishing's strategy, especially at a time when publishers are fighting for declining shelf space in traditional, physical bookstores.
"We are able to maintain our sales into non-traditional channels to compensate for any fluctuation in the [brick-and-mortar] bookstore world," says Balin. "Amazon is a very important online sales channel for us for print and for Kindle sales, [and] we have strong sales on other non-book Internet sites as well.
"We have always been very committed to our independent quilt shops and fabric stores across the country. This sets us apart from many of our competitors," Balin continues. "I think that physical stores will always be our main focus. That being said, we are also looking for ways to grow our online presence, both at Amazon and smaller online stores."
Balin notes that direct sales from C&T's website "remain small."
While e-books account for less than one percent of overall sales revenue, according to Publisher Amy Marson, C&T launches all new titles simultaneously in print and digital formats, and has released many out-of-print titles electronically.
"Most of our customers like [e-books]. Our international customers love them. We have a few international customers who spend a few hundred dollars per month on e-books because they get them instantly and don't have to pay for shipping," says Marson. "We also have many customers who purchase a bundle [of] the print and e-book."
In addition to reviving out-of-print titles electronically, C&T also brings these titles to life again through its POD program, which it launched in mid-2009. "We are offering these out-of-print books [as POD] so that retailers and teachers can teach classes from books that were no longer viable to keep in print," explains Balin. "Our authors are particularly excited to be able to order their out-of-print books."
"[The POD program] is generating a nice monthly revenue stream," adds Marson.
Experimenting With Mobile
While C&T Publishing is already experiencing a return on investment with some of its more recent initiatives, such as the Stash Books imprint and the POD program, it also continues to experiment with new endeavors. It released its first mobile application, "Quick & Easy Quilt Block Tool," for iOS devices in late 2009, which "did great," according to Marson. Priced at $3.99 in the iTunes App Store, it presents an existing card-deck product in a mobile application format.
However, the company's subsequent entry in the mobile market has not fared as well as the first and has not delivered a return on investment. A series of three iPhone apps released in August 2010, the product combines how-to instructions from Judith Baker Montano's bestselling "Embroidery & Crazy Quilt Stitch Tool" with instructional video from Montano's DVD, "Judith Baker Montano Teaches You Crazy Quilting." Each volume in the series is priced at $3.99 and can be purchased from within a free sampler app—a sales approach dictated by Apple that Marson terms "a major snag."
"… Apple made us bundle [the three different editions] into one free app with the ability to purchased [each edition] from inside the [free] app," she says. "Those do not sell as well, so we are rethinking how we want to deliver content so that we can maximize the profitability moving forward."
Spotting a New Revenue Stream
Moving forward, though, means taking 2011 off from producing apps, says Marson, to instead focus on yet another new product, PatternSpot.com, an online venture launching this spring that allows users to upload and sell their own quiltmaking and craft sewing design patterns.
"PatternSpot.com directly answers our authors' and shop owners' desire to self-publish," explains Marson. "We believe that supporting authors and shop owners in their endeavors is a win-win. They win because they get to self-publish with a known entity, all the patterns are downloadable so they don't have to pay for printing, and we do all the marketing, fulfilling and website management. We win by earning a fee on every pattern sale, supporting both our authors and shop owners, and by keeping our finger on the pulse of up-and-coming trends.
"Our goal was to have 500 patterns at launch. We currently have 400-plus designers signed up to participate, so our first milestone will be reached before we go live," Marson continues. "We have a very modest sales goal, as this is a new venture. However, based on the feedback we have received, I think we will blow our projections out of the water."
While many may think of only the large book publishers as leading the e-charge into uncharted publishing territories, C&T Publishing's robust portfolio of both print and digital products, and willingness to experiment with new digital endeavors, proves that size doesn't always matter. Marson credits C&T Publishing CEO Todd Hensley: "[He] is truly the driving force behind our e-commerce efforts … it is his passion," she says. BB