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’s 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/scholarly books popular with libraries.
The company sells so many hiking books that it employs two full-time mapmakers in house.
But the real heart of the business lies in its list of textbook titles and its recurring revenue.
“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.
“It’s like the insurance business — an annuity,” Lyons said. “We aren’t reinventing widgets.”
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 and a 300,000-square-foot warehouse in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., about 30 minutes southwest 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, Md.
Rowman & Littlefield has offices in New York; Boston; Connecticut; Boulder, Colo.; 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 books a year. Then he has a team of sales and marketing types who call on Barnes & Noble and other big-name retailers. The company prints 600 different catalogues each year. That comes to about 3 million direct mailings every year.
Twice a year, for example, they mail catalogues to political science professors across the country listing 25 new books in their field, hoping they will select one for their course. “If they like it, they will adopt it and put it in the bookstore,” Lyons said.
Amazon.com (founded by Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos) buys about 40 percent of Lyons’s product. National wholesaler Baker & Taylor, which services libraries, is the next-biggest customer, at about 15 percent. The rest is fragmented among big retailers such as Barnes & Noble, consumers who buy on Rowman & Littlefield’s website and niche bookstores, such as Politics and Prose in Washington.
Lyons loves the digital business, even though it appears to be in decline. 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 intended to be on the other end. “I wanted to be a writer,” he said.
He grew up in New York and Illinois and majored in English at Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating in 1974. He bounced around in different jobs and worked on the congressional campaign of young Bangor, Maine, Mayor William Cohen, who went on to be a U.S. senator and secretary of defense in the Clinton administration.
There weren’t many jobs in the 1970s, so he hitchhiked across the country, twice. He made pilgrimages to writer meccas such as Walden Pond and Charles Scribner’s Sons on Fifth Avenue in New York, where he couldn’t get a job interview but was allowed a peek into the office of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins.
Perkins, who discovered Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, died in 1947, but “they had kept his office like a shrine,” he said.
Lyons was job-hunting in publishing in New York when he befriended an accountant named Stanley Plotnick whom 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 in Prince George’s County, where Plotnick had owned businesses.
“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. He attended dozens of conferences every year for the wonky crowd: the American Political Science Association. The American Academy of Religion. The American Philosophical Association. The American Historical Association.
They called the academic publishing house University Press of America. The name was changed after acquiring Rowman & Littlefield years later.
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 President Ronald Reagan. The author, Tom Clancy, invented the 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,’ ” Lyons said.