A Page of Books: Publishing from the inside

Alan Wallace
| Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, 7:22 p.m.

Jed Lyons knows just how challenging book publishing is.

President and CEO of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group ( rlpgbooks.com ) based in Lanham, Md., he's been with the company since it began in December 1975. It employs about 500 and has various imprints.

“We're about the 10th-largest publisher in the United States in terms of sales volume and we publish approximately 1,400 new books annually,” he says. “The books are mostly academic and reference books, college textbooks … scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences.”

For more than three years, the company has produced both print and electronic versions of all its new books.

“We were one of the first publishers to do that, and we have tried very hard to stay ahead of the curve on the e-book front because we realized early on how important it would be,” says Lyons.

E-books require a lot of time, money and effort but save on many print-book costs — which makes e-books an opportunity, not a hassle or threat.

“There seems to be confusion about that — people I meet who, when I tell them I'm in the book-publishing business, say, ‘Too bad. Must be tough with all these e-books.' But in fact, just the opposite is true. We want to sell more e-books — the gross profit on the sale of an e-book is much greater.”

One thing he doesn't want to see — but which could happen, depending on ongoing litigation — is legalization of sales of used e-books.

“We will wind up with an unfettered environment in which copyright no longer has any meaning and a situation similar to what happens in many parts of the world, especially in Asia, where the lack of copyright laws has fostered an environment in which intellectual property is stolen and therefore there is no reason for publishers to invest in new content. If you can't control that content, if a customer can purchase an e-book and then sell it, it would create havoc.”

But he's big on another trend — print-on-demand (POD) books.

He says POD technology, which cuts paper, ink, shipping and unsold-copy costs, is “so good now that you really cannot tell the difference between a book that was printed on demand to fill a single order (and) a copy of a book that was part of a 5,000-copy offset print run.”

He's an old-style reader: “I prefer print. But I do like the Nook, the iPad and the Kindle — all three, I have all three. Like most of us in the industry, I'm trying to keep up to date on all the changes and ... understand the difference in the reading experience for our customers.”

He also knows e-books' bottom-line significance: “Our electronic book sales doubled last year and they're doubling again this year.”

A growing concern is self-publishing.

“When I first entered the industry, there were about 35,000 books a year being published, back in the '70s. Then it crept up to 50,000, then 100,000. Now, it's over 350,000 new books a year — more than two-thirds of which are self-published. I don't see that as a good thing because ... there's a lot of junk,” Lyons says.

“Right now, nobody pays attention to a publisher — you don't go out and say, ‘I'm going to buy a Little, Brown book today' — but in the future, I think you will, because that's how you will know that the book has been vetted, that it's from a responsible and respected source.”

Pittsburgh connection

Though he's lived and worked in the D.C. area for 37 years, Jed Lyons, president and CEO of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, has a home in Ligonier, too — and a fondness for Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania history books, which consistently sell well.

“I married a Pittsburgher, so that's how I came by my interest in Pittsburgh, and we've been married for 31 years. I really fell in love with Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania,” he says. “The reason it has been a focus for publishing is that, like Texas, Pittsburghers are proud of their region and they buy regional books about Western Pennsylvania.”

Books about the French and Indian War have been a focus of heightened interest in recent years.

Abby Mendelson's “The Pittsburgh Steelers: The Official Team History” is in its fourth edition. “That's not a reprint — we published that originally,” Lyons says.

He says Rowman & Littlefield “years ago” acquired the rights to and inventory of “Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City” from late author Stefan Lorant's estate.

“The Lorant book has been in five editions since it was first published, and we're looking for someone to update it and bring out a new edition. That book, in my opinion, is the finest city history ever published in the United States.”

With the existing edition's price reduced to $20, “It's still a popular book in Pittsburgh. ... We've sold 10,000 copies in the last few years, so people are still purchasing it.”

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@tribweb.com).

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy