Best-known for a dozen hand-lettered cooking and lifestyle books published by Little, Brown starting in the 1980s, Susan Branch is the latest mainstream author to turn to self-publishing, or in her case hybrid publishing, with Vineyard Stories, a company located near her home on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. Her new book, A Fine Romance, also her first in nearly a decade, tells the story of a two-month long ramble through England with her partner, Joe Hall, and hovered in the top 500 at Amazon for a number of weeks after its mid-August release. The book has also popped up on a number of independent bookstores’ bestsellers list, although she was recently forced to take a brief hiatus from a coast-to-coast indie book tour in her book mobile until the book is back in stock.
According to Vineyard Stories founder and publisher Jan Pogue, who handled editing and production for Branch’s hand-lettered travel memoir with her trademark watercolors, the press has already sold out its first printing of 10,000 copies. An “equivalently sized” printing is due at the end of October, and a third printing is already in the works for early in 2014. In the interim, some are selling “collectible” first printings online at more than the $26.95 suggested retail price. “We were totally unprepared for this,” said Pogue, referring to the velocity of the book’s sales. Branch presold 4,000 copies to her fans and has sold upwards of 200 copies at many of her signings. Although Little, Brown typically did first printings of 125,000 copies, Branch was more cautious with her print budget. But not so frugal that she has skimped on the book, which has like lots of photos, heavy stock, and a red grosgrain ribbon bookmark.
“Blogging opened my eyes to new possibilities,” said Branch of her decision to publish on her own. She recalls her first visit to Little, Brown’s old offices in the Cabot mansion on Beacon Hill and thinking that she would stay there “forever.” But, says Branch, “if a person wants to be viable, which she very much does, she learns to change with the times.”
The book was not without its challenges on the publishing side, particularly since it is entirely handwritten. When Pogue contacted a copyeditor to work on A Fine Romance, she told him that he couldn’t use electronic tools. Each correction Branch made would have to be hand painted. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Pogue, who has published 31 books and has another nine in the pipeline. Her bestselling book to date, which A Fine Romance is on track to surpass, is Tom Dunlap’s Morning Glory Farm with 70 recipes and lots of color photos. This cookbook, homage to the Vineyard’s largest farm, has sold 25,000 copies and just went into a fourth printing.
Part of the success of A Fine Romance is due to the platform that Branch built between the publication of her last Little, Brown book in 2004 and today. In between, she not only licensed her art for fabric, quilts, and dishes and tried her hand at retail, but she developed a social network. She e-mails a monthly newsletter to close to 50,000 subscribers. And she created a Web site and blog visited by “Girlfriends,” many of whom attend her signings. Branch designed name tags for them, and for a few “Guyfriends,” so that they can meet each other at events. They can also view additional details about Branch’s trip at an online appendix. Since 1993, Branch has also continued to create new art for wall calendars.