In 1968 Peter Workman founded the company that bears his name with a single book, The Yoga 28-Day Exercise Program, which is still in print. In the intervening five decades, Workman has grown into one of the largest independent publishers in the U.S. with five imprints: Workman Publishing, Artisan Books, Algonquin Books, Storey Publishing, and Timber Press.
Despite Workman’s overall size, each of the imprints remains tiny and functions a lot like an independent press. This was part of Peter’s strategy for making sure that each book gets the attention it deserves. He summarized the principle in a 2010 speech: “Keep the list small so that attention can be big.”
Over the years, that attention has been particularly big for some titles and series. Workman’s top-sellers always include foundational backlist titles like What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff (1984), Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton (1993), and the Brain Quest Workbooks series (first licensed as a flashcard series in 1992). CEO Daniel J. Reynolds estimates that 70%–80% of the press’s sales come from backlist.
Following Peter’s death in 2013, his wife, Carolan Workman (now president of the company), and Reynolds, who worked closely with Peter when the press acquired most of Storey Publishing in 2000, have preserved the ethos that Peter created.
As the company grew, Peter was interested not only in preserving the feel of a small press, but also in perfecting each book’s package (cover and interior). In his early days at Workman, Reynolds recalls complaining to a colleague about Peter’s relentlessness. The colleague produced a folder bulging with rejected versions of a past title. “He did 50 variations!” says Reynolds.
Even though the internet has changed the way readers find information, Workman can transform an online phenomenon into print success. The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid (Sept.) by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco is a follow-up to the 2016 bestseller Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, which sold more than 600,000 copies its first year.
“I think the sales of this book have surprised [the creators of AtlasObscura .com],” says Reynolds. The Atlas Obscura team already had a substantial audience online. “This became a real revenue stream for them,” he adds. “My goodness—think of a digital company getting a revenue stream from a printed book.”
Looking forward to the next 50 years, Reynolds plans to follow the same small-list strategy that Peter established a half century ago. “It all comes back to focus,” says Reynolds. “Do a few books and do them well.”