In Business : Jan Pogue: Success by the book
Jan Pogue has nurtured, then nudged, Vineyard Stories, her fledgling, niche publishing company, out of its Edgartown nest over the past five years, overcoming personal loss and an industry in disarray.
A former journalist and editor, Ms. Pogue has also recreated herself as an entrepreneur, following the death in 2008 of her husband and business partner John Walter, a former executive editor and publisher of the Vineyard Gazette.
This year her company will publish five books, succeeding in a world in which traditional publishers are wracked by dwindling profits, digital publishing, the weight of backlisted titles, price resistance, and author services and compensation.
"Vineyard Stories was born out of desperation and hope," Ms. Pogue said with a touch of whimsy this week. "John and I came to the Island for his job at The Vineyard Gazette. We loved it here, and we kept running into great stories and book ideas which we would send to the Bookhouse Group in Atlanta, where I had worked as an editor."
Mr. Walter's job ended unexpectedly. "We had to figure out what to do," Ms. Pogue aid. Ron Levin, president of The Bookhouse Group, encouraged us to start a publishing company based on the book ideas we were sending to him," she said. Mr. Walter had been a founding editor of USA Today and was familiar both with editing and with production and printing. Ms. Pogue had been editing books for Mr. Levin's company.
Vineyard Stories had moderate success with its first nine books before making a publishing splash late last year with its tenth title, "Morning Glory Farm, and the Family That Feeds an Island," by Tom Dunlop and illustrated with Alison Shaw's photographs. Launched last summer, the 30-year saga of the Athearn farming family became the Island's runaway bestseller. It has sold 8,300 copies to date, including about 6,000 in Island bookstores.
"Small publishers are thriving because big publishers turned their backs on books with small sales," Ms. Pogue said. "I've done well because people are confused, they've been turned down. Traditional publishing houses want 'tell-alls,' not stories about family farms and boats launched after 10 years of effort."
Ms. Pogue has developed a focused brand and a supporting brand mission. "We are custom publishers of high-quality books that are beautifully illustrated and photographed," she said. "They are well written, carefully proofread, and all the books are about Vineyard life as it really is." Her company does not publish fiction or "text-heavy" books, and its only children's title is themed around conservation on the Island.
"We are not vanity publishers: if I don't think it will sell, I won't accept the manuscript," Vineyard Stories' chief executive and sole employee said. Her company will not enter the burgeoning e-publishing business models such as chatbooks, e-publishing, and print-on-demand books.
Instead, Ms. Pogue finds short-run printers for the 1,000 to 8,000 copies she requires. "I need to be sure of quality," she said. "I use printers in China now. U.S. and Canadian companies will print fewer than 1,000 copies, but quality is key, and China's is best."
The eclectic nature the Vineyard Stories business model requires Ms. Pogue to be both shepherd and guru, helping Island authors to develop their ideas and stories. Sometimes, as in the case of Morning Glory Farm, she provides the idea.
The business model is based on a menu of services, and Ms. Pogue's judgment of the marketability of the project. At times she is compensated as an editor only. Other author-clients ask her to bring in writers, photographers, and designers. Still others ask her to take over manufacturing and hire her to market and distribute the final version. The client generally pays for each of those services and keeps all the proceeds.
Ms. Pogue's value-added is that she knows who to bring in and where to print. She knows also that traditional publishers no longer offer author services and big advances and marketing.
It's sort of a literary version of interior design. "Every case is different," Ms. Pogue said. But once a year, she is committed to publish a book, shouldering all the costs and sharing in the profits, if any.
Those profits are used to fund the next publishing project. Her 2010 title is "Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha's Vineyard," also a collaboration between Tom Dunlop and Alison Shaw, describes the 10-year struggle by Vineyard Haven boat builders Gannon and Benjamin to complete construction of the largest wooden boat to be built in the United States since the 1860s.
Creating a book can take up to two years - and a lot of unpaid time - to complete. Ms. Pogue has learned where unpaid mentoring ends and a business arrangement begins. She has no illusions about her business.
"I charge a fee to serve as the editor and publisher for my clients," Ms. Pogue said. "Clients hire me for my opinion and to make money. We move from ego to business. We develop a business plan. Can we make money? How to price it right. I'm hard-hearted about business. I pay attention to what booksellers like Dawn Braasch at Bunch of Grapes and Susan Mercier at Edgartown Books want.
"I am not going to get rich. My clients aren't likely to get rich. But there is no feeling in the world like the moment the book comes back from the printer, and you hand the first copy to the author. When the Morning Glory book arrived, I called Alison and Tom, who photographed and wrote it, and we all delivered it to the Athearns. Everyone there was affected."
The Morning Glory book was a watershed project. It was the last book on which she and her husband collaborated. Since Mr. Walter died, Ms. Pogue has had to immerse herself in the complete publishing package.
"I had to learn the production and manufacturing aspects that John was so good at," Ms. Pogue said. "I had a choice at that point. Rob Levin agreed to complete the project, and I presented that, but both the family and Rob encouraged me to complete it. I will never forget that support. The Island taking care of its own."
Vineyard Stories, she said, reflects the Island Plan, developed by the Martha's Vineyard Commission to create local business. "We have ideas, wonderful writers, designers, and photographers right here. It's a good and eco-friendly business. We've created something for the Vineyard."