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.”