Down the Long Tail
Amid the arterial cacophony of northern Delaware, the city of New Castle is a quiet outpost of an earlier age. Cobblestone streets laid out during the 17th century offer fine dining, museums, river views and, every October for the last 15 years, Oak Knoll Fest, a celebration of the art of fine press bookmaking. Participants come from around the world to meet master printers, attend panel discussions and browse exhibits from artisans specializing in engraving, binding, papermaking and letterpress.
The modern interstate jockey, stumbling upon the town and festival halfway to somewhere else on nearby I-95, might find him or herself disoriented, charmed and—let’s admit it—a little patronizing. All this is very nice, they might say, but whose beneficent dollars are keeping the corporate wolves at bay?
As it turns out, New Castle is the real deal—a functioning town, no Williamsburg pastiche—and so is the festival and its can-do host Oak Knoll. Oak Knoll is both publisher and bookseller, operating Oak Knoll Press as its publishing imprint and Oak Knoll Books, the retail part of the business.
From a beginning in antiquarian book sales, Oak Knoll Press, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, has learned how to capture and hold a well-established, discriminating niche audience through a combination of old-fashioned connoisseurship and a sophisticated use of database-driven direct marketing. This formula allowed it to drop its distributors a decade ago to concentrate on loyal customers rather than returns.
Oak Knoll Press maintains a catalog of more than 1,000 titles, with 41 new books budgeted for publication this year. In an industry in which growth has slowed or come to a complete halt for many companies, Oak Knoll’s publishing program is looking at sales 20 percent ahead of where they were last year. Operating in a little corner of the book world left for dead (to the extent it was ever noticed at all), this small publisher is doing just fine, thank you very much.