Jed Lyons, chairman and CEO of Rowman & Littlefield, gets upset when the mainstream press calls the publishing industry “besieged” and “distressed”. His word of choice is prosperous. “The book industry is booming right now,” Lyons said. “We are thriving. The Big Five – or maybe soon the Big Four – are doing well. For our national book network [the distributor Lyons founded in 1986] many customers had their best year ever in 2021.”
To become one of the largest independent publishers in the country, Lyons focused on acquisitions, partnerships and people. His 73-year-old publishing house, based outside of Washington, DC, has four dozen prints and climbs. The company concluded 2021 with sales of $103 million and a roster of 80,000 titles.
These figures include the New England publishing house Globe Pequot, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. R&L acquired it in 2014, along with its 2,500 tracks and $15 million in sales. Now, Globe Pequot is both the name of R&L’s business group and one of its flagship brands. R&L’s business group had sales of nearly $30 million in 2021. It has a host of specialty imprints in lifestyle, recreation, history, and regional and local guides. They include Stackpole, founded in 1930; Lyons Press, specializing in military history as well as fishing, hunting, nature, etc. ; and Falcon, publisher of more than 1,000 regional guides.
R&L acquired Stackpole in 2015, and its publisher, Judith Schnell, was named business group publisher in 2017. In this role, she also runs TwoDot Books, which focuses on Western history and culture; Down East Books, centered in Maine; and new acquisitions Prometheus, Applause/Backbeat and Astragal. Schnell describes Lyon’s lengthy courtship with Stackpole as typical of his persevering approach to growing up. “Jed had been knocking on the door for years, patiently waiting and getting to know each other,” Schnell said. “It was clear he would keep the footprint and our identity, and he was trustworthy about it. He understood the nature of the business. When you buy a footprint, that’s what you buy.
Lyons said: “It’s rewarding to be part of a team that keeps these respected imprints alive and independent rather than watching them get rolled into the maw of a gigantic public corporation. To retreat to Down East Books in Maine and erase their Maine identity would be foolish. Ditto for Pineapple Press, which has been making books on Florida for forty years. Globe Pequot is still based in New England, moving a 20-minute drive from Guilford, Connecticut this year to relocate to Essex, where the company was founded.
A silver lining over the long stay-close-to-home years of the pandemic has been “an increase in the sale of our outdoor books,” Lyons said. Sales at Falcon Guides soared, as did sales of fishing titles, regional trips and local history books.
Strategy and planning also played a role in the commercial division’s big 2021 sales year. “These kinds of books sell out every year,” Schnell said. “We don’t have to run after trends. We stay strong in what we do and do it the best we can. Schnell expects steady growth to continue on the trade’s top list, with production rising from 539 titles in 2021 to 586 this year and more than 600 in 2023.
Partnerships are also essential to the growth of R&L. Under Globe Pequot, for example, Lyons Press publishes Orvis’ fishing books, while Stackpole publishes titles for the National Outdoor Leadership School. Falcon works with Hiker magazine and National Geographic, and its latest partner is KOA with camping books for kids. R&L has worked for decades in partnership with non-profit organizations such as the American Association for State and Local History, think tanks such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, research groups, university presses and government agencies, in particular by publishing the annual report United States Statistical Summary.
Lyons and Schnell said R&L’s people drive the company’s success. It employs approximately 400 full-time people in offices in Marlborough, Massachusetts; Essex, Connecticut; and Lanham, Md., and at its 300,000 square feet. distribution center in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania and its 150,000 square feet. warehouse in Hagerstown, Md. The trading group has about 70 people on its payroll, many of whom have worked at Globe Pequot, through various owners, for decades.
Lyons, who began his career as a campaign man for a Maine congressman before moving into publishing 47 years ago, still looks to the future. R&L, for example, was an early adopter of print-on-demand and now does 40% of its printing in-house. “This protects us to some extent against the unpredictable and sometimes unreliable book printing schedules that external printers supply too often,” Lyons said.
The company has met its challenges. There was a furlough at the start of the pandemic, although all employees who wanted to return returned to work within a few months. Today, inflation not only drives up the cost of paper for books, but also the price and availability of corrugated boxes to ship them. New England paper mills send pulp to China, where manufacturers make corrugating material and ship it back to the United States at prohibitive prices, Lyons said. Years ago, Lyons moved R&L’s four-color printing from China to Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam. “I would love to do all of our impressions nationally,” he said. “It’s something we’re monitoring.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the 2/5/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: Better Together