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Go Seabiscuit!

Independents Feel the Buzz of Summer Blockbuster Movies
It’s one of the hit films of the summer, the story of the little racehorse with a big heart that captured the imagination of America during the Great Depression with his come-from-behind, against-all-odds spirit. No wonder that independent publishers related to this story…

Seabiscuit the movie opened on July 25th, fifth place for the weekend box office $21.5 million) despite opening in over a third less theaters than the top four films. On its second weekend it came in fourth, losing only 16 per cent of its audience -- most movies lose about 40 per cent – so it looks like it will have staying power. Based on the hugely successful non-fiction book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, the movie has inspired a new round of book publishing, from the usual mass market spin-offs, to children’s books and a re-published version of the story by one of America’s revered storytellers.

One of the films that beat Seabiscuit was “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the summer’s biggest hit so far, and along with the upcoming “Master and Commander” establishes a new trend of swashbuckling nautical movies. Indie publisher McBooks Press has used this buzz to promote their new title Man of War, by Alexander Kent, as well as an upcoming Lord Horatio Nelson biography.

McBooks also recently scored an ESPN movie tie-in, with their backlist football title, The Ice Bowl, being chosen as the principal source of the sports network’s third feature length film. McBooks will release a new trade paper edition to coincide with the movie’s release.

“This book is a quantum leap for us,” says marketing director Judy Dietz. “The first printing will be our biggest ever by a factor of four! We are spending some significant co-op money to ensure that the book is seen everywhere.” Dietz says McBooks will also take advantage of the cross-media boost from the naval films that should last through the holidays.

These successes come at just the right time for the Ithaca, NY-based publisher, as they recover from a $300K loss suffered during the LPC distribution bankruptcy. Hooray for Hollywood!

At this year’s BookExpo America, a Hollywood theme permeated the show, and one of the most highly attended discussion panels was “Demystifying the Books-to-Hollywood Connection: How Agents, Scouts and Producers Work Together.” A film producer, two rights agents, and a scout explored “the co-dependent relationship between Hollywood and the book industry” and discussed the changing methods for successfully optioning a book for film or television.

“About half of the films made today come from books, so Hollywood is very eager to know about what’s coming down the pike,” says literary agent and rights expert Tad Floridis, who moderated the panel. “Publishers need to realize that making a film is a long, dirty process compared to publishing a book, and it requires great patience.”

“The overriding trend today is caution, and studios are spending less than they did ten years ago. But, small presses still have a good chance if their book takes off, like a long-shot racehorse, and captures the public’s imagination.”

One of the small press titles you’ll find in Seabiscuit display windows this summer is the self-published children’s book, Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral: The Greatest Horse Race in History, by Kat Shehata and her mother, Society of Illustrators award-winning artist Jo McElwee. The women have a dream to make the New York Times Best Seller List, and if they can it will be the first self-published mother/daughter team to do so.

The Cincinnati, Ohio natives are right on track, as their book hit the shelves just in time for the movie premiere. They were in attendance at a special advance screening in Louisville, Kentucky, where part of Seabiscuit was filmed, and “autographed books non-stop” after the movie.

“We decided to write about Seabiscuit for two reasons,” says Shehata. “First, the story of Seabiscuit fits with our publishing motto of ‘true stories about real animals.’ Secondly, we knew we could get the book out in time for the movie premier. As an independent publisher we don't have huge marketing budgets like the New York publishers. We decided to take advantage of all the Seabiscuit publicity surrounding Laura Hillenbrand's book and the movie.”

Barnes & Noble will feature their book in a nationwide Seabiscuit promotion, Publisher’s Weekly is doing a review, and they were contacted by ABC TV’s 20/20 about using McElwee’s illustrations for a recent Seabiscuit special (but they didn’t make the final cut).

Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral tells the exciting story of the “match race” of the century and what happens in the final seconds that puts one horse in the winner’s circle while the other is left in the dust. Historically accurate illustrations, a glossary of sixty "horse" terms, and an illustrated diagram of the race track add to the book’s interest and educational value.

Shehata and McElwee are responsible for every aspect of creation from start to finish in their Angel Bea Publishing books, including all the marketing and PR. They’ve established a relationship with The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA is working directly with Universal Pictures on Seabiscuit promotions) and have gotten the book into major race tracks and tack shops across the country.

And, they did it all in their “spare time,” from the comfort of their separate home offices. “My mom has a fulltime job and I am busy with three kids,” Shehata says. “But, when you really want something to happen, anything is possible.” The University of Nebraska Press is one of the largest state university presses in the nation in terms of titles published, and is among the top ten university presses in the nation in terms of annual sales volume.

UNP publishes the books of Ralph Moody (1898-1983), best known for the Little Britches series and other books like Stagecoach West and The Fields of Home. Moody grew up poor in the 1920s, and wrote about the old-time virtues of hard work, ingenuity, and respect for others. During the Great Depression, when Seabiscuit captured the hearts of down-and-out Americans by shattering speed and prize money records across the country, Moody wrote Come on Seabiscuit! to illustrate the qualities of a real self-made American champion. Laura Hillenbrand said in a recent NPR interview that she bought the book herself as a seven-year-old child, “read it over and over,” and still owns a tattered copy. Without it, she may not have written her own Seabiscuit chronicle.

“We’re the longtime publisher of Ralph Moody’s books, which have a loyal and enthusiastic readership,” says UNP publicist Erika Kuebler Rippeteau. “We also publish sports history and sports biography books, so when the Hillenbrand book took off, we saw it as a perfect opportunity to bring Come on Seabiscuit! back into print. Soon after launching the project in-house, we learned of the PBS documentary and the major motion picture in the works.”

To promote and market Come on Seabiscuit! UNP has highlighted it on the "featured books" page of their website and placed links to the PBS documentary and the feature film on the book’s page on their site. The press also alerted their sales representatives about the movie’s launch. “We hope that readers, especially young adults, will find their way to Moody's classic story in the wake of the current Hollywood buzz,” says Rippeteau.

Another press that was well-equipped to ride the Seabiscuit wave was Blood-Horse Publications, publisher of weekly thoroughbred racing magazine The Blood-Horse since 1916.  Editors at the company’s book division Eclipse Press felt there would be great interest in reading the actual racing accounts from Seabiscuit's racing days. Delving into their archives, they found not only the stories of Seabiscuit's career but also an array of original photographs to bring The Seabiscuit Story to life. 

“We're very pleased with the number and variety of marketing opportunities presented to us because of the impact associated with anything ‘Seabiscuit,’" says Eclipse marketing manager Gerilyn Parfitt. “But we've been very careful to differentiate our story from any others.  We are in the wonderfully unique position of having created, and therefore owning, the real-life, real-time accounts of Seabiscuit's amazing rags-to-riches story, and want to make them available for others' reading pleasure, but with a style befitting this equine hero.”

As an exclusively horse-related publisher, Eclipse is the veteran of the field, producing 12-15 new titles each year, and owning a backlist “stable” of nearly 80 books. “As with any industry, thoroughbred racing faces unique challenges, particularly in current economic times,” says Parfitt. “But Funny Cide took us all for a great ride this spring in his quest for the Triple Crown, and we're very excited by the prospects now provided by Seabiscuit.”

Of all the Seabiscuit books, the story behind one of them is the stuff of a Hollywood movie plot. Seabiscuit: The Saga of a Great Champion is the first published title of Westholme Publishing, recently founded by Bruce Franklin, a 16-year veteran of the University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania presses. Two years ago Franklin found an old horse racing book at a flea market and bought it for his wife. Soon after, when the Seabiscuit buzz began building, he took another look at the 1940 copyright book and realized it was one of Hillenbrand’s main sources, written by B.K. Beckwith, a contemporary of Seabiscuit’s owner, trainer, and jockey. The book’s original publisher was long gone, and it was ripe for rediscovery and republishing.

“The timing was right,” says Franklin, who had specialized in republishing titles at his previous jobs. “I wanted to launch my own company, and had already saved the money and developed the business plan. To run across this book at this time was total serendipity.”

The initial print run of 5,000 sold quickly, especially after the book caught the attention of the Barnes & Noble sports buyer, who liked it so much she added it to an August display table of horse books chain-wide. Franklin has also invested in online promotions directed at people who search for Seabiscuit on the Web or who have purchased related books in the past. He expects to reach 20,000 copies sold, depending on the length of the film’s run in theaters.

“I’ve heard one of the reasons the movie opened in a fairly small number of theaters was that they plan to build slowly and run it for a long time,” says Franklin. “If that’s the case, who knows, we might just top 50,000 – it’s not much compared to Laura Hillenbrand’s 3 million sold – but it is a great way to start a press.”


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