From its first book in 1992 -- "Cleveland Public Golf Courses," currently called "The Cleveland Golfer's Bible and now in its fifth edition -- to "Dick Goddard's Weather Guide for Northeast Ohio," "The Cleveland Orchestra Story," "The Corpse in the Cellar," "Omar!" "One Tank Trips" and the recent "LeBron James," Gray's books cover the gamut of Cleveland past and present.
David Gray, president of Gray & Co., grew up in Shaker Heights but began his career as an unpaid intern at a Boston publishing company.
"I did a good enough job that they offered me a job there," Gray says. "I started as an intern and wound up as the general manager of a 15-person company, basically by working through the business end.
" ... I learned everything from book design to royalty accounting and accounts payable and all the boring basic business things that are not the things that attract a lot of people who want to get into the publishing business. That's how I was able to get a job, keep job and move up fairly quickly, by doing the things other people didn't want to do."
After six years, he left the company with no other plan than to "travel for awhile and waste my meager savings." He says he left that job because although he was in a position of responsibility, he didn't have enough authority.
"I wasn't able to make changes in the business in order to improve and to grow," Gray says. "In the No. 2 or No. 3 position, you're not going to become No. 1, because the owner is No. 1. And you are working with someone whose personality is responsible for a lot of the decisions that are made. If you have a basic conflict with the vision for the company, there's not much you can do about it."
Smart Business spoke with Gray about being the boss, marketing books and expanding his company to other markets.
How did Gray & Company, Publishers, get its start?
I wound up back in Cleveland for the Christmas holidays in 1990, and, having spent all my money (traveling), took a job in a bookstore to earn money so I could buy Christmas presents. While there, I noticed there was a small supply of books about Cleveland that sold very well, and that's where I came up with the idea. I thought if there were good books about Cleveland, they'd sell even better.
At the same time, I was filling in for Enterprise Development, and they ran a business incubator. ... They fostered entrepreneurism, so it was a really good environment for thinking about starting a business. Then you find out it's a lot harder to keep the thing going once you start it. I mistakenly thought it would be easier to start a business than just go look for another job.
How do you find the subjects and authors for your books?
It's a mixture. At first, I had roster of ideas that I went out seeking writers for, because at that time, there was not a commercial book publisher in Cleveland. Writers weren't shopping around book ideas because there was no one to shop them around to.
So I had to get started finding people who were interested in writing books. At this point, having published 50 or more books and having been around for a dozen years, a lot more people find us. And that's a good thing, because I obviously don't have a corner on the market for good ideas for books, and some of our best ideas have come from outside the company.
Is it easy to convince national chains to sell books on local topics?
Luckily, yes. In the book industry, there's been a long enough tradition of local interest ... that the retailers understand that it's an important component of their inventory. So you go into a Borders or a Barnes & Noble, and one of the more prominent sections you'll find is local interest.
Local interest sells well, and it also helps them establish their credibility with the local market. They're a national chain, but they carry products of particular interest to us. You won't find that in the music industry.
How do you advertise your product?
Book marketing is essentially generating word-of-mouth publicity. Any given book doesn't sell enough copies or generate enough revenue to reward much market research. You just have to publish it and figure out how to make it sell.
You don't see much advertising in publishing because there's not enough money to be made per book that you can lay out much for traditional advertising. That makes sense if you've got a product or a business or a store that you're trying to get repeat business to, but we're trying to sell a $15 product one time to a person.
(The best advertising is) when one person says to another, 'Hey, I just read this great book, I think you'd like it,' or when someone says, 'I heard this person on the radio talking about ethnic restaurants, that (book) sounds like something we ought to get for mom.'
We focus a lot of our marketing energies on trying to generate word-of-mouth publicity, and a lot of that is done through news media. And luckily for us, with our type of product, these are interesting, creative works by interesting, creative people. We're not just trying to plug a product through the media; we try to find good fits where our authors are newsworthy or featureworthy because they've got stories with good value.
We get authors out doing interviews, doing talks before library groups, interesting things they have to say about the topic that they share with other people. And they tell two people, and so on.
When we work with authors, because we're local and they're local, we really are active partners in the promotion of the book. And certain authors, who are either knowledgeable about their subject matter or just interested in self-promotion, tend to do better than authors who aren't as interested in promoting themselves.
A lot of writers are not promotional types. They're writers. But when you combine the two, that's when we're more likely to have a hit.
Are there plans to expand to markets outside of Cleveland?
I'd like to. As with any business, the plan sometimes tends to stretch out a little further than you initially expected. We've been growing with very little capital, a small capital investment at the start of the business from a number of individuals, and no additional capital since that time.
Growth will require either significantly increased revenue and profit in this market so we can self-fund, or another round of fund-raising to take the next step.
Right now, I'm still trying to show to the investors and to myself that we can make money in the Cleveland market. At this point we're making money, but it's not guaranteed every year, and it's not enough.
I'd like to expand to do more. We can't expand infinitely in Cleveland because sooner or later, we'll be sick and tired of books about Cleveland. There's not enough market for that. Certainly a lot of the books we've done here could be done for other cities, too. How to reach: Gray & Co., Publishers, (800) 915-3609 or www.grayco.com.