In a small Santa Monica office whose otherwise spartan atmosphere is shattered by the presence of the only genuine stuffed giraffe’s head in L.A. County, Quay Hays presides over one of the greatest success stories in the local publishing industry.
General Publishing Group has won distinction by being first on Publishers Weekly’s list of the fastest-growing small publishers in the country for the past two years in a row.
And while most new book publishing firms survive because their founders manage to discover a niche not exploited by the industry giants, General Publishing is aggressively competing with the likes of Warner Books Inc. and Chronicle Publishing Co. in producing one of the industry’s most high-end items: coffee table books.
In only four years of existence, it has grown from a one-man operation with one title and $160,000 in revenues to a rapidly expanding industry player with 32 employees, 40 commissioned sales representatives around the country and $15 million in annual sales.
“We certainly look at General Publishing as a very creative, market-oriented publisher that has done a lot of good things, and we expect them to continue doing good things,” said Jim Parker, vice president of the product group for book wholesaler/distributor Ingram Book Co. based in La Vergne, Tenn.
General Publishing is one of only 42 “Platinum Partners” with Ingram, a designation awarded by the distributor to its best customers. Most of the others are long-established industry giants.
General Publishing specializes in large, hard-cover, non-fiction books most of them related in some way to the entertainment industry. Some of its hottest sellers include “Frank Sinatra: An American Legend” by Nancy Sinatra and a fan book for the soap opera “General Hospital.” Both sold over 120,000 copies.
For reference, a coffee table book that sells more than about 15,000 copies is considered a success, according to Hays. Since its founding in 1992, General Publishing has released five titles with sales over 100,000.
Hays, at 40, already had a long history of entrepreneurship before starting General Publishing. It is actually his fourth company, although the others a restaurant called Bao Wow, a graphic design firm and an entertainment publicity agency no longer exist.
Long-time fans of radio station KROQ-FM 106.7 might recognize Hays from his previous incarnation as a disc jockey from 1981 to 1984, but only if they were light sleepers; his show started after midnight.
“I was the worst DJ in Los Angeles,” said Hays, who adds that his real job at the station was promotions director, and spinning discs was just a sideline.
It was while running his graphic design firm, the Fleming/Hays Group, that he decided to go into publishing. He started General Publishing with his own savings and a $25,000 line of credit.
“I think books are the most exciting marriage of art and commerce,” Hays said. “Of all the media, ink on paper is the most exciting to me. It can change the world.”
Hays initially wanted to start a magazine, but in 1992 advertising was down and paper prices were soaring. Instead, he convinced the Democratic National Committee to commission a book on the history of the Democratic Party. There was only one hitch: He took on the job in January 1992, and the Democrats wanted the book to be ready in time for their national convention that July.
He originally intended only to package the book and hire a large publishing company to print and distribute it. But when every firm he called said it was impossible to do the job so quickly, he went it alone.
The resulting tome “Of the People,” featuring articles from such party notables as Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, was on the shelves at Barnes & Noble book stores in time for the convention. Its entire print run of 16,000 copies was sold out.
General Publishing’s breakaway growth since then can be attributed mainly to its ability to pick the right projects and make deals with some major authors and entertainment companies.
In 1994, he approached Playboy Enterprises Inc. head Christie Hefner with the idea to produce a coffee table book about the magazine’s 40th anniversary. The result was a retrospective called “The Playboy Book 40 Years,” which sold over 290,000 copies. Such celebrities as Bob Hope and Bud Greenspan have also penned books for the company.
Promotion is another important part of General Publishing’s formula. Hays’ wife Sharon, the former personal assistant for horror movie queen Elvira, runs a four-person P.R. department that aggressively markets the company’s authors as talk show guests and fodder for print interviews.
“We can promote a book better than any other company,” said Quay Hays.
Three main types of books are considered by General Publishing, all non-fiction: coffee table books like those already mentioned, books by first-time authors and manuscripts that have already been submitted to and rejected by the big publishers in New York.
“There’s a lot of talent out here in Los Angeles, and sometimes it’s difficult to attract the interest of a publisher,” Hays said. “We just pick the titles that we feel we can knock out of the park.”