Workman Publishing Company, Inc. History
New York, New York 10003-9555
Telephone: (212) 254-5900
Fax: (212) 254-8098
Sales: $95.8 million (2003 est.)
NAIC: 511130 Book Publishers; 511199 All Other Publishers
Look at our offerings and you'll see not a company running on past successes, but one that works just as hard to launch the new idea as it does to keep the proven title selling--a company that works as hard to publish the best calendar as it does to publish the best book.
- Peter Workman begins packaging book projects for other publishers.
- The company publishes its first book, Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan.
- B. Kliban's Cat is published.
- Page-A-Day Calendars are introduced.
- What to Expect When You're Expecting is published.
- Algonquin Books is acquired.
- Brain Quest learning card game is released, and 1.6 million sets are sold.
- Artisan Books, a high-end imprint, is formed.
- Workman buys control of the trade and custom publishing units of Storey Publishing.
Workman Publishing Company, Inc., is a leading independent publisher of non-fiction books, games, and calendars. The firm's biggest successes include pregnancy guide What to Expect When You're Expecting, the Brain Quest learning card game for children, and Page-A-Day calendars. Other popular Workman offerings include cookbooks; books that are packaged with toys; books, calendars, and toys based on B. Kliban's drawings of cats; and popular culture parodies like The Official Preppy Handbook. The company is owned and run by its founder, Peter Workman.
Workman Publishing was founded in New York City by Peter Workman, a 30-year-old Yale graduate who had previously held a number of publishing-related jobs, including working in sales at Dell Publishing, as a clerk at a bookstore, as a reader at a woman's magazine, and as a copy boy at the New York Daily News. In 1968, he decided to strike out on his own and formed a small company to package books for sale to larger publishers.
In 1972, the Workman company moved into publishing books of its own with Richard Hittleman's Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan; other lifestyle and humor books followed. The company's first major success was The Toy Book by Stephen Caney, which showed children how to make simple toys by themselves. Though Workman did not have the budget to advertise it, the author made hundreds of personal appearances, and the book went on to sell several hundred thousand copies over the next few years. Caney would later publish other children's activity books for Workman, including some that were packaged with toys and other related objects.
Workman published relatively few books per year and issued only titles in which the firm's owner himself believed. Unlike many large publishing houses, which focused on developing blockbusters and let slow-selling titles fall by the wayside, his company was persistent in promoting books until they caught on. One example of this was illustrator B. Kliban's Cat, which sold poorly on initial release. Seeking ways to gain exposure, Workman sent most of his staff to the annual Madison Square Garden cat show to sell copies and then printed up posters of Kliban's humorous cat illustrations to give to bookstores. When patrons started to steal them, the company got requests for copies to sell and reached a licensing agreement with Kliban to print them. Other Cat merchandise followed, including pillows, mugs, and calendars.
Page-A-Day Calendar Introduced in 1979
The success of its Kliban cat calendars led the company to create calendars with other themes, and in 1979 the Page-A-Day desk calendar debuted, with 365 tear-off pages, each with a different image. Workman was the first to market a whimsical calendar of this type, and it was received enthusiastically by the public.
Another Workman success of this period was 1980's The Official Preppy Handbook, which spoofed a popular style trend of the day. It topped the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list and remained in the rankings for many months.
In 1984, Workman published What to Expect When You're Expecting, written by a freelance medical writer along with her two daughters, one of whom was a nurse. The practical, information-packed guidebook took readers through pregnancy month-by-month, with illustrations and helpful hints. Though the company received only 6,800 orders from bookstores at first, it tried marketing ploys like offering a special deal to stores that ordered five or more copies and sent the authors to physicians' conferences to encourage them to recommend it. Sales soon began to pick up, and the title became a steady seller, topping one million copies within six years' time. Its success spawned a number of additional books like What to Eat When You're Expecting and What to Expect: The First Year.
Purchase of Algonquin Books in 1988
In 1988, Workman bought Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Founded in 1982, Algonquin published both non-fiction and fiction titles, including well-regarded novels by Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle, and Kay Gibbons. Its president, Louis P. Rubin, Jr. would remain in charge, while Workman would take on production, sales, and distribution chores.
The company had by now built a reputation for its unique publishing style. Workman books were known for their clever writing, their strong design, and their sometimes offbeat content. In addition to nonfiction titles, books of humor, and calendars, Workman also put out cookbooks like the best-selling Silver Palate Cookbook as well as children's titles. The firm typically issued a relatively modest twenty titles per year but kept more than 75 percent of its backlist in print, an unusually high rate for the industry. Its books, typically paperbacks, were often priced less than comparable titles from larger publishers.
Peter Workman received much of the credit for his firm's success, as it was his vision, attention to detail, and somewhat eccentric nature that had guided the choices of titles and helped nurture them to fruition. Workman was considered a difficult person by some and was well-known for changing cover designs and other details at the last minute, but he inspired loyalty among much of his staff and praise from industry observers who saw him and his company as the antithesis of the faceless, conglomerate-owned giants of the book trade.
In the fall of 1990, Workman published its first novel (Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch) while continuing to offer the usual range of Cat items, activity books by Caney, a book on AIDS for teens, and numerous calendars like one of teddy bears which featured photos selected from 20,000 sent in by the public. The company also issued titles on a variety of subjects, including herbs, dolls, and games. The firm's biggest hit of 1990 was Suzy Becker's parody All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat, which sold 540,000 copies in just two months' time, making it the company's fastest-selling title ever.
Brain Quest Introduced in 1992
In June 1992, Workman began publishing Brain Quest, a children's knowledge card game which was licensed from Editions Play Bac, a French firm which had developed it and successfully marketed it in that country as "Les Incollables" ("Little Bits Of Knowledge"). The game, which was published in different editions for each grade from first through seventh, was intended to help kids learn while having fun. It was marketed with the slogan "It's OK to Be Smart." Promotion was accomplished via eye-catching displays in stores, a mailing to 20,000 school principals, and later a Brain Quest Challenge held at Walt Disney World in Florida.
At first, only 50,000 sets were published for each grade, but these quickly sold out. Though the company had a hard time keeping up with orders, by December 1.6 million had been sold. This amount doubled the next year, when preschool and kindergarten editions were published with colorful artwork featuring Ryan Lion and Amanda Panda, respectively, and the tagline "Get a Smart Start." A competitor, Western Publishing, introduced a similar game called "Ask Me!," and Workman filed suit, claiming that Western had broken an implied confidentiality agreement when it had looked at, and passed on, the Brain Quest concept in 1990.
In 1993, Workman made an offer to buy Stewart, Tabori & Chang, a publisher whose titles it distributed. Negotiations broke down in May, however, and at year's end Workman's distribution contract with the company expired.
Artisan Imprint Founded in 1994
In March 1994, Workman founded a new division called Artisan, which would publish twelve to fifteen illustrated books and calendars each year. The high-quality books, published on heavy paper, would cover such topics as cooking, sports, and gardening. The unit would be run by former Stewart, Tabori & Chang publisher Leslie Stoker.
The spring of 1995 saw the firm partner with Toronto-based Eating Well magazine publisher Telemedia to form Eating Well books. In July, Workman reached an out-of-court settlement with Western Publishing over its "Ask Me!" card series. Terms were not disclosed. In the fall, Workman teamed up with upscale garden products retailers Smith & Hawken to publish a series of gardening titles. The year also saw the company named Publisher of the Year by the American Wholesale Booksellers Association.
In May 1997, Workman went online for the first time with the Workman Electric Booksite, which featured information about its titles for retailers and consumers, a store locator, and several interactive entertainment features. That same month saw Ann Bramson named publisher of Artisan Books, replacing the departing Leslie Stoker. By this time, Workman was also distributing the books of two other publishers, Black Dog & Leventhal and Greenwich Workshop Press. The company had recently invested in Groupe Latingy of France to help that firm buy art book publisher Harry Abrams, as well.
In February 1999, Workman hired Bruce Harris to serve as publisher and chief operating officer of the firm. Harris had worked for 38 years at Crown Publishers and Random House, where he had most recently been president of trade sales and marketing. April of that year saw Workman license its Brain Quest concept to IBM, which would turn it into a series of software products for home and school use.
With more than 14 million sets of Brain Quest cards already in print, Workman launched a revised version of the series, which it had spent $1 million to prepare. The revamped cards featured full-color art and 50 percent new editorial material. A brightly painted yellow bus was sent around the country to promote it, with mascots Amanda Panda, Ryan Lion, and BQ the bull terrier on board.
The company was now reducing the number of titles it published annually, which had increased in recent years to more than 40, to focus more energy on promoting its backlist. Nearly one-third of all Workman titles had surpassed the 100,000 sales mark.
In September 1999, the company introduced the digital Page-A-Day calendar, which gave computer users a version of the popular calendar that contained many additional features like month-at-a-glance grids, the ability to type in appointments, pop-up reminders, and audio and video snippets. Purchasers of any of the firm's 47 print calendars could download a digital version for free. Popular titles of this period included Audubon Birds, Fly Fishing, 365 Cats, and The 365 Stupidest Things Ever Said. They were priced between $8.95 and $10.95. Also in the fall of 1999, Workman partnered with Boston public television station WGBH to publish The Antiques Roadshow Primer, based on the hit television series.
Over the years, Workman had published increasing numbers of what were known in the trade as "books-plus," which tied a book to an interactive object. Examples included How to Kazoo, which came complete with instrument, and The Bones Book, which was accompanied by a small skeleton. Others came with marbles, jumpropes, magic tricks, music CDs, puzzles, and balls, while a Workman bird-watching guide was packaged in a bird feeder.
In July 2000, the firm's editor-in-chief, Sally Kovalchick, died suddenly of a heart attack. She had worked for the company for 26 years and helped put together a number of successful titles, including The Official Preppy Handbook and Cat. In the fall, her place was taken by Susan Bolotin, a veteran of Random House and Simon & Schuster, who had most recently served as executive editor of Good Housekeeping magazine.
Acquisition of Storey Publishing in 2001
In June 2001, Workman bought a majority stake in the trade publishing and custom publishing units of Massachusetts-based Storey Publishing, which the firm distributed. Storey had published more than 560 books, primarily how-to titles on country living.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Workman published a calendar which featured images of American flags photographed in the aftermath of the attacks. The proceeds were donated to the New York Times' 9/11 neediest fund and the American Red Cross. In the spring of 2002, the company released its third edition of What to Expect When You're Expecting, which had sold more than ten million copies in the United States alone. A USA Today poll reported that 93 percent of pregnancy guidebook readers had used it.
In April 2004, the firm named Walter Weintz chief operating officer, succeeding Bruce Harris, who left to become a consultant. Peter Workman's wife Carolan, who had served as director of international publishing for a number of years, also left during the year to be replaced by Kristina Peterson. With Peter and Carolan Workman now in their 60s, their daughter Katie was in line to take over, having been named associate publisher in 2003.
New titles for 2004 included Nesting: It's a Chick Thing; How to Make Someone Love You Forever in 90 Minutes or Less; The S Factor: Strip Workouts for Every Woman; and How to Grill: The Complete Illustrated Book of Barbeque Techniques.
For more than 35 years, Workman Publishing Company had issued a steady stream of distinctive, highly successful titles that included everything from pop-culture parodies and serious non-fiction books to calendars, cookbooks, children's activity books, and games. The firm's strong backlist, and its reputation for carefully-chosen and well-developed new titles, put it in a strong position for continued success.
Principal Competitors: Random House, Inc.; TimeWarner Book Group, Inc.; HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.; Simon & Schuster, Inc.
- Cox, Meg, "Publishing: Workman Finds Clever, Quirky Books, Marketed with Great Care, Bring Success," Wall Street Journal, July 19, 1990, p. B1.
- Dahlin, Robert, "Workman, Smith & Hawken Till Common Ground," Publishers Weekly, September 18, 1995, p. 36.
- Donahue, Dierdre, "2002 Calendar Glorifies the Flag Every Day," USA Today, October 15, 2001, p. D1.
- O'Briant, Don, "Agreement Turns Another Page in the History of Algonquin Books," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 20, 1988, p. D7.
- "Peterson Joins Workman," Publishers Weekly, September 13, 2004, p. 20.
- Rosen, Judith, "Workman to Acquire Storey," Publishers Weekly, June 11, 2001, p. 9.
- Stander, Bella, "Q: Which Workman Phenomenon Has Sold 4.8 Million Units. A: The Brain Quest Card Series, Which Challenges Kids to 'Get a Smart Start,'" Publishers Weekly, January 24, 1994, p. 24.
- Weeks, Linton, "Read It and Laugh: For Peter Workman, Publishing Is a Ticklish Business," Washington Post, February 8, 2000, p. C1.
- "Workman, Western Settle Dispute," Publishers Weekly, July 17, 1995, p. 121.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 70. St. James Press, 2005.