To Do Something Very Good
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
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
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
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
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
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
And that koan ended our interview.
Steve O’Keefe is the Executive Director
of Patron Saint Productions, Inc., a publishing consultancy
(www.patronsaintpr.com). His latest book is "Complete
Guide to Internet Publicity" (Wiley, 2002). Please
send comments or suggestions for PMA’s Publishing
Profiles to info@PatronSaintPR.com.