23 March 2008

Souvenirs and southern cooking

I couldn't make it to the Tools of Change conference, but last week I had the pleasure of hearing one of the speakers, Phil Zuckerman, give a guest lecture to a graduate class in publishing at Emerson College. Phil is the founder and president of Applewood Books. Applewood has been around since the 70s, and at first glance, they seem positively Luddite. Their web site says they're "fully Y1K compliant" and offer "an old-fashioned personal experience . . . serving up wisdom and entertainment from America's Living Past." You imagine a wood stove, a manual typewriter, a rotary phone. But Phil's a savvy businessman, and owes his much of his success to ignoring the traditional rules of the publishing game.
  • Applewood revives titles that are long out of copyright (everything from Thomas Jefferson to Tom Swift), avoiding royalties and typesetting costs.
  • They aggressively target markets that mainstream publishers dismiss as marginal, such as gift shops, museums, and sales to schools and corporations. The retail book trade is a relatively small segment of Applewood's business, so they enjoy a very low rate of returns.
  • A large share of their sales comes from their backlist, so they manage their portfolio like the best university presses. Perennial best-sellers are printed by traditional offset for lowest unit cost. Slower-selling titles are printed digitally so little capital is tied up in inventory.
Another speaker at the 2008 TOC, marketing visionary Seth Godin, expressed the opinion that people don't want books for information or entertainment any more, because they can get those things faster and cheaper on a computer or iPhone. People still want books, Godin says, but only as souvenirs to remind them of the experience. That may be a devil-take-the-hindmost view of publishing's future, but it's surprisingly compatible with Phil's publishing mission. After all, what is "wisdom and entertainment from America's Living Past" but another name for souvenirs?
The traditional content supply chain is a one-way sequence from author to publisher to bookstore to reader. Phil broke that chain long ago when he killed his authors. (Okay, he didn't kill them, they were already dead.) Then he made the traditional bookseller an option rather than a necessity. And on a new web site, he's turned himself into a retailer for other publishers' books (excuse me, souvenirs).
One of Applewood's evergreen titles is What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking, an 1881 collection of recipes from the American south, and it has become the flagship of a list of over 100 titles ranging from Camp Cookery to Manufacture of Liquors, Wines & Cordials. As an offshoot of this list, Phil launched Foodsville.com, where you can buy books about food and cooking from Applewood and other publishers, but where you can also read Applewood's cookbooks for free, post your own comments or recipes, and share them with other Foodsville users. It's not revolutionary, but it completes the deconstruction of the old-school publishing model: The publisher is a bookseller, the reader is an author.

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