PSU Publishing in the News!

Check the front page of today's Sunday Oregonian (March 10) for a story about publishing in Oregon, featuring many of our own professors, students, and alumni!

The online version is reprinted below.


Oregon's publishers turn page on success

Books - Their numbers are estimated at around 600, and the Northwest produces some 2,500 new titles a year

Portland Oregonian
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Abby Haight

The Secret, which exhorts readers to achieve their desires with positive thought, has done just that for its Oregon publisher: It's the top seller on Amazon.com and The New York Times self-help list, and has been featured twice on Oprah, a sure kiss of success.

Readers have snapped up 3.75 million copies -- a far cry from the days when the owners of Beyond Words Publishing traveled the West Coast, selling their titles out of the back of their car.

Beyond Words, a 12-person company operating out of a Hillsboro strip mall, used a partnership with publishing behemoth Simon & Schuster Inc. to sign Australian Rhonda Byrne to write the book based on her video.

And its success has helped reveal the vibrant but often overlooked community of publishers in Oregon, ranging from one-person presses to renowned Dark Horse Comics.

"There's this creative energy about Portland," says Cynthia Black, who founded Beyond Words with her husband, Richard Cohn, 24 years ago. "I think it draws a certain kind of person that has an independent, creative spirit.

"And the literary culture that was created by Powell's Books has drawn people who are interested in books. Those things coming together creates almost this safe haven for these works to emerge."

Seventy-two Oregon publishing firms are listed in a 2005 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but that doesn't include the many one-person operations or companies that publish as a sideline. Dennis Stovall, publisher of Portland State University's Ooligan Press and head of publishing curriculum in the university's masters of writing program, estimated the number of self-identified publishers in Oregon as closer to 600.

Most independent publishers make $50,000 or less annually, according to the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association research group. But small to midsize publishers nationally generate $14.2 billion annually, a 2005 report by the group shows.

Independent publishers play a vital literary role, Stovall and others say, by taking chances on unknown writers the big publishers won't risk.

"What we tend to see is 'Big Publishing,' " that is New York-based, Stovall says. "But there are still close to 200,000 books being published each year, and most of those are coming from small publishers."

Northwest publishers produce about 2,500 new titles yearly. Few make their way to the supersize bookstores, where titles have limited shelf life and the big publishers hold sway with their safe bets.

But a handful do reach those coveted entryway spots at the bookstore.

Clown Girl strikes gold

Six years after Rhonda Hughes and Kate Sage founded Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, the Portland publisher has its first hit: Monica Drake's novel Clown Girl, which tells the story of Nita, aka "Sniffles the Clown," in the bizarro community of Baloneytown.

An initial printing of 6,000 copies sold out before the book's Feb. 1 release, and 5,000 more are being printed. A typical print run on a novel is 4,000 copies.

Hughes, who managed printing jobs for clients and printing companies, and Sage, a former literary agent in New York, met in graduate school and pooled their savings to start Hawthorne in 2001. Both read manuscripts and, despite their growing reputation, retain an open-submission policy.

The two originally planned to publish unknown writers, then sell the book rights to larger publishers. But that changed with Clown Girl. Hughes and Sage had courted Drake, even while the Portland writer was being turned down by big New York publishers.

Recently, two major publishers contacted Hawthorne about acquiring the rights to Clown Girl.

"We both had the same reaction, and it was, 'No way,' " Hughes says. "Kate and I have put our time and money into supporting an unknown writer.

"(Big publishers) say they want to take a chance on unknown writers, but they don't. One of the beauties of being a small, independent press is that we're not limited by it. Kate and I can publish what we want."

Students make their mark

The PSU publishing program helps nourish that approach. Five students in the program launched the Ink and Paper Group less than a year ago. Three are completing their master's degrees.

"That first big dip of the roller coaster was when we signed that operating agreement," says Allison Collins, vice president of marketing and sales. "We put all our hands in and said we'd do it. It wasn't so much fear as, 'Whew, we are all in this together.' "

Ink and Paper jumped to life with six imprints targeting different consumers: Bowler Hat Comics, Chain Reaction Press, Dame Rocket Press, Gray Sunshine Publishing, Sofa Inc., and Three Muses Press.

Its first major project, Voices From the Street, will be released May 24. The book by Jessica P. Morrell -- in conjunction with Sisters of the Road Cafe, a Portland group that advocates for the homeless -- includes interviews with Portland's homeless on issues from mental health to spirituality to interactions with the criminal justice system.

The book already is in demand by municipal policymakers and teachers, Collins says.

With seven titles in the works, Ink and Paper hopes to produce 20 titles per imprint in three years.

The company couldn't have started -- or set its ambitious goals -- without the education of PSU's publishing program, Collins says.

The 90 graduate students in the program run Ooligan Press, intern with local publishers and enter the industry with a hands-on understanding of the business.

"It makes you a little more rounded," Collins says. "And a little more brazen."

A best-seller can hurt

While every publisher dreams of that rare hit, too much success can be more challenging than too little.

In 2001, tiny Multnomah Publishers in Sisters brought out the phenomenally popular Prayer of Jabez -- then fought to keep up with printing demands before reaping the rewards of what eventually ran to more than 9 million copies. In 2006, Random House Inc. bought Multnomah Publishers and melded it into its other evangelical imprint, WaterBrook Press.

Without the heft of Simon & Schuster behind it, Beyond Words probably could not have signed Byrne -- and almost certainly would have buckled under the demand of The Secret.

In 2006, Beyond Words formed a partnership with Atria Books, the "mind-body-spirit" imprint of Simon & Schuster. Details of the partnership were not revealed, but Black says the agreement gave her the clout to pursue Byrne, whose 90-minute video of The Secret already was a huge success with only Internet and word-of-mouth publicity.

Earlier this month, Simon and Schuster placed the biggest reorder in its history, signing for 2 million more copies of The Secret. There already are 1.75 million copies in print.

Black and Cohn had survived for years as an independent publisher, but just barely.

The couple met on a blind date and formed their publishing company in 1983. From their first coffee-table-style photo book, they expanded their titles to 250, most in the fields of health and healing, spirituality and spiritual lifestyles.

But publishing is a dicey business. Booksellers return unsold books in any kind of condition, and the publisher eats the cost. Social and political events, such as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, can chill the bookselling industry.

The very nature of publishing -- the typical three-month wait for payment of books sold -- makes planning press runs and distribution absolutely critical. It's easy for the demands of a best-seller to overwhelm a small publisher.

"What you don't think about is that you have to keep printing the book to feed the demand, but you have to wait 90 days for the money coming in to you," Black says. "So there's this huge need for cash that you haven't needed before or been prepared for."

Black and Cohn couldn't get ahead and, by 2004, were contemplating filing for bankruptcy.

But then an investor stepped up. And Beyond Words had its first big seller, Hidden Messages of Water by Masaru Emoto, which sold 500,000 copies and reached The New York Times best-seller list.

"Up until that point, we learned about struggle," Cohn says. "We knew about struggle better than anyone. We were in so much debt, we couldn't get out of business."

The power of The Secret

Black and Cohn say the premise behind The Secret -- that positive thought brings positive results -- helped them land the book.

Black watched The Secret DVD last spring and immediately saw the presentation -- by 24 "teachers" who discuss how to make money, find the perfect relationship and other self-help goals -- as ideal for book form. With Simon & Schuster's clout behind her, she signed producer Byrne to write a book.

Byrne wrote The Secret in a month, and it was out to bookstores by late November. The first printing of 100,000 -- an aggressive run by most standards -- was immediately snatched up.

Book sales were fueled by airtime on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Larry King Live. But demand exploded when Oprah Winfrey devoted two shows last month to the video and book. The Secret displaced Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as Amazon's No. 1 seller.

All with almost no formal marketing campaign. "That's the whole thing with The Secret, Black says. "There's been no advertising. It's been pull rather than push. I don't know that we need it."

Critics point out that The Secret is appealing because it promises rewards for positive thought, while blaming misfortune and worse on negative thoughts. The premise is neither ancient nor secret, but can be found in Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking and other self-help literature, they say.

The Hillsboro publishers say they live the message of The Secret.

"It's a very simple one," Cohn says. "In an attitude of gratitude, you can bring to yourself anything you could possibly want."


Abby Haight: 503-221-8198; abbyhaight@news.oregonian.com

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