Octane Press: Accelerating Growth Through a Niche Output

Indie InnovationMost featured publishers in this series have some sort of niche. Indeed, many smaller publishing houses around the world benefit from a narrower focus than the big guys do, picking up enthusiasts in very specific areas of interest.

And the interest area of today’s featured publisher isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. Octane Press focuses primarily on road and race vehicles, farm machines, motorsports and motorcycles. Not for everyone, but certainly a strong and dedicated international audience.

Whether you’re into your tractors or not, the growth of Octane Press is a case study on how to successfully build a publishing house in a niche category. The team has won a variety of awards, and has seen continued success and growth over the past six years. I spoke to Lee Klancher, the company’s founder and the mastermind behind the thriving Octane Press.

Hello, Lee. Thanks for speaking to me! The first thing we always ask: Could you tell us more on what Octane is all about?

Octane Press publishes exceptional books for knowledgeable enthusiasts. Most of our books focus on vehicles or motorsports, and we also have a line of books dealing with adventure travel.

And how exactly did you get started with Octane?

I worked as an acquisitions editor for a mid-sized press for more than a decade, and worked as a writer and photographer on the side. I had been interested in founding my own press for as long as I can remember, and started looking at that seriously in 2005 and 2006.

In 2007, I was approached by Kurt Biedler of Createspace, who was a friend of a friend. He told me he thought that Createspace could be more than a tool for self-publishers. He felt a real press could do well with that tech.

I did some numbers, and saw that the on-demand model allowed you to start a company with very little investment. I had been running numbers, and starting a book publishing company using long print runs was a multi-million dollar endeavor, with high risk and long returns. Using on-demand reduced the capital needed, and allowed me to bootstrap a company.

In 2008, I took $500 and invested it into publishing on-demand books using Createspace and other platforms. I published one book of my own. I used the money that book generated to publish more books. In fall 2010, I published my first traditionally printed book, and it sold well enough to really boost the company growth. In fact, from 2010 to 2014, we more than doubled the revenue every year. In fall 2013, we had a big hit with Red Tractors 1958-2013, a large coffee table book that sold in three editions ranging in price from $75 to $400. We sold just under 10,000 copies of that book that fall, and we were up and running.

Octane PressStrong growth indeed! How did you end up carving out this niche?

My niche was what I had to work with when I started this company. I had readers in the tractor and motorcycle niche, and my books had a good track record. I figured if I could sell half or two-thirds the numbers my old publishers did, I’d be fine.

I also had a lot of connections to authors I liked and respected who were also mainly in the transportation niche, and they were interested in working with me, partially because of the relationship and partially because other publishers were scaling back.

So I felt, as a businessperson, I had to start in transportation. I had too many connections with readers, authors and even retailers. That said, the way we have approached publishing a book is relevant to anyone looking to reach a niche audience.

For starters, we make sure the relevant stakeholders are in the loop on our books. Our authors, staff and publicists all work to make sure that the folks in discussion boards, clubs and magazines that enthusiasts favor all are aware of our books, and perhaps are given chances to participate by supplying information, photographs or input.

That serves two purposes: it gets the world out about the book, and it also means that we get a lot of critical feedback and contribution from the people who really love the book’s subject. It’s a win for publicity and also a win for content and focus.

With one of our biggest books, Red Tractors 1958-2013, our staff jack-of-all trades, Tobias Gros, called club leaders personally. He made hundreds of calls, and mostly left messages. We sent them all letters as well, letting them know that we would be debuting the book at a big show, and that they could advance order copies at a discount to sell them to their club members. We also donated part of the proceeds from the show to the clubs. Despite all this outreach, they frankly weren’t very receptive. Tobi couldn’t get anyone to call him back, and the few who answered his calls were typically monosyllabic with responses.

When we arrived at the show—and it was just Tobi and I and a truck full of books—we literally couldn’t get the booth set up because people were coming over to buy the book. The show wasn’t even open, yet the other vendors and club members were already sold. They wanted to get their copies ASAP.
And after that, everyone was happy to answer emails and calls. All that work paid off.

That’s just one example, but that kind of effort is how you make books sell. If you get the book right, and you work really hard to let the right people know, you have a shot at a winner.

That must be up there with the best, but what other moments are you most proud of at Octane?

In our first full year, 2011, we won a Benjamin Franklin Award Gold Award for our book Forward: The First American Unsupported Expedition to the North Pole. That set a tone I take great pride in. We’ve won a Benjamin Franklin Award every year since, and we’ve also won IPPYs, Minnesota Book Awards and a Dean Batchelor Award.

Lee Klancher

Lee Klancher

Our website is a real point of pride. I landed a terrific designer for the look we featured in the 2010 launch, and our developer group for the 2012 and 2015 redesigns are really clever with tech and strong with design. All three were big investments on a relative scale, and they paid off.

In 2015, our direct-to-customer sales outpaced Amazon’s sales of our books by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. That’s hard to do. Amazon is really good at selling books, so I’m really proud of that. I believe it’s because we work so hard to get in front of our customers, and because we’ve kept customer service entirely in-house. It’s also because of heavy investment in web tech.

When Red Tractors came out in September 2013, we put out a promotion that had a monstrous response. The book was due in our warehouse on September 13, and I had printed about 30 percent more than I thought we could sell. By September 7, every single book that was coming was sold.
That was huge. We bet the farm on that book, and it paid off.

And what have been your biggest challenges so far?

I started the company from nothing. We had no distributors, no customers, no books, no staff, and no money. Everything was a challenge.

That said, finding a working distribution model was probably the toughest hurdle. Book distribution for a small press is tough in any instance, and the changing marketplace meant there was literally no road map for success. It’s also the side of the business I knew the least about, which in hindsight wasn’t all bad, but it sure made it hard at times.

Figuring out how to balance staff and freelancers was also tough. What can you outsource? How many different things can one person do? Who do you hire, and when and what are their roles?

In both instances, I’m really proud of where we stand today and there’s plenty more to accomplish.

Has digital impacted you? If so, has this been positive or negative?

Digital has steadily grown for us, and we have several titles that sell much better in EPUB than in print. It’s still a small portion of our revenue, but I expect that to change. To me, the bit we have is positive, and I see great things in the future. Perhaps if I was a legacy press and my print backlist revenue had shrunk due to digital, I’d see it as negative. We’re new, so that’s not the case with us.

As an independent publisher, how do you target the international market?

Enthusiast networks are worldwide, and we push out things via our website and social media pretty effectively. The interest groups tend to be global, so we naturally reach beyond North America. The core of our success overseas comes from exposure in venues that exist because of the interest, and cross a lot of borders.

As far as how we deliver to our customers, that varies by continent. In the UK, we work with Publishers Group (UK), a great distributor who makes sure our data is sound and the books available in specialty shops as well as the major retail players. We’re new with them, but I believe they will be very good for us.

The rest of the world varies. We have a selection of good retailers in South Africa, and a couple of bigger players in Australia. You really have to be an opportunist, and find a retailer or distributor that works. That’s just logistics, however. The bottom line is when you are tied in tightly to a niche audience, you can reach them globally without much of an issue.

Red TractorsWhat kind of relationship do you keep with your authors? They must be key to reaching that niche audience?

Authors are business partners. That’s how royalties work, that’s how this business works, and I like that. I’m also an author myself and really work to avoid all the frustrations you find when dealing with decisions made by publication boards. I try to be sensible and open, and trust that the author knows the audience intimately.

When it comes to promotion and approach, I’m cooperative and a listener. I’m proud of that. The one area I tend to stray from that is on a book’s focus and direction. I trust my experience and ability to see a book’s potential, and I’m not afraid to push authors toward my vision. I’m also very hands on during the editorial process.

A good percentage of my authors had worked with me in the past, when I was an acquisitions editor, so there are not surprises there. And I find the ones who are really dedicated to quality tend to see eye-to-eye with me and it’s all good. I also send out a quarterly letter that outlines company changes and direction. I want people to have an opportunity to understand what we are trying to accomplish.

Bottom line: author relations are critical, and I do my best to balance that with what’s needed to do the job right. When we have a great book—which is the foundation of this company—it’s all good.

And finally to sign off, what advice would you give to a startup publishing house in today’s world?

Know your niche and work your ass off. There are plenty of readers looking for good material if you are willing to do the work to reach them.

Thank you to Lee Klancher for speaking to me about his approach to the industry. You can learn more about Octane Press on their website and you can follow them on Twitter.

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