Front Street: Michigan’s Publisher’s Row

TRAVERSE CITY – Traverse City's Front Street has proven to be an ideal place to make fudge, sell T-shirts, and of course, bake cherry pies, but it's also becoming a good place to publish, market, and sell books. In New York City, the undisputed publishing capital of the U.S., there's an area in Manhattan dubbed "Publisher's Row" since the early 1900s because of all the book companies within walking distance in one neighborhood. Here in Northern Michigan, that area is Front Street.

"If you're in New York, this may seem like an out-of-the-way place, but I think it's actually an advantage to be located here," said Jerry Jenkins, founder and CEO of Jenkins Group, Inc., a custom book packager located on Woodmere Ave. in Traverse City. "People love to visit here, we have an airport that's very accessible, and it's a great place to blend business with a vacation."

The Jenkins Group offices were located in Front Row Center, then in the North Peak Brewing Co. building on West Front Street for a number of years, but recently moved to Woodmere Avenue. Jenkins, has worked with a number of multi-national corporations, including Archer Daniels, IBM Consulting, Johnson & Johnson, and Wyeth Labs, the principals of which he says "didn't bat an eye" at contracting for major projects with a company from a small town. He founded the company in 1990 and reported revenue of $200,000 that first year. This year, Jenkins said he expects revenue to top $2.5 million.

Jenkins' growth is in line with that of the publishing industry. The digital revolution and the exponential growth of the Internet hit national newspapers and magazines especially hard as readers increasingly looked to the web for breaking news, but the number of books published in the U.S. continues to rise.

"Over the last two years, book production has skyrocketed by more than 30%, hitting 195,000 in 2004," reported Publisher's Weekly, a trade journal for publishers and booksellers. "The gain in production is being driven by small publishers and self-publishers, with the output of the larger houses increasing by less than 10 percent since 2003. Looking back further reveals. . . production jumped 64 percent between '99 and '04." Production numbers for 2005, the latest year in which figures are available from R.R. Bowker, the agency that tracks the publishing industry, were down slightly-about four percent-but retailers say that reflects a correction after years of high production.

Staggering numbers of new books can be a challenge for retailers who have limited floor space, but who now compete with online booksellers, who don't face those same limits.

"It's an explosion of smaller presses," said Rob Pine, operations manager of Horizon Books. "It can make ordering more complicated, but we do feel an obligation to stock the books of local writers-even when we're not sure if they will sell. The trick for them is to get sales outside the region."

Pine moved here from Dayton, Ohio, where he had been a buyer for another retail bookseller and said the "artistic and touristy" environment here, as well as the active downtown, makes for a good fit with publishing.

"There is a hotbed of literary aspirations here," he said. Horizon Books operates three stores, one on Front Street in Traverse City, and the other two in the downtown areas of Cadillac and Petoskey.

Publish high-quality books that connect with an audience, and neither industry statistics nor geographical location are all that relevant, says Brian Lewis, associate publisher of Mackinac Island Press. In 2006, Lewis said the Press plans to release ten new titles; in 2007, he predicted that number will rise to 27.

"We focus on unique, high-quality children's books that captivate their audience. They have to be unique, then it works. Logistically, traveling for business may be more difficult from here, but the landscape is worth it. It shows in our work. I'd rather be inspired by the water and the beauty of northern Michigan than have some imagined conveniences of a big city."

Mackinac Island Press' 2005 holiday title, "Has Anyone Seen Christmas?" written by Lewis' wife and business partner, Anne Margaret Lewis, is the publisher's bestselling title to date. There are more than 100,000 copies in print, the book was on the,, and Heartland Booksellers bestseller lists, and will have its own float later this month in Detroit's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Press has offices on Front Street, above Nest.

"We'll probably sell more copies of that book this year than we did last year," Lewis said. Mackinaw Island Press is also the publisher of the successful "Buck Wilder" outdoor books, both new and backlist titles, and the press has established an imprint, Petoskey Press, for adult titles with a Michigan theme. The company was founded in 2003 after the Lewises sold their previous publishing company, Sleeping Bear Press, in 2002. That publishing company was sold to Thompson Corp., a $7 billion-plus information, computer software, and publishing company based in Stamford, Conn. that trades on the New York Stock Exchange (TOC). Some of the rights to the company's golf books were sold to John Wiley & Sons, also in 2002.

Down the street between Poppycocks and the Gold and Silver Center are the offices of Utopia Press, publisher of "Finding Utopia" and "Mani & Pitouee," two children's books written by Paul Sutherland and illustrated by Tim Gibbons. Gibbons, a local illustrator, has a studio below ground level on Front Street, with a view of the Boardman River. Utopia Press has also published "Emmanuel's Prayer" by Paul Sutherland and "The Courage Code" by Megan Raphael and Jennifer Byron.

Just around the corner in the Masonic Building on Union Street, artist and poet Kristen Jongen is preparing to release her first book, "Growing Wings," and has come home to Traverse City to do it. An artist by trade, Jongen's work can be found in 200 galleries around the country as well as on greeting cards. She moved back home after years of living in Chicago.

"I'm an artist," Jongen said. "I missed the water. I came home for that, not for any publishing reasons, but the artist energy, the literary energy that's here is awesome."

Unlike the negative effect the Internet has had on some newspapers and news magazines, the advance of digital communication and production capabilities has empowered, not hampered, independent book publishers and the trade magazines that serve them.

"With all the modern technologies available today, one can operate in northern Michigan with as much credibility and efficiency as anywhere in the country," said Alex Moore, managing editor of ForeWord Magazine.

The magazine is a bi-monthly trade journal that reviews books published by independent publishers for a national audience of librarians and booksellers. The ForeWord offices are also on Front Street in Traverse City, above Kilwin's. Moore said he receives up to 1,000 books a month from publishers hoping for a review, though has space in the magazine to review only about four percent of those. The company also operates a paid review service, publishes an e-mail newsletter, and displays U.S. books at international trade shows.

"Certainly labor and infrastructure costs are less here. A more subtle benefit is the absence of what Thoreau called 'the hurry and waste of life.' We don't have to rush. We can savor the books."

The spokesman for all of these companies cited the availability of area and national freelancers as a boon for business. ForeWord Magazine has six staffers but uses more than 100 freelance book reviewers, Mackinac Island Press has a seven-person staff but uses many freelance writers and illustrators, and the Jenkins Group, Inc. has 11 on staff but uses 30 regular freelancers.

"There's a lot of creative talent in Traverse City," said Lewis. "An inordinate amount, really. We do go outside the area on occasion, but for a place this size, the talent available is amazing." BN