Subject matters: Book businesses that specialize in specialization

Charleston Post and Courier
Allyson Bird
July 7, 2010

Tucked away in little corners around the Lowcountry, publishing houses making specific types of books quietly thrive in their niche markets.

Charleston claims among its business residents’s self-publishing mega operation, CreateSpace, but also the company behind the iconic “Images of America” collection and a publisher that lets fast-moving business executives talk through their books in a single day. These companies churn out titles from sleepy business parks, a skinny second-story office above the Historic District and even an old grocery store.

Here’s a peek inside a few.

Advantage Media

As chief executive of a company expected to generate $1 billion this year, Orlando resident Harold Mills knows this much to be true: “If someone told me to sit down and write a book, I never could’ve gotten it done.”

But inside the Advantage Media Group office on East Bay Street he recently heard an editor tell him, “That’s a wrap.” Mills had sat facing her with a microphone between them and for eight hours had laid out each chapter in his own voice for her to transcribe.

Advantage targets business leaders, and “Talk Your Book” is one way the company sells them on the idea of becoming authors.

Advantage’s chief executive, Adam Witty, a 28-year-old Clemson graduate, worked at a publishing house while in high school. In launching his own operation five years ago, he sought advice from his mentor, Orlando Magic co-founder Pat Williams, who told him to target business speakers.

So Witty went to the National Speakers Association conference in Atlanta and two days later had 13 authors.

“Thank goodness none of them asked to speak with a satisfied customer because there was none,” he remembers.

Since then, revenue has doubled every year, and Advantage has grown from Witty’s apartment to the narrow downtown office, where it is now hemmed in. Advantage likely will move to a bigger space in the coming months to better fit its 12 full-time employees and 275-author lineup.

Witty says his business falls somewhere between traditional publishing and self-publishing, where the author doesn’t want to look self-published but also doesn’t want to get kicked out of a publisher’s lineup for not selling enough volume. With walls painted orange and a makeshift studio where Advantage recently launched video promotions for its clients, Witty said, “We want to be professional, but we don’t want to be corporate.”

Arcadia Publishing

PJ Norlander gets phone calls at least weekly that the marketing director calls “Arcadia moments.”

“They say, ‘I don’t have any pictures of my grandfather, but I found my grandfather on Page 23 of your book,’ ” Norlander says.

Arcadia Publishing, the company behind the iconic “Images of America” books with a black-and-white photo cover and the title trimmed in red, runs its book machine from an office off Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant near the Wando Welch port terminal.

Norlander said the port factored into the company’s decision in 1997 to open a Charleston office, which later became its headquarters, and then to expand from the downtown space on Cumberland Street to the Mount Pleasant location in 2003. Since then, Arcadia has doubled its cavernous warehouse, which holds about 1.6 million books on any given day.

Publishing director Katie Kellett, who started working at the downtown office 12 years ago, gives some perspective: “I can remember when I excitedly told authors we have more than 500 books in print,” she said. Arcadia now has 6,500 titles and averages 15 new books every week.

Its chief executive, South African-born Richard Joseph, grew up working in his father’s London bookstores. He bought Arcadia’s parent company with its three European offices but sold the overseas operations to focus on the American arm.

The company, with a name that gives a nod to the idea of Utopia in Greek mythology, switched all its books on 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper last November.

Arcadia seeks authors in historical societies and schools and sometimes in small towns by calling the mayor’s office directly. The finished product, which usually comes together within a year, sells in the place it chronicles.

The History Press

A former Rutledge Avenue grocery store, plagued by hurricane looting and even a driver ramming his car through the entrance, leaves behind a funky industrial feel to its new tenant: The History Press.

Not that the company doesn’t bring its own quirkiness. With its editorial staff working on books about haunted history, the back left corner of the office sparkles with black and orange tinsel and a smiling jack-o’-lantern that quietly mocks the sweltering heat outside.

The History Press opened in a Percy Street house with four employees and 20 books in 2004. With 32 people on staff now, it expects to reach the 1,000-title mark this year.

The company publishes only 1,000 or so copies in a typical book’s run and distributes them to unorthodox sales spots: gas stations, hardware stores and other places where real people who might have an interest in local stories might be.

As publishing director Adam Ferrell explains it, the operation “is trying to fill a gap between academic presses and traditional publishers.”

That means the target audience isn’t a history buff but someone seeking a little more entertainment in reading about the past. It also means the company relies on marketing more titles to specific readers, rather than high volume of a few select books.

The company has grown 20 percent each year and continues to expand geographically. Ferrell said he hopes to see The History Press push farther westward, taking its books to mom-and-pop road stops from coast to coast.

School and library manager Erica Beyerl and public relations coordinator Caroline Harris work at Sylvan Dell’s new office in Mount Pleasant, which moved in recent weeks from the owners’ home.

Sylvan Dell

When Lee German retired from the Navy, he and his wife, Donna, home-schooled their three daughters for five years as they embarked on a countrywide tour of national parks and then spent a few more years living onboard his boat in the Caribbean.

Moving home to Charleston, the couple decided they wanted to give teachers and parents books that engaged their children the same way Junior Ranger reading materials had captivated the German daughters. They read everything they could find about book sales, contract law and public relations and launched Sylvan Dell Publishing from their Mount Pleasant home in November 2004.

They set a goal of 10 new titles annually and now publish 55 books with the next 10 in the works. Just weeks ago, they also moved their computers and nine employees out of the family homestead and into an office off Johnnie Dodds Boulevard.

But they brought with them a black Lab, a Labradoodle and a large mutt.

Their educational books focus on science and math through stories that bring back the characters in a reference section in the back.

“The book itself is not going to scare a child,” Lee German explains, flipping through a colorful copy of “Newton and Me.”

The books are printed in China, stored in a warehouse in North Charleston and distributed to wholesalers, schools, libraries and individuals across the country. Money is tight, German admits, especially as cash-strapped school districts must choose between hiring teachers and buying new books.

But last year the company, named for the Latin phrase “wooded valley,” grew by 26 percent. And has Sylvan Dell met its five-year goal?

“Well,” German says, “we were supposed to be back in the islands by five years.”

Back To The Top