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.
“Getting Serious” About Publishing
Oak Knoll Press emerged out of Oak Knoll Books in a fairly organic fashion, according to company Founder and President Bob Fleck. Beginning in the antiquarian trade, Fleck, a chemical engineer by training and book lover by avocation, got into publishing almost by accident. In the course of striking a distribution deal with British-based New Holland Publishers, he was offered the opportunity to co-publish the reprint of a classic work of 19th-century bibliography.
“If you scratch the backs of a lot of rare booksellers, we’re the people who know what out-of-print books are really in demand,” Fleck says. “It makes such sense [that] people in a special field like mine will reprint books.”
In the ’90s, Fleck made a corporate decision to, as he puts it, “get serious” about publishing on a larger scale. “It really made sense to me to get more involved … because I had, over the years, developed this fabulous mailing list of people interested in the subject of books about books,” he says.
He could sell both to this existing customer base, he realized, and find new customers by marketing his backlist of reprints to those interested in new releases. By hiring experienced publishing directors, Fleck was able to navigate the challenge of finding quality manuscripts.
At this same time, Fleck notes, many university presses were losing their subsidies, and scaling back or closing their publishing operations, creating a need for Oak Knoll to take over some of this market. In addition, through distribution deals with a number of institutional publishers in areas such as bibliography, Oak Knoll managed to rapidly expand its catalog.
“There are a lot of really good publishers out there, organizations [that], with a little help, know how to produce a book, but don’t know how to sell them,” Fleck says. “So we approached people … [and] said to them, ‘we will distribute your book.’”
Along with producing a number of books on its own, the company continues to co-publish, primarily through agreements with British libraries. “They will produce nearly half [of the titles],” he says, “so that means we can produce twice as many books with half the people involved.”
While nearly everything it releases is in print format, Oak Knoll took an early interest in digital rights management, realizing that some of its bibliographical reference material could find an audience online. Recently, it allowed its all-time best-selling title, John Carter and Nicolas Barker’s “ABC for Book Collectors,” to be offered as a downloadable PDF. For cost reasons, a recently released definitive bibliography of John Updike was bundled with a CD of secondary reference information and images of dust jackets.
“You can’t really produce a 900-page book in full color and only sell 1,000 copies of it [and expect to turn a profit],” Fleck says. “It just doesn’t work.”
As Oak Knoll has evolved, one area in which it has differentiated itself has been its approach to marketing. “We made a corporate decision a number of years ago that we were going to learn how to do direct marketing, and that means every possible new innovation that comes to electronic marketing, we’re going to try to be part of that,” Fleck says. “[This is] one thing we really try to do much better than anyone else.”
Seeing the potential of e-marketing, Oak Knoll invested in its own proprietary software, allowing it to gather data on customers and put it to the best use. The company’s most important marketing platform is a monthly e-mail newsletter that goes out to 11,800 subscribers worldwide.
“We usually try to have some sort of article about what’s going on in the book world, or what’s new at Oak Knoll, or concerning new resources we have or we’ve found that would be helpful [to readers],” says Laura Williams, Oak Knoll’s marketing communications specialist. In its most recent newsletter, the company announced an exclusive sponsorship agreement with viaLibri, the only meta search engine on the Web aimed at people looking for bibliographic information about rare books.
The publisher recently held a “bibliotrivia” contest for newsletter subscribers. “We take one of our new books and ask a trivia question, and randomly select one of the people who answered correctly to get a free copy of the book,” Williams says.
Enabled by software that profiles users based on their buying history, Oak Knoll also sends targeted e-mails alerting readers to books they would likely be interested in. Direct-mail campaigns are handled the same way, through the creation of pamphlet-sized “mini-catalogs” focused on a new release, but also featuring backlist titles of similar interest.
“That is one of our strong points, that we have very good data on what people have bought and what topics they are interested in, so we can save a lot of money by just mailing to the people who we know are interested,” Williams says.
The press used to have a distribution deal (with Lyons Press) that put its more popular titles, such as S. H. Steinberg’s “Five Hundred Years of Printing,” into stores. “We found that we gained in the print run, but [because of] the discounts given away [and] the damaged books coming back, we made a decision that we no longer wanted to deal with that,” Fleck says.
“We sell to all of the jobbers,” he adds, with Baker and Taylor handling most special orders, but the Internet is what has really made the company’s successful business model possible.
“We are on Amazon Marketplace, so a lot of people find our books that way,” he says. “We have a worldwide market. I’m getting orders from every country in the world for these esoteric titles.”
While Fleck jokes that he “hasn’t retired to the Riviera yet,” Oak Knoll’s audience, while small, has proven loyal and stable over time, and the company has managed to realize steady growth by cultivating fruitful relationships with consumers, libraries, institutions and other publishers around the world. “This year is proving to be one of the most ambitious we’ve had,” he says.