Print books are back. I think.
“People thought physical books were goners,” said Jed Lyons, chief executive of Lanham, Maryland-based Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
He should know. Lyons, 66, ships about 41,000 books a day across the U.S. and to Europe. He has been in the publishing business since the 1970s.
Digital books peaked three years ago, at about 20 percent of sales, compared with about 80 percent for print and audible, he said. Digital’s share has since declined to about 15 percent of sales.
“The industry is trying to figure it out,” Lyons said. His best guess is that the print revival has to do with touch. “People like the smell, the texture, durability. You can hold it in your hand and keep them and surround yourself with books.”
We have about a hundred books that look nice on our shelves at home. I prefer reading books on my iPad because I can download any one of thousands of books from the cloud without lugging the print version.
I can change the size of the type, the background tint of the page, and even invoke night vision so I can read in the dark.
My wife, Polly, flirted with Amazon’s Kindle for a couple of years but has since migrated back to print.
Lyons’ profitable business has none of the sexiness of the big publishing houses that bring you the latest blockbuster from John Grisham or Danielle Steel.
Rowman & Littlefield is where you go when you want the standard textbook on how to speak Swahili, a “steady Eddy” bestseller in the Rowman & Littlefield trove.
You want the “Statistical Abstract of the United States” (affectionately known as Stat Abs)? You can get all 1,032 pages from Lyons for $199. “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park” is hotter than avocado toast.
“We are in the niche business,” Lyons said.
There is more than just boring textbooks in Rowman & Littlefield’s 100,000-long backlist: “The Politics of Punk,” “Japanese Horror Films” and “The World of James Bond” are among its thousands of titles.
The company has four revenue streams. Selling and shipping for 125 other publishers breaks even but helps cover fixed costs. Then there’s trade (history, biography, hiking and fishing); the lucrative textbooks; and, finally, the academic and scholarly books popular with libraries.
The company sells so many hiking books that it employs two full-time mapmakers in house.
“Our most important customer is the college student,” he said. “They buy the books.”
Textbooks sell year after year after year after year. “The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics,” a must-have textbook for the international relations crowd, is in its eighth edition.
Rowman & Littlefield grosses $120 million a year by shipping about 10 million books out the door. The company employs 428 at its various locations, which include administrative offices in Lanham, Maryland, and a 300,000-square-foot warehouse in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, about 30 minutes west of Gettysburg, which houses a publish-on-demand outfit that can print and ship a book in 24 hours. The company also owns a 150,000-square-foot warehouse in Hagerstown, Maryland.
Rowman & Littlefield has offices in New York, Boston, Connecticut, Boulder, Colorado, and London. Lyons is the majority owner of the business; he pays himself a salary and bonus. The family of a now-deceased partner owns the rest.
Each print book shipped brings in an average of about $12. Authors get $1.20 of that, and another $3.60 or so covers the cost of actually printing the book.
“We paid $5 million in royalties to authors last year,” Lyons said. “That’s a load of money. That’s keeping a lot of authors paying their bills.”
The remaining $7.20 covers labor costs, including health care and a generous 6 percent 401(k) match, rent, travel, sales and marketing, and it pays down a few million a year in debt from the 40 publishing acquisitions Lyons made over the years. The acquisitions helped expand the company’s backlist with titles such as “The Millionaire Next Door,” which Lyons bought after its publisher went bankrupt.
The textbook market needs constant replenishing. That’s the costly part of the business. Lyons employs 60 full-time editors who find and buy the rights to about 2,000 new books a year. Then he has a team of sales and marketing types who call on Barnes & Noble and other big-name retailers.
Lyons loves the digital business, even though it appears to be in decline. But those sales are highly profitable, with margins of 90 percent. “The only cost of goods is the author,” Lyons said. “We love that.”
Lyons always wanted to be in publishing but originally wanted to be on the other end. “I wanted to be a writer,” he said.
Lyons was job-hunting in publishing in New York when he befriended an accountant named Stanley Plotnick he met on an elevator. Plotnick was an entrepreneur and numbers whiz who was working on building a company specializing in small-run, academic books. Plotnick asked Lyons to run it, and they opened shop.
“Everything was about the numbers,” Lyons said of Plotnick, who died in 2015. “He wrote everything on a sheet of paper with pencil.”
They built the business together, but Lyons did the shoe leather part.
Lyons said he made a few flubs along the way, one of which may end as his epitaph. The young publisher was still in his 20s when one of his editors said his neighbor, “an insurance guy,” had written a novel. Lyons sent it to a friend of a friend who had written a war novel. “Forget about it,” the friend said. “The guy can’t tell a story. No character development. No plot. Hopeless.”
Lyons turned it down. Two years later, “The Hunt for Red October” had become a bestseller, spurred on by then President Ronald Reagan. The author, Tom Clancy, invented the new genre of techno-thriller. He became a huge force in publishing and saw several of his books turned into movies.
“I always joke that my epitaph will read, ‘He turned down ‘The Hunt for Red October,’ “ he said.