As readers of this blog know, I’ve been on the “vertical” trail for a long time and I try to stay abreast of book publishers’ efforts to realize the advantages of subject specialization and community building. I wrote a whole post about the Sourcebooks initiative, Poetry Speaks, when it launched last Fall. I have often referred to the vertical efforts of Hay House and Harvard Common Press. And I’m proud to have had a small role in Sterling’s creation of Lark Crafts and their forthcoming Pixiq site for photography.
But of all the efforts I’ve seen so far, the book publisher who seems to have taken the vertical vision we espouse the furthest — one that elevates community-building above content-selling as the first priority — is Cool Springs Press in Nashville, Tennessee. We spent some time earlier this week talking to Roger Waynick, their founder and CEO, to learn more about what they do, looking for lessons that other publishers can apply.
The thing that was most striking about our conversation with Roger was the frequency with which he referred to “our industry”, by which he did not mean the book business! He meant the lawn and garden business, which is the vertical that Cool Springs Press serves. This is a nuanced but massive differentiator. If a company thinks of itself as a “book publisher”, it is already off on the wrong track. If it thinks of itself as a content- and information-provider for an industry or a community, its self-image will lead to it doing the right thing much more often. And the very first right thing a book publisher with community aspirations has to do is to create a site that has very little reference to books, which they have.
Waynick knew nothing at all about publishing when he started Cool Springs Press in 1994. He was looking for a book about gardening and he started from the highly logical presumption that what he needed was local information, since gardening has to match the geography. A visit to a large and well-stocked local bookstore yielded nothing except confirmation that what he wanted didn’t exist.
So he created it and he created a formula. He found a local gardening advisor with a media presence and created a “Tennessee Gardening” book. Waynick had intuitively done the right thing. Finding content knowledge and promotional capability combined meant that he had recruited what the smartest publisher with experience would have called the best possible author. Before long, he was extending his franchise, creating gardening books by state, one after another. (At this point, Cool Springs has state-specific gardening books for 48 states.)
In 2003, large Nashville publisher Thomas Nelson embarked on a strategy to expand out of their religious publishing niche. (They didn’t ask me…) They acquired a few smaller publishers with non-controversial publishing programs and Waynick took the opportunity to sell his business. For the next few years, until Nelson management changed and the strategy changed to re-focus on their core business, he consulted to them and stayed somewhat in touch with the business he’d created.
But when the strategy at Nelson changed, Waynick was ready to buy his company back and turn it into a real content vertical. In 2007, he regained control of Cool Springs Press, set up trade distribution through Ingram Publisher Services, and started to invest seriously in the capabilities he needed to be more than just a book publisher.
Waynick’s key insight was that the lawn and garden customer was looking for solutions. And solutions, to be practical, had to be local. So he constructed a taxonomy around plants (roses, gardenias) and around actions (planting, weeding) to tag the content in his state-specific books. Waynick estimates that, since reacquiring Cool Springs in 2007, he’s spent a dollar on upgrading, tagging, and curating old content for every four dollars he has spent creating new books. And he invested that money upgrading his content repository with faith, but no clear plan about how he’d get it back.
In a formulation that echoes what we’ve heard earlier from Harvard Common Press talking about cookbooks and recipes, Waynick said he needed to see his content as a database of information, not as a collection of books. And just like Harvard Common, he looks at his database for “what’s missing” to direct him about what new content he needs to acquire.
He continued to build on his special retailing network. (Ingram handles Cool Springs’s trade sales, but Waynick maintains the relationships with the lawn and garden trade directly.) He recalls that, when he started, it seemed wildly counterintuitive to a national chain to put a Tennessee book in only the Tennessee stores, and so forth. But his sales were so robust that the skepticism quickly melted away. He built closer relationships with those special retailers by custom publishing: putting together books especially for a particular retailer. His path was smoothed in all these things by his author relationships; many of them were, like his first author, local gardening experts with radio shows popular with the core audience.
This year, for the first time, substantial revenue has flowed to Cool Spring from content licensing. About 10% of Cool Springs’s revenue will come from licensing content to web sites and creating apps for other players in the lawn and garden space. About 25% will come from the book trade, 35% from home center book sales, 15% from individual lawn and garden centers, and the balance from other special outlets like hardware stores.
The way Waynick sees it, the licensing side of the business has just begun to work. Next year will be far larger than this. He expects licensing sales to surpass book sales for his company in 2012.
Cool Springs has an online bookstore at gardenbookstore.net. In his retailing capacity, he sells the books of all his competitors. The day we spoke, Waynick pointed out that only two of the 15 books on his retailing front page were his publications; the rest came from other publishers. Perhaps because he’s a “customer”, he says that more and more of his competitors seems receptive to collaboration, allowing him access to their material for his efforts to provide content to retailers and wholesalers in the lawn and garden industry.
Waynick is not terribly concerned about competitors. Having been the first to act on the insight that gardening is local and that content has to be developed with a highly local point of view, and then having invested to put his content into shape for re-use, he really sees no other player that can deliver the variety of relevant content that he can. And now he’s moving on to a new opportunity that he is uniquely positioned to exploit.
Reflecting the initiative by First Lady Michelle Obama, school gardens are springing up all over the country. Waynick says that over 3000 new ones were created last year. Working with school administrators, Waynick is developing curriculum for the schools from his content. This also puts him in a position to help his retailers and his authors find additional opportunities. And how convenient is it for him that education in this country is organized the same way his book program is: state-by-state!
Waynick also recognizes the value of his author base. He does his best to keep his authors working, and not just on books. They blog for him and create content for his licensing clients as well.
One point that Waynick made in our conversation is an important one for all publishers to take on board: the presentation of content needs to be sensitive to the audience. Too often, he says (and he’s right), publishers end up with catalog copy meant to sell a book to a store buyer being presented on a web site to an end user customer. The copy is wrong for the purpose. He credits his distributor, Ingram, with having a system that helps him deliver the right metadata to the right places.
The future for Cool Springs Press looks very bright. Waynick is already providing content for a number of national retailers, including one of the brand leaders, which is what has jump-started his licensing revenues. These players see good content as a critical competitive requirement. They represent a growth market for web content, apps, and custom books and the growth opportunities they will offer will far exceed the rate of shrinkage in the traditional book market.
What we think will be interesting to watch going forward is how much Cool Springs moves into the business of selling things other than content to the audiences they keep growing and nurturing. They’re certainly positioned to do that.
But the important thing is that they can readily withstand shrinkage in the book trade or even in the printed book business. They’re bound to become an increasingly important marketing mechanism for all their competitors, who will become increasingly dependent on them for exposure to the consumer audience. And they’re in that position because they’re vertical and because they were willing to invest in their long run value to their community.