Andrews McMeel's Strategy: Building 'Bench Depth'
With some of its better-known and wackier titles including "The Complete Far Side," "What the Duck: A W.T. Duck Collection," "Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong" and "Butter My Butt & Call Me a Biscuit: And Other Country Sayings, Say-So's, Hoots & Hollers," one might think that Andrews McMeel Publishing's (AMP) strategic advantage comes from its funny bone. But, while humor is one of the company's leading product categories, there is no doubt that it's serious about its approach to publishing.
Building the Bench
You could sum up the Kansas City-based company's modus operandi in just a few words: remarkable content, diversification and strategic partnerships. The company, which publishes some 300 titles annually, has built its business on several core book categories (humor, cookbooks, crafts and children's books), but also relies heavily on several other diverse product categories—from calendars to gift and puzzle books. It also is working to continually expand its reach and stay ahead of shifts in an evolving marketplace.
With all the changes in the book market, Andrews McMeel CEO Hugh Andrews says, "We are implementing strategies that not only respond to, but hopefully anticipate change." It continues to diversify and expand its customer base, he says, "as we focus on sales to special markets, and we have established a foothold internationally through Andrews McMeel UK and Andrews McMeel Australia/New Zealand."
Like many others, AMP is increasingly relying on digital initiatives, he notes, "with a focus on online marketing through Web sites and blogs, and by utilizing social media networks (such as Facebook and Twitter). We employ a targeted marketing approach for each of our titles, using a variety of methods of engagement."
Video has become a staple of its marketing as well. "We have found videos to be a valuable and useful asset in spreading news about our books," says Kirsty Melville, publisher and president of AMP's book group. "We market videos to the consumer and the retailer, in both traditional and online media outlets, including social media."
For example, a video promoting the title "Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats" is narrated by Bradley Trevor Greive, the book's author, with personal comments about why he wrote the book, video clips of Greive with his Great Danes, and dozens of other dog images by photographer Rachael Hale from the book.
A video promoting "Baking Kids Love" shows author Cindy Mushet with her daughter, Bella, talking about how they chose recipes for the book, along with videos of them baking together and eating the finished products.
Not the least of the digital initiatives in which AMP is exploring opportunities is e-books, which is "an area of great interest," says Andrews.
Melville adds, "This is definitely an area of focus and growth for us, although the nature of our books doesn't lend itself to e-readers currently on the market. As that business matures, I think there will be more opportunity for interactive, illustrated books."
But for her, the future may be more of a hybrid between print and digital. "I am interested in the intersection between the digital, ephemeral world and the tactile, three-dimensional experience books provide. Going forward, I believe it is this relationship between these two worlds that will influence our publishing decisions in terms of acquisitions, marketing and sales."
Acknowledging that the industry is "immersed in a time of considerable change and transition in almost every area—sales, marketing, production, digital initiatives, as well as content and how it is delivered," Andrews adds, "I am continually evaluating and, if necessary, changing our business model and the way we do things. With the unprecedented changes and economic challenges in the retail environment, I am keenly attentive to our processes and execution, and securing our interest in best positioning AMP for the future."
Not So 'Ancillary'
An "all your eggs in one basket" approach can be a risky business proposition any time, but especially, as many have found, when faced with an economic recession that is impacting virtually every business segment to varying degrees. AMP has built its product line in such a way that it has several "core" divisions that help offset one another through market shifts.
Calendars are one of the largest segments, comprising 50 percent of AMP's overall business. While 15 percent of the calendars it publishes are affiliated with the company's book titles (such as the "Dilbert Desk Calendar," "Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light" and its forthcoming "Cake Wrecks" calendar, based on its New York Times best-selling "Cake Wrecks" title), the vast majority are not (including: "Wild Words From Wild Women," "The Metropolitan Opera," "Harry Potter" and "The Office," among others.
"Our calendar offerings are very ?diverse in subject and format, and we have a number of license-driven calendars unrelated to our books, which gives us considerable bench depth," says Andrews. (While the company does not place a priority on publishing new titles that lend themselves well to ancillary product sales, "With a terrific product such as The New York Times best-selling 'Cake Wrecks,' we definitely consider opportunities," Andrews explains.)
This bench depth seems to apply to the company's line of gift books as well—its catalog ranges from Robert Pattinson and Taylor Swift gift books, and those on the president and the first lady, to "The Fun Book for Christmas."
One of its best-selling gift book product lines—its "Blue Day" series, by Bradley Trevor Greive—has sold more than 20 million copies internationally.
The company's "Posh Puzzle" series drives additional revenue—with titles such as "Pocket Posh Sudoku," "Posh Logic" and "Posh Word Search"—complemented by puzzle books, such as the "Food & Wine Lover's Puzzle and Quiz Book" and "USA Today Everyday Logic" book of 200 puzzles.
Cooking Up New Opportunities: Grab a Partner
Despite Andrews McMeel's diverse product offering, it also manages to focus on building bench depth in its core areas, which include cookbooks and children's books.
AMP's line of cookbooks, one of its strongest market segments, has been developed extensively under Melville, who joined the company in 2005 after leaving Ten Speed Press. Among its cooking titles are John Besh's "My New Orleans" (which has "sold out of its 50,000-copy first printing," says Melville), Tessa Kiros' "Falling Cloudberries" and storytelling cookbooks such as "My Nepenthe."
In addition to unique, quality content, strategic partnerships have been key to the line's success. One profitable partnership has been with high-end cooking-supplies retailer Sur La Table. "'Things Cooks Love,' published in the spring 2008, was the first cookbook in our publishing program with Sur La Table, and was an IACP [International Association of Culinary Professionals] Award finalist. Our second Sur La Table title, 'The Art and Soul of Baking,' was a James Beard nominee and IACP winner this year," says Melville.
In all, the company has published five Sur La Table titles. And, this spring, the company will release a sixth, "Eating Local: A Cookbook Inspired by America's Farmers," which Melville explains "highlights local CSAs [community-supported agriculture] and celebrates the farm-to-table initiative that the nation has enthusiastically embraced."
Later this year, Andrews McMeel is launching two additional partnership-based titles: "Bon Appetit Desserts," featuring hundreds of recipes from Bon Appetit magazine's archives along with new recipes, and a new cookbook in partnership with Foodista, an online cooking encyclopedia.
Such partnerships not only build revenue from cookbook sales, but, says Melville, the success of the cookbook program also has "enabled us to attract and develop relationships with some of the nation's top food bloggers—exceptional writers of passion and great influence," which, in turn, helps to develop future profitable relationships.
"Successful, enduring relationships have been at the core of AMP's success," says Andrews.
The vitality of Andrews McMeel's cookbook program also may be partially due to the fact that it reflects another of the company's strengths: its gift books. "AMP has always excelled at gift publishing. I saw cookbooks as a different type of gift book that complemented our traditional strengths," Melville says.
And, like most gift books, they reach a wide swathe of the consumer marketplace. "Cookbooks can be sold in multiple markets to difference niches and communities," she notes.
Making a Move for Children's Books
Another core segment for Andrews McMeel is children's books. The company brought on Linda Jones, a former senior vice president of merchandising for Borders, in November 2009 as senior vice president to head up its children's book publishing division, Accord—which AMP acquired four years ago, another example of its diversification efforts—and the calendar and greeting card divisions.
Jones has plans to aggressively grow the company's children's book publishing arm, she says. "Our age-range sweet spot is 2 to 8 years old."
Among its most well-known titles are the best-selling "Ten Little Dinosaurs" and "Bee & Me"—the first in a new line of "green" books—which became a New York Times best-seller in early 2009.
"Bee & Me" was also the first title to feature Accord's new AniMotion "panels," a patent-pending "paper technology" that essentially takes traditional animation and renders it in print form in "animated windows" within the illustrations, making certain images appear to move within the page. (View a video about the book with an example of AniMotion at AndrewsMcmeel.com/press_releases/bee.html.)
On deck for 2010 are more AniMotion books, a magnetic puzzle book and a new "magnifying mystery" book (packaged with a working magnifier), says Jones.
Like the company's cookbook and gift book segments, Accord will "expand on existing concepts," says Jones, building bench depth in its strength areas in the market.
A Multidirectional View
While AMP has many forthcoming titles to look forward to this year, some of the foundation of its success lies in the past—specifically in its backlist.
"AMP's backlist is of significant importance—many of our backlist titles continue to sell well even decades after publication. This is true of nearly all of our core categories," says Andrews. "Cookbooks are tremendously evergreen backlist sellers; comics and cartoons as well. ("Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side" continue in popularity although their creators retired years ago.) Likewise, and fortunately for us, our titles in home and craft, keepsake, puzzles and games, general trade, and children's all enjoy long shelf lives."
With the strength of its backlist and new projects on the horizon, as well as a new sales distribution arrangement with Simon & Schuster, Andrews says he is "confident that we will continue to be a thriving and prosperous company."