A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Arcadia Publishing


Pioneers of the neighborhood history market

By Marcos Soriano

Chances are that even if you’ve never heard of Arcadia Publishing, you’ve seen their books. Arcadia’s sepia-toned Images of America series are the veritable definition of ubiquity, claiming entire sections of bookstores and popping up in all sorts of unexpected locations: museums, drug stores, hardware stores—even ice cream parlors and gas stations. The company has been around for about 15 years and it already boasts a catalogue of more than 5000 titles, with between 15 and 20 new titles coming out every week. How has this relatively small publishing house commanded such success, and what kind of impact can it have on your neighborhood? Read on, and find out.

Arcadia came to life in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1993, as a brand of Tempus Publishing, a United Kingdom-based company focusing on books about neighborhood history. In 2004 Arcadia’s CEO Richard Joseph bought the company from Tempus, and he has maintained private ownership of it ever since. Joseph is responsible for moving corporate offices to Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and under his leadership Arcadia has experienced massive growth in both profits and production. As a result of this growth, Arcadia now maintains regional offices in Chicago, San Francisco, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Arcadia currently publishes 10 different book series, with topics ranging from railroads to sports to Black history, but the company started with, and owes it success to, the Images of America series. Each book in this series follows a strict format and formula: they are all identical in size and shape, with 128 pages and a $19.99 price tag, and they all focus the bulk of their content on historical black and white photographs, with about 200 photographs appearing in every book. In an interview with a South Carolina business web site, Richard Joseph attributes some of Arcadia’s success to this uniformity of product: “Our customer’s trust that we will bring a consistent and quality product to the market, so they continue to buy our new titles.”

Within that uniformity, there remains surprising potential for diversity. “Each author has control of their book’s outline,” Kai Oliver-Kurtin, a Publicity Manager for Arcadia, told me in a recent telephone conversation. “They decide what the chapters will be about. They choose the photographs and write the captions. They choose cover images.” The result is often a book that reflects its author’s specific interests, and these can vary wildly. Some books might endeavor to show the development of a town over its entire history, with pictures drawn from city archives and the files of historical societies, while other books focus in on a specific era, and gather their images from the author’s private collection. For example, the Images of America book San Francisco’s Castro, by Strange De Jim, offers a few dozen pictures of the Castro’s early years, and more than 100 images relating to the Gay Rights movement from the 1970s and on. “Our author’s have diverse backgrounds,” Oliver-Kurtin said. “We’ve worked with mayors, librarians, historians, educators, [etc]...”

One thing the authors share is a level of expertise in the area they are writing about. “Our acquisition team goes town to town to find authors, and each book has to be approved by a number of teams,” Oliver-Kurtin said. “[We look for] authors with an established name. If the author doesn’t have a name, they must have connections [within their area].” Arcadia relies on its authors’ knowledge in order to provide intimate and esoteric information about the neighborhoods covered.

Sometimes Arcadia’s use of an author’s knowledge extends beyond the book’s content, especially with regard to product distribution. “We ask author’s for ideas on good places to sell,” Oliver-Kurtin said. “About a third of our sales come from non-traditional book markets: gift markets, beauty supply stores…wherever there is traffic.” Arcadia handles its own distribution, which puts it in a good position to capitalize on an author’s first-hand knowledge.

Arcadia also makes some of its sales by encouraging authors to take their books directly to people. Authors use their personal connections to get coverage in local media, like neighborhood newspapers, announcing the release of new titles. Book signings can also be great for selling copies. “We’ve had book signings where the author sells 100 books,” Oliver-Kurtin said.

Profits from book sales are divided between Arcadia and the author. While most books are authored by individuals, many Images of America titles are authored by community organizations such as local historical societies. In such cases, book sales can provide income that organizations can’t achieve through normal fundraising and donations. The books also have the power to inspire community pride and public interest in a neighborhood’s history, which can translate into greater support for local organizations, and a healthier community overall. “I know of a lot of cases in which our books have piqued people’s interest in local history,” Oliver-Kurtin said. “We’ve even had people write to us to say ‘I saw my grandfather on page12!’”

Although Arcadia has titles for neighborhoods across the United States, the publishing house has seen disproportionate success in certain areas. “I have no idea [why that is],” Oliver-Kurtin said. “Arizona, California, and the Pacific Northwest definitely buy more books than the South. In fact, we worry a little about market saturation in those areas, and we’re hoping to expand our business in untapped territory, like Idaho and Wyoming.” That means there’s an opportunity for proposals from authors in those areas. Arcadia’s acquisition team welcomes inquiries from potential authors. If you’re interested in putting together an Images of America book about your hometown, you can “go to our website,” Oliver-Kurtin said, “and get in contact with the closest editorial office.”

 

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