Jed Lyons was working for a congressman on Capitol Hill in 1975 when he decided to switch careers. He left Washington, D.C., and headed to New York to look for a job in publishing. But, he says, “I couldn’t get interviews—it was the middle of a recession.”
Only after he went home to Washington unemployed did Lyons catch a break, when he ran into an acquaintance who was interested in starting a publishing house called the University Press of America. Forty-two years later, Lyons is president and CEO of Rowman Littlefield, and one of independent publishing’s most respected figures.
For the first decade of his career, it was a trial by fire, with a skeleton staff trying just about anything to get off the ground. “My former partners were involved in other businesses,” Lyons says. “I think it was maybe two years before we hired anyone.”
Unable to afford new textbook manuscripts, Lyons carved out a niche licensing the reprint rights to low-selling titles published by Random House, Harper Row, and other major textbook publishers of the time. “I realized that large textbook publishers would pull books out-of-print when they were still selling hundreds if not thousands a year,” he says. “They couldn’t believe we were interested in these books that looked to them like crumbs falling off the table, but for us, where we started with nothing, it was a great way to begin.”
It wasn’t until 1979 that University Press of America published a textbook Lyons could call a bestseller of his own: Thomas J. Hinnebusch and Sarah M. Mirza’s Kiswahili, msingi wa kusema kusoma na kuandika—Swahili, a foundation text for learning to speak, read, and write. It was the first of many in-house textbooks, and part of a slew of textbook and policy book publishing arrangements that built the foundation of the press.
To grow, Lyons formed copublishing relationships with Washington’s think tanks and helped universities launch their own presses, including George Washington University Press, American University Press, and George Mason University Press. His strategy paid off, and in 1984, Lyons and his growing staff of 12 caught the eye of Scribner, which took on UPA as a distribution client. As he was beginning to gain a foothold, however, Lyons faced a series of challenges that tested the press.
Trouble began with the demise of a number of UPA’s copublishing agreements with the university presses Lyons had helped launch. “What I realized is, just as a university can choose to start a university press and operate a university press under its own name, they could also close it,” Lyons says. “We didn’t have any control over the ownership.”
A year after striking his distribution agreement, Lyons was dealt another blow when Scribner was sold to Macmillan. “We were too small,” Lyons says, “and Macmillan showed us the door.” Without a distributor, he was at a standstill. He had two options; seek out a distribution agreement with one of the handful of independent book distributors in the country, or strike out on his own. In 1986, he decided to do the latter and launched the National Book Network in the D.C. suburb of Lanham, Md.
“We started it figuring that there were probably other small publishers who would want to come on board,” Lyons says, and sure enough, “a number of other Scribner clients became clients of National Book Network.”
With distribution up and running, UPA also began a series of acquisitions, the most important being Rowman Littlefield, which UPA purchased in 1987. The company had a sizable backlist and devoted clientele for intermediate and advanced textbook content. “That was really the trigger,” Lyons says. UPA took Rowman’s name as the parent company of its operations and 40 acquisitions later, Rowman is still the flagship and anchor of Lyons’s publishing empire.
Rowman and NBN now have more than 500 employees, $130 million in sales in 2016, half a million square feet of warehouse space, and dozens of imprints and distribution clients, and Lyons credits their success to a combination of traditional good business practices, established publishing methods, and a willingness to embrace new technology. He notes that Rowman was one of the first tech-savvy publishers, embracing simultaneous publication of e-books with print 15 years ago. In the same breath, he proudly touts his dedication to print advertising, sending four million pieces of direct mail to prospective buyers each year. Libraries make up 40% of Rowman’s sales, Lyons says, and direct mail is still the best way to reach professors whose preferences affect library purchases at universities: “We started with direct mail on day one and have utilized it as our primary tool ever since.”
In the past few years, Lyons has reinforced his textbook and academic sales with a series of regional and genre-specific trade imprint acquisitions. These include Down East Books, Globe Pequot, Lyons Press (no relation to Jed), Stackpole, Taylor, and others. Each imprint gives Rowman prominence in a specific content area, from military history to climbing guides. “A lot of these companies were around a long time and the owner wanted to retire,” Lyons says. In many cases, the relationships that led to the acquisitions were built over the length of his entire career. For instance, Lyons took the late founder of Stackpole, David Detweiler, to dinner at BookExpo many times over the course of 25 years. “When he decided to sell,” Lyons says, “he called me.”
A discussion with Lyons is apt to come around to his encyclopedic knowledge of the books each imprint publishes and the types of readers they appeal to. For example, given the opportunity, he’ll happily deliver a mini-discourse on readers of books on angling (“Fly fishermen and fisherwomen are kind of like baseball fans. They’re the most literate and well-educated audience in the angling world”) and then parse why Lyons’s and Stackpole’s angling lists appeal to different kinds of angling readership (“Stackpole is known for publishing books for intermediate and expert readers, and Lyons does beginning to intermediate”).
His obsessions with all things content related are an affirmation of why Lyons is happy to have ended up back in Washington after looking for that job in New York all those years ago. “Washington is a great publishing town,” he says. “You have these remarkable institutional resources that we’ve drawn upon—the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the think tanks, and the museums.”
Lyons adds an autobiographical note: “There are also a lot of super-smart people who come to Washington. Many of them come to work on Capitol Hill and then peel off. I think it’s a great place to be in publishing.”