Originally created 07/13/97

Home-based press finding big rewards



BALTIMORE - Bruce Bortz started a new career when he took down the family pingpong table.

Until then, he'd been a desktop publisher, turning out his own newsletter and publishing three titles in four years for his Bancroft Press with the help of one employee.

Then, a year ago, Mr. Bortz borrowed about $125,000, hired an editor, marketer, designer and assistant, and made room for them in the basement. He now has a catalog of 14 books, past and planned.

"Once I commit to something, I'm pretty fast and furious," he said, standing in his attic lined with boxes of books.

Shoestring operations like Bancroft took off when desktop publishing became affordable in the early '80s. In 1983, about 500 small companies were publishing books. Today, there are about 10,000 serious, independent publishers, said Jan Nathan, executive director of Publishers Marketing Association.

It only costs about $6,000 in hardware, software and printing costs to crank out a book, said Ms. Nathan, whose group helps its 3,000 members, some with only one title, sell their books. But publishing is only the first step.

Entrepreneurial publishers have to use good business sense to succeed, planning a series of books and setting aside money for promotion, Ms. Nathan said.

Many small publishers use direct marketing, trade shows, newsletters and the Internet to sell books, turning to bookstores only when they have a proven market.

Mr. Bortz's promotional efforts have included picketing in front of a bookstore to get better shelf space. And that type of dedication has meant a lot to his authors.

Bill O'Reilly, a national anchor for the Fox News Channel, saw his novel ignored by several New York publishers, then decided to let his old Boston University classmate publish Those Who Trespass when he heard about the $25,000 Mr. Bortz was going to spend on promoting a press run of 25,000 copies.

"For a first-time novelist that's a big run," Mr. O'Reilly said. "The promotion is about 10 times what a first-time author gets."

Many small publishers including Mr. Bortz use a distributor to get their work into the large bookstores that don't want to deal with thousands of individuals publishers, Ms. Nathan said.

And even though the distributors take up to 65 percent of the retail book price as their fee, it can be difficult to find one.

"They want to make sure the publishers they do select have a constant line of product and are aggressive," Mr. Bortz said.

Mr. Bortz certainly is. He approached Sandi Kahn Shelton, who writes columns for the New Haven (Conn.) Register and Working Mother magazine, about combining them into a book.

Her book, You Might As Well Laugh, will be a featured selection of the Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club in August, a first for Bancroft.

"I've had so many friends published by larger New York publishers that have 300 copies sold and that's it," she said. "It drops from the face of the earth. They can't believe my good luck."

Mr. Bortz says he wants to be successful, but it isn't money that he's after. "I want to be the best in whatever field I'm in," he said.

That philosophy is common among small publishers.

"I have yet to meet a person who says `I came into this business to make $1 million,"' Ms. Nathan said. "They have information and they want to share it. That's what separates this industry from all others and makes it such a joy."