In 1968, Peter Workman published Yoga 28-Day Exercise Plan and the publishing company he founded has been stretching ever since. This year, he received PMA’s Special Achievement Award for Excellence in Independent Publishing. Workman Publishing is a role model for smaller presses: fiercely independent, relentlessly creative, and phenomenally successful. How successful? One in three Workman titles sells more than 100,000 copies; 28 have sold more than one million copies each. This is a company whose books succeed through passion, packaging, and persistence. Recently I interviewed the publicity-shy Peter Workman about his life in publishing. He is not an easy interview. He ducks questions not only about his personal life but even about his company’s business model. "It’s all about the books," he said, and that’s where the conversation stayed anchored.
Clues from the Catalog
Throughout the interview, Workman flipped through his company’s catalog as though it were a family photo album–stopping, telling stories, remembering, laughing. You can learn an awful lot about publishing just by taking a tour of the Workman Publishing catalog yourself. For example, it lists more gift sales reps than bookstore reps. And you’ll see books that were turned into brands, enlivening display boxes, calendars, notecards, and journals. It’s no surprise that Peter Workman began his publishing career in the sales department–at Dell–or that Workman Publishing began as a book packager–for Bantam–among other houses. Workman’s innovations in cover design, display design, and "books-plus" packaging are tremendous contributions to our industry. We started our conversation with a discussion about design decisions.
Q: Your front covers have more text than most publishers’ back covers. How did that start?
Workman: We publish primarily nonfiction, so we use the covers to describe the contents. With nonfiction, that’s easier to do with language than an image. I guess that’s become a house style.
Q: What was the first nonstandard format book you published? (Workman employees call these "books-plus," as in book-plus-toy.)
Workman: Around 1973 or ’74, we published Marble Book with a bag of 32 marbles. The bags were made of small scraps of leather we got here in New York. I call them "Robin Hood bags," but I think there’s another name for them. The mailroom staff used to put them together. Then we published Jump Rope Book with a jump rope. Originally they weren’t packaged together; they were linked in a counter display, with the books on one side and the marbles or jump ropes on the other side.
Q: Weren’t booksellers reluctant to accept these unconventional packages that don’t readily fit on a bookshelf? How did you overcome that?
Workman: I really don’t recall any resistance–or that it was a major problem. The books were fresh, and they added variety to bookstores. It’s impossible to lean on booksellers, anyway. They are attracted to what sells. If a book is selling, they’re happy to stock it, whatever format it’s in.
Q: Your Web site says that Workman provides "value through conscientious, aggressive pricing." How do you balance that against the increased production costs of nonstandard books such as the Mini Wheels book, which has wheels on it?
Workman: Really? Our Web site says that? Well, we do try to offer books at the lowest price possible. Most of our books are priced under market. And the Mini Wheels and Mini House books are not expensive to produce.
Q: Your site also mentions trends–that "Workman is a publisher that’s always around big ideas"–and cites as an example The Preppy Handbook. Isn’t that risky? What happens when "fad" becomes "fade" and sold books suddenly return to inventory?
Workman: We really don’t try to follow trends–they’re hard to catch hold of. And we certainly don’t strive to create a trend–I don’t think you can do that. We’re really driven by the manuscripts we receive, and we try to do the best we can in making the book. We look for ardent, knowledgeable, passionate authors. Sometimes the publicity grows and helps further sales. But publishing after popularity is a hard thing. I think we just try to do something that is very good.
Q: When most publishers talk about packaging, they’re thinking about book covers. You obviously put a great deal of time, effort, and money into display boxes. Do you have any secrets for creating a successful display boxnput3C/P>
Workman: The display is really just an extension of the book. You want to house books in something that reinforces the message. Obviously you’d like customers to stop at your display, not your competitor’s. Bookstores are not using displays as much as they used to, so it has gotten harder to place them.
Q: Workman is known for backing backlist. Can you give an example of a book that struggled for a year before taking off?
Workman: Nothing comes to mind immediately. Many books have gone out with small advances–say 10,000 copies. 14,000 Things To Be Happy About started slowly [note: The Workman catalog, with characteristic precision, indicates 998,000 copies in print]. I think it’s easier to see our commitment to backlist in the way we launch a book. We only do about 40 books a year, in two seasons, so it’s easier to be excited about every book. We have six or seven publicists–that’s a lot of effort. I think the big difference is that we don’t sell off our winners.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about managing people?
Workman: Probably that you need to let people manage you. [He laughs.] We said no to Brain Quest a couple of times. It was the wisdom of a sales manager that finally overrode our objections. [Note: The Brain Quest series numbers more than 20 titles with combined sales of more than 20 million copies.] Kliban was brilliant, I thought, but we hung onto that proposal for three or four months before saying yes. [Note: B. Kliban’s Cat is up to 985,000 copies in print.]
A Source of Satisfaction
Near the end of our conversation, Peter Workman brought the discussion back to his favorite subject. "It all really starts with the book. The Little Zen Companion," he said, pausing in his progress through the catalog. "That’s a very dear book. It’s small and chunky because that’s a good format for this book. You shouldn’t have three koans on a page–you might hurt your brain. So the book has one thought per page. It’s very satisfying to make things work well the way they are." And that koan ended our interview.