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Toby Press Gambles on Online-Only Bookselling--and Takes on Amazon.com

By Jill Sebra | Posted 5/17/2000

Matthew Miller wants to be your everything, at least when it comes to literature. The American businessperson, now based in London, is bypassing all the usual bookselling outlets and relying solely on himself for success with his 7-month-old publishing company, Toby Press. He signs the new talent, markets their work, and sells the product directly to his consumers. Miller plans to publish five or six books per quarter and sell them exclusively via mail order, toll-free phone service, and his Web site, tobypress.com.

No other book publisher has attempted such a leap of faith. The Wall Street Journal quotes Roger Straus, president of the New York-based publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, calling Miller's business plan financial suicide. What's more, Miller has chosen to focus on highbrow literary fiction of the sort that generally attracts female readers over the age of 40, a demographic that has yet to jump wholeheartedly onto the Internet bandwagon.

That's why Samantha Dunn, one of Toby Press' first authors, was skeptical of signing on with the virtual publishing house. "People in their 50s and 60s may be serious readers, but they aren't necessarily hip to the Internet," she says in a company release. But she decided to listen to her agent, who told her, "Listen, it's worth a shot."

Because of his customer base's perceived reluctance to accept cyberbuying, Miller is also buying ad space in upscale magazines such as Smithsonian and The New Yorker, encouraging telephone and mail-in orders.

It may be financially risky, but Toby Press' business plan is not an especially novel idea. Plenty of businesses have made the Web their primary or even sole sales outlet--the biggest, of course, being Amazon.com. But since going online in 1995, Amazon has yet to show a profit, despite yearly revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. (The company has branched out into auctions, patio furniture, and toys, but those ventures haven't improved its profit margin.) In another notable example, perhaps more comparable in scale to Miller's venture, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince--having broken with his longtime label, Warner Bros.--set up a Web site as the only outlet to sell an ambitious three-disc box set. Praise and criticism abounded, but after all the dust cleared sales were low and the discs soon showed up at retailers nationwide--at a substantially cheaper price than the Artist originally quoted online.

So, if the Toby Press experiment fails, will its books eventually show up at your local Borders or Barnes & Noble? Miller says no, and he's using the money he made during his career with European appliance and gardening companies to back him up. Over the next two years, he plans to invest more than $2 million of his own money in the privately held press. "I think there's a market for very, very well-produced books," he says.

It helps that Miller isn't afraid to go after the big boys. After a mere two months in business, Toby Press filed a lawsuit against Amazon, claiming the larger company was misleading his potential customers. Miller contends Amazon was erroneously listing his books as unavailable and directing consumers to check back periodically for reprint information; the titles were, in fact, available, but only through Toby Press. Amazon has not responded publicly to the suit, but its database no longer includes Toby Press books, meaning requests for them on Amazon generates a "no matching titles" reply. Queries on other major Internet booksellers elicit similar responses. His competitors may not want to help him, but if Miller's lawsuit is successful Amazon will list his books again--with an accompanying hyperlink to his site.

Business tactics aside, what's most important is the literary lineup--no matter where or how they're bought, are these books worth buying? Miller is publishing some of the most beautiful, reader-friendly books around, with slick, colorful covers and larger-than-normal print on heavy paper stock. The hardcover and paperback versions are equally well-made and -designed. But what might be a selling point for the casual bookstore browser is lost on the mail- and Internet-order crowd. The consumers have no idea how nice the books are until they've actually bought one.

Which makes the books' and authors' literary quality even more important in catching buyers' eyes. Miller says he is focusing on writers he calls "casualties" of the current publishing wars, authors who haven't been published in English (eight of Toby Press' first 12 titles are translations) or have been overlooked because their mainstream publishers deemed their work unsuitable for mass consumption. No word on sales yet--"We only started selling last November; it's really much too early to make any sensible financial assessment," Miller says. "But I can say that sales are now rising!" For Tobypress.com, it seems, hope springs virtual.

Toby Press books can be ordered online at www. tobypress.com; by mail at P.O. Box 8531, New Milford, CT 06776-8531; by phone at (800) 810-7191; or by fax at (800) 810-7703. The phone and fax calls are free.

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