Monday, June 11, 2007

From Bama to Ohio: Birmingham's Menasha Ridge, at 25

by Ed Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 6/11/2007

According to the Economist magazine, the second bestselling travel book worldwide in 2006 didn't originate with Random House, HarperCollins or one of the other juggernauts, but with tiny Menasha Ridge Press of Birmingham, Ala. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, which Menasha packages for publication by Wiley, has sold more than four million copies and has made big success out of the modest-sized publisher now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Bob Sehlinger, who co-wrote The Unofficial Guide with Len Testa, formed Menasha Ridge Press in 1982 with the late E.D. Wallace (father of Algonquin Big Fish novelist Daniel Wallace), who'd purchased the assets of Thomas Press in Ann Arbor, Mich., where Sehlinger had been employed.

Sehlinger is still publisher and says any good fortune the press has had is the result of perseverance. “In the past 25 years, we've survived a mudslide, a fire and free-falling elevators,” said Sehlinger. “It's amazing we're still around.”

In addition to its bestselling Unofficial Guides series, which covers Las Vegas as well as Disney World, Menasha Ridge is known for its series of regional outdoor recreation guidebooks, including 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles and The Best in Tent Camping. Though the guidebook market can seem saturated, Sehlinger says that his introduction of “At-A-Glance” summaries in the guidebooks in the 1980s, a time when such summaries were not yet widespread, helped the books stand out and win users.

Stand-alone titles have also contributed to the company's coffers. Menasha's bestselling title under its own imprint is William Nealy's quirky, illustrated guide to kayaking, Kayak: The New Frontier, which has sold 80,000 copies since it was first published in 1986. A revised second edition has just been released.

“These kinds of niche titles have a smaller aggregate market,” Sehlinger said. “But the bottom line is that they are very viable. A New York publisher needs a minimum sale of 5,000–7,500 units for a title in the first year. In Birmingham, we're just fine selling 3,000 units.”

In January, Menasha Ridge Press merged with Clerisy Press of Cincinnati, a company founded by industry veteran Richard Hunt in May 2006 from the assets of Emmis Press, shuttered by its corporate namesake earlier that year.

Sehlinger met Hunt in the late 1990s on a USIA trip to educate publishers in eastern Europe. “We grew to respect one another,” said Hunt. Sehlinger echoed the sentiment.

The two publishers now operate under a single parent company, Keen Communications. The company's mission statement underscores its goal to help preserve the environment. It reads, in part, “We print our books on recycled paper. The only petroleum we burn is the midnight oil. Our every action aims to enlarge, not reduce; create, not consume; preserve, not pollute.... Join us in treading lightly and honoring the wonders of nature.” As an embodiment of its philosophy, the company is planting 25 pine trees at a campsite to mark its anniversary.

The publishers will continue to publish under their individual imprints—the names of which continue to evoke curiosity. “Menasha Ridge is fictional,” Sehlinger admitted. “It's not on a map.”

The name Clerisy was discovered by Hunt in a Robertson Davies passage: “The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books. As late as a century ago the clerisy had the power to decide the success or failure of a book, and it could do so now...”

While the sentiment was perfect, Hunt confesses it was one of a dozen possibilities and won out when it was discovered the Web domain name was still available.

In February, Hunt had his first bestseller under the Clerisy imprint: Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed a Nation by Rusty McClure, with David Stern and Michael A. Banks, which has some 45,000 copies in print. “A respectable start,” said Hunt said.”

Combined, the two presses employ 12 in Birmingham and four in Cincinnati, with Menasha concentrating on production and back-office operations and Clerisy handling marketing and sales.

The primary challenge in the future is to make the combined company function as a whole, with the books from each press complementing each other. Hunt reported that he's already commissioned an Ohio edition of the Best in Tent Camping series and said he'll help Menasha Ridge's signature series establish a greater coverage of the Midwest.

The other challenge—albeit one much more tangible—is how to bridge the geographic and psychological distance between Birmingham and Cincinnati.

Said Hunt, “We rely on conference calls, group e-mails—and Southwest's $44 one-way flights between Ohio and Alabama sure help.”

Mississippi Bookselling

By Edward Nawotka, Publishers Weekly, 6/11/2007

Though Mississippi ranks 50th in virtually every economic index you look at,” said Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., “I wouldn't want to be a bookseller anywhere else.”

The state, which has a population just shy of three million, has the lowest annual average household income—just $32,466 per year—in the United States.

As a consequence, the large national bookstore chains have not saturated the state: Barnes & Noble has just two stores, Borders has five and Books-A-Million has 11. Wal-Mart is the largest bookseller, with 72 locations.

When Howorth first opened his store in 1979, he calculated that there needed to be at least 12 families in town that wanted to buy books for the store to remain open. Howorth proved a popular resident—he's now in the middle of his second term as mayor—and his store thrived. Square Books has since added two more locations, Square Books Jr. (a children's store) and Off Square Books (an annex that sells remainders and is used for events).

Oxford has the national reputation—due in part to the presence of Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, and the town's fostering of a variety of famous writers, among them John Grisham and Barry Hannah—but the true beating heart of Mississippi literary culture is Greenville, a city of 41,000 people in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, according to Hugh McCormick, owner of McCormick Book Inn, founded in 1965 and the oldest independent store in the state.

“Greenville has more writers per capita than anywhere else in the state,” said McCormick, citing Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Julia Reed and Brooks Haxton as some of the dozens of writers with Greenville connections.

Still, McCormick admitted, “Demographics alone would not sustain a bookstore in Greenville,” adding, “We're only still here because we're obstinate.” McCormick's secret is to create local bestsellers. His most recent success has been with Greenville writer Gayden Metcalfe and co-writer Charlotte Hays's Official Southern Ladies Guides, Being Dead Is No Excuse and Somebody Is Going to Die if Lilly Beth Doesn't Catch That Bouquet , which together have sold more than 3,500 copies at the store.

Down in the capitol of Jackson, Lemuria Books owner John Evans also cited the need to “self-generate” buyers as a key to success. “If it's an Oprah book, I don't even buy it,” said Evans. “Let Books-a-Million and Wal-Mart sell that at a 50% discount. Our focus is on the reader that prioritizes their reading and wants help picking out their books.”

Evans, who grew up within walking distance of his store, opened Lemuria in 1975 and it, along with Square Books, has become one of the premier destinations for author readings in the country. That's why Lemuria and Square Books are both able to sell a deep selection of signed first editions.

Together, Evans and Howorth have influenced a generation of booksellers—most notably, Tim Huggins, who modeled his (recently sold) store, Newtonville Books on Lemuria, and Jamie Kornegay, a former events manager at Square Books, who opened TurnRow Book Company in August 2006 in Greenwood.

Greenwood (pop. 18,000) is the home of Viking Range Corporation. TurnRow was opened as part of a citywide revitalization program funded by Viking owner Fred Carl, in part to attract students to the Viking Cooking School.

“We didn't come because the market was begging for it; in a way, we're begging for the market,” said Kornegay. He added, “At least we have it virtually to ourselves: there's not a chain bookstore within an hour and a half drive.”