By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Peter Barnes knows business inside and out. For the past 17 years, the chief Washington correspondent for Fox Business Network has run a lucrative sideline: a children's book business that has helped him and his wife buy a vacation home on the Massachusetts island where it all started, Nantucket.
Peter, 50, grew up in Philadelphia, attended Penn State and landed an internship at the Wall Street Journal, where he realized "that these people spoke a different language." He decamped to the Wharton School for an MBA and was hired as a reporter at the Journal in June 1985.
In the early '90s, Peter and his wife, Cheryl, moved to Roanoke and opened a couple of Jenny Craig franchises. "I wanted to flex my MBA muscles," he says. The businesses didn't do well, so the couple sold them back to Jenny Craig, recouping their investment but selling their house at a loss.
Peter went back to journalism, but his entrepreneurial zeal didn't fade. He was on Nantucket, where his parents had moved, when he overheard a harried ferry-bound tourist ask a bookstore owner for a children's book about the island. The owner told her that he didn't have such a book, "'but if we did, we'd sell a million of them,'" Peter recalls.
So Peter decided to write "Nat, Nat, the Nantucket Cat." He and Cheryl hired an artist. They set up a publishing company called VSP Books -- which stands for Very Special Places -- had "Nat" printed and asked the island's stores to stock it. Start-up costs were $10,000 to $15,000. "This was just kind of a lark," he says.
The book came out in October 1993 and sold 1,000 copies in two months. The next summer, they sold 5,000 copies. "And I realized, 'Oh my gosh, we have a niche here' " in children's books about vacation sites, Peter says.
After that, "we started cranking out a new book once every two years," the Alexandria resident says. There have been books about Old Town Alexandria and Newport, R.I. But it was the educational books about Washington featuring mouse characters that caught the attention of people outside the city and prompted a deal with Scholastic; the Los Angeles Times said of the books, "The stories are told with simple language and in rhyme and the artwork is colorful and inviting."
Scholastic has sold a half-million paperback versions; VSP has sold a million hardcovers altogether. Cheryl, who also illustrates some books, handles most of the business matters while Peter continues to work as a journalist.
VSP, which is based in Lorton, has had other successes: It was the original publisher of the best-selling "Heartsongs" books by Mattie Stepanek, a young poet who had a rare form of muscular dystrophy. With the exception of Stepanek's books, Peter and Cheryl have kept their focus on educational books about historic places, some written by other authors.
"We've had some very good years in the book business," Peter says. "It helped us pay for our kids' college, and it also helped us buy a second home." Sales have fallen in the recession: Gross revenue was $311,000 last year, down from $368,000 in 2006; about 10 to 15 percent of sales is gross profit.
On the flip side, Peter says he is enjoying covering the recession for Fox. "I consider this the story of my life." And he believes the books will always be there: "Eventually when we retire, we will still have this great little business that is very rewarding personally, because we teach kids how to be citizens; we teach kids about these historic places."