The Workman Way: Indie and Innovative

M.S. in Publishing students with Kate Travers and Emily Krasner (far left, rear), Andrea Fleck-Nisbet (far right, front) and Randall Lotowycz (far right, rear).
M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students with Kate Travers and Emily Krasner (far left, rear), Andrea Fleck-Nisbet (far right, front) and Randall Lotowycz (far right, rear).

At Workman Publishing, the main conference room is called the “homeroom,“ where staffers regularly settle into homey, slat-back chairs around a long wooden table. As an independent publisher, Workman takes pride in its unique family-type atmosphere and a publishing philosophy that differs significantly from that of the Big Five. Students in the NYU School of Professional Studies M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program received a personalized and close-up look at the Workman way during an industry visit to the company’s Varick Street headquarters.

In a time when the rise of digital media has caused great change and evolution in the book publishing industry, Workman continues to be successful by sticking to its roots. “One of the things you’ll notice about a lot of our books is that they have a gift quality,” said Andrea Fleck-Nisbet, Executive Director of Digital Publishing at Workman. Fleck-Nisbet noted that the ease of acquiring information on the Web has devalued intellectual property. “Having products that are ‘giftable’ allows us to thrive in this market,” she explained. A perfect example: Workman is the creator of the enormously successful Page-a-Day gift calendars. One might have expected that the popularity of electronic calendars would have impacted Workman’s print calendar business, said Fleck-Nisbet, but that has not been the case; Workman continues to expand and innovate with its calendar products. “It’s really, again, about the object—rather than function,” said Fleck-Nisbet.

This lesson on the importance of differentiation in the market was one of many that students received during their visit. Founded in 1968 by Peter Workman (who ran the company up until his death in April 2013), Workman today includes seven imprints as well as distribution partners. The Workman flagship imprint focuses on children’s and popular reference books and was one of the first publishers to concentrate on ways to “create books as objects,” said Fleck-Nisbet; she cited, for example, children’s books that come packaged with a birdhouse or an easy-to assemble skeleton.

Unlike many publishing companies, which focus their efforts on selling their frontlist books, Workman has built its success on its backlist. Two tenets upon which Peter Workman developed his publishing company were “no book before its time” (meaning get it right rather than rushing to publication) and “never let a book go out of print,” according to Fleck-Nisbet. “Our authors are our partners,” she said. “We consider them brand ambassadors; we really work with them to build over time a line of quality products, as opposed to pushing the frontlist and then just letting the book die.”

During a tour of the office given by Fleck-Nisbet and Kate Travers, Director of Digital Business Development, the students visited the numerous departments—including sales, marketing, digital publishing, finance, customer service, and art. They passed shelves displaying Workman’s many books and products, including the widely popular What to Expect When You’re Expecting series and the Brain Quest educational series.

Following the tour, Randall Lotowycz spoke about his role as the company’s Director of Online Sales. “Workman is unique compared to some other publishers in that the switch to digital has not really affected things so much for us,” he said. “Our print sales are still the predominant side of our business.”

Next up to speak was Emily Krasner, Manager of Special Markets and Custom Publishing. She explained that, whereas other sections of Workman’s sales team focus on selling their products to bookstores and other traditional markets, in the special markets department, “Our job is to figure out how to get books everywhere else.” For example, she sends brochures to obstetricians about What to Expect When You’re Expecting, suggesting they encourage patients who are having a baby to purchase the book. Krasner also explores ways to repackage or reposition books on Workman’s backlist.

The final speaker was Travers, who emphasized that all publishers today are looking to develop their direct-to-consumer relationships, and described recent success stories at Workman. One example, Workman’s “Blue Plate Special” (featured on the company’s website), offers one free ecookbooks per month and a variety of ecookbooks for $3.99 or less, in exchange for the customer’s email address. Through these efforts, Workman has built a highly valuable direct-to-consumer email list. “It’s more and more important for a company to develop its own space online,” Travers explained.

Students Xizi Wang, Alex Lobzhanidze, and blogger Erinn Cain with their gifts from Workman
Students Xizi Wang, Alex Lobzhanidze, and blogger Erinn Cain with their gifts from Workman

At the conclusion of the visit, each student was presented with a Workman calendar. While we loved these souvenirs, we were especially grateful to receive an in-depth understanding of how the company has uniquely positioned itself in an ever-changing industry.

by Erinn Cain

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