A maverick publishing house that bucks the big business trend
Wellesley, Mass. — As you step into the modest offices of the Independent School Press across from the tree-lined banks of the Charles River, you're as likely as not to be greeted by Loree, an affectionate golden retriever. Hardly the kind of reception you'd expect from a company in the dog-eat-dog world of textbook publishing. But the Independent School Press is just what its name implies -- independent in every way. To begin with, the company sprang from its founders' distaste for what happened to their industry two decades ago, when big corporations started hungrily gobbling up publishing houses. Henry Roberts, then president of the Plimpton Press, found his firm acquired by McCall's, a branch of the Norton Simon conglomerate. Co-founder Sturtevant Hobbs's former company, textbook publisher D. C. Heath, was swallowed by Raytheon Corporation.
Such corporate marriages were ``not precisely compatible,'' notes Mr. Hobbs, with more than a touch of understatement to his slow New England twang. He and Mr. Roberts soon ``opted out'' of their longtime niches in established publishing, joined forces, and set their sights on a somewhat neglected segment of the textbook market -- private, or independent, secondary schools.
Hobbs, who knew the textbook field well from his years as marketing manager with Heath, says he fully expected to be either ``a fabulous success or to go bankrupt within two years.'' In fact, he continues, the reality has been quite the opposite -- slow, steady growth over 18 years now, with only one year that didn't show an enhancement of sales. For the current year, the partners anticipate sales of between $800,000 and $900,000, with some 130 titles in print.
The bulk of their business continues to come from independent schools -- ranging from such prestigious institutions as Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and the Greenwich Country Day School in Greenwich, Conn., to some of the recently established Christian private schools. But the mix of customers is changing, and Hobbs expects sales to public schools to almost double this year, up to 30 percent of the firm's total.
This, he says, beaming, is a direct result of the reform movement in the nation's public high schools, which has resulted in a push toward tougher curricula -- and hence tougher textbooks. California's recent demand for more solid high school science texts, for example, warmed the hearts of Messrs. Hobbs and Roberts.
The books produced by the Independent School Press, you see, are often an academic light-year away from standard high school texts. Hobbs mentions the ``English Competency Handbook,'' which was briefly written up in the 1975 issue of Newsweek, headlined ``Why Johnnie Can't Read.'' The Independent School Press product was held up as an example of what English texts ought to be like. Orders for the book shot up, and a couple of big publishers came forward with offers to produce a college version o f the textbook. But word soon came back from them that the book was too difficult for college, laughs Hobbs, adding that it's used with ninth-graders at Phillips Academy.
Although toughness may scare off some publishers, it's just what many reform-minded educators are looking for. Roberts mentions that the Pittsburgh public schools recently placed a ``huge order'' with the firm for a book he describes as ``an introduction to the study of language through Latin.''
Indeed, the classics, and Latin in particular, are specialties at the Independent School Press. ``We're one of the few companies that has maintained faith with the classics and with classics teachers,'' says Hobbs. It's true that Latin texts have a very limited market, but that's no hindrance for the Hobbs-Roberts operation.
Big textbook publishers ``wouldn't and couldn't touch'' many of the Wellesley firm's products, explains Hobbs, since they have to have a guaranteed sale of 25,000 copies a year. With a very low overhead and small but steady market, ``we can get by with 2,500 to 3,000 copies a year,'' he says.
Language texts -- particularly French, Spanish, and Latin -- are a mainstay of the Independent School Press. But the company also offers history, math, and English texts, essentially covering the full curricula of most of its customers. Its authors are drawn heavily from the faculties of independent schools themselves, and a board of experts drawn from the same source helps screen manuscripts. The press's full-time staff numbers only six, including three hard- working editors, a shipping clerk, and, of course, the two principals.
Those two very low key, but shrewd Yankee businessmen sometimes enjoy referring to their company as ``our ridiculous operation.'' Unorthodox, certainly, and totally out of step with their Brobdingnagian colleagues in the textbook business. But, as they themselves note, the Independent School Press may be very much in step with important trends in American education.