NEW YORK — Unless you live in Boys Town, Neb., or work in education or family services, you likely haven’t heard of Boys Town Press, the publishing arm of the youth care organization founded by Father Flanagan and made famous by the Spencer Tracy movie.
Boys Town Press, an 11-year-old company that publishes parenting and educational materials, generated sales of $1.7 million last year, a fraction of what Random House, Scholastic and other billion-dollar companies bring in.
Boys Town may appear to be an industry exception, but a new study says it’s more the rule. In a report issued Wednesday, the Book Industry Study Group says there are thousands of such publishers, earning between $1 million and $50 million on their own, but adding up to an estimated $11 billion market.
“For several years, we knew there was a segment of book industry activity that was not being covered by traditional research,” said Jeff Abraham, executive director of the study group, a non-profit research and policy organization funded by publishers, booksellers and others in the industry.
Abraham said most studies assume the solid majority of book sales comes from the larger publishing houses, with the top 50 accounting for at least $20 billion in a $28 billion market. Wednesday’s report, titled “Under the Radar,” asserts the industry is both larger and less concentrated than previously believed.
“We’ve been seeing signs for a long time, especially with the rise of the Internet,” said Kent Sturgis, president of the Publishers Marketing Association, which represents thousands of independent publishers. “It used to be New York publishers were gatekeepers of what got into print. Technology has democratized book publishing.”
Abraham acknowledged his organization faced a problem in finding out just how many publishers are out there. The study group worked with R.R. Bowker, which compiles industry statistics, and sent inquiries to more than 85,000 companies. About 3,200 responded, Abraham said, allowing the study group to make projections with a high level of confidence.
The report was prepared by InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, a market research and strategic consulting firm.
Like Boys Town, “under the radar” publishers sell to specialized audiences and rely at least partly on outlets besides bookstores. Boys Town, for example, sells mostly through its Web site and direct mail marketing.
In White River Junction, Vt., Margo Baldwin runs 20-year-old Chelsea Green Publishers, which focuses on environmental and political titles. Chelsea Green generated $3.7 million last year, and even published a best seller, George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant.”
Baldwin credits the rise of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com with helping publishing houses such as hers.
“The online retailers have significantly altered the industry because they allow small publishers to have their books alongside the books by the big publishers, at least in a virtual retail slot,” she said. “Before that, if you couldn’t get into a traditional store, you had no distribution channel.”
Another publisher, Burt Levy, is a race car driver who in 1994 self-published a novel about the sport, “The Last Open Road,” taking out a second mortgage to cover costs. Levy was eventually signed by St. Martin’s Press, but said the book never reached the race car fans he was convinced would buy it.
So Levy bought back the rights to “Open Road" and for his next novel, “Montezuma’s Ferrari.” He returned to self-publishing, selling his book at racing events and car museum gift shops. He now has written a trilogy of racing novels, with total sales just above $1 million.
“We never did do as well in bookstores as we did in the niche markets,” said Levy, who is based in Oak Park, Ill.
“I’m not surprised to learn that there are so many publishers like me. I think the key is that some books fit into areas that the big publishers just don’t get to. In the end, you just need to do what you’re good at.”
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