Image excerpted from Making a Life by Melanie Falick (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2019. Photographs by Rinne Allen.
When I started working in book publishing back in the early 1990s, there weren’t nearly as many craft books published as there are today. I remember looking for them at my local bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, on the Upper West Side in New York City. If my memory serves me correctly, there were just a couple of shelves covering knitting, quilting, sewing, and needlepoint. I would sit down on the floor there and leaf through many of them, deciding which ones I would purchase and which ones I would save up for. I have a distinct recollection of buying Principles of Knitting by June Hemmons Hiatt and admiring books by knitwear designers like Kaffe Fassett , Annabel Fox, Alice Starmore, and Debbie Bliss.
Fast forward a few years and I had written my first book, Knitting in America, which celebrated the American knitting community and, somewhat surprisingly to the publisher, Artisan Books, made a big splash and sold very well. We were, indeed, onto something, and slowly the few shelves devoted to craft books at bookstores began to expand. Super-sized places like Barnes & Noble and Borders and small indies alike started devoting more than a few shelves to crafting. We could sit on the floor and study them or, in many places, we could sit on the chairs and couches they provided for our comfort.
These stores even began to host craft meetups, a movement energized by BUST magazine publisher and editor-in-chief Debbie Stoller, who convinced twenty-somethings that crafting and, in particular, knitting, was cool—she met with her knitting group in a bar. Knitting was deemed “the new yoga,” and when Stoller’s first book, Stitch ‘n’ Bitch, came out in 2004 and made it onto the New York Times bestseller list, the floodgates opened. Nearly every book publisher in town recognized that crafting was a viable category.
Craft books take off
The trend began with knitting and then extended into sewing, quilting, paper flower-making, and more. I remember a New Yorker cartoon by BEK of two angels in handknits. The caption read “It was better before God took up knitting.” Everything was going along pretty well. I wrote a couple more books. Interweave Press, itself a prolific publisher of crafting books, hired me to edit Interweave Knits magazine. Then, in 2003, the art book publisher Abrams hired me to acquire craft books and then gave me my own imprint: STC Craft / Melanie Falick Books. Around the same time, Random House started the Potter Craft imprint. The Kindle came out in 2007 and the iPad hit stores in 2010. There was a lot of conversation about the possibility of print books becoming obsolete, but for the time being, how-to books seemed safe (and, I reasoned, books would need writers and editors regardless).
More disruptive than the presence of ebooks was the increasing amount of free and low-cost content being published on the internet, and the prevalence of behemoth retailer Amazon’s discounted pricing, which was dissuading other outlets that couldn’t afford to discount so deeply, from carrying books.
Brick-and-mortar stores started to cut down on their book inventory to avoid becoming showrooms for Amazon—customers would see a book they liked in person but then order it from Amazon at a lower price. Discoverability became a key term. Publishers and authors needed to figure out new ways for customers to discover a book and then drive them to a retailer that would sell it to them (Amazon or any other).
The impact of digital
Being part of this digital revolution, naturally, scares many professionals in the book publishing community because it requires rethinking how everything is done, from acquisition to editing to marketing to selling. How-to books present their own unique challenges because they generally include instructions in words and photos or illustrations, and these instructions can often be more easily communicated in video. And with the click of a few buttons, any of us can access seemingly limitless video—some of it is free; some of it paid. So, it makes sense to wonder: Why is it still worthwhile to write a craft book?
When Abby Glassenberg, editor of this site, asked me to answer that question here, I had just left my job at Abrams. I left because I wanted time to explore other creative opportunities and because I wanted to gain some perspective on the industry to which I had devoted nearly 25 years, one that was now in such a state of disruption. I didn’t want to abandon it but needed to figure out how to continue to contribute in a forward-thinking way. I told Abby I’d need a couple of months, not only because I had other commitments but also because I didn’t yet have a clear answer to her question. Actually, she had hit a nerve.
Fortunately, time has given me perspective and, hopefully, some wisdom, and I have formulated a simple response.
In my opinion, there are two major reasons to write a craft book:
- You have a new idea or perspective you want to study, express, and share thoughtfully in a permanent, physical format
- You want to use a book as a marketing tool.
Traditional craft book publishing is a slow process. It takes time to develop a cohesive idea and plan, to design projects, write text, take photos, lay out the pages, print, and distribute. And there are some advantages to slowness. In some ways, in fact, slow publishing is like slow food and slow design. It gives the author/chef/designer and the rest of the team time to identify quality ingredients/materials, to grow or construct them thoughtfully, and to put them out into the world in a beautiful form that pleases multiple senses. And it provides a focus for our attention, which can be a welcome counterpoint to the frenetic online world, a world that can sometimes feel like an abyss.
Where slow publishing might fall short is in the area of environmental responsibility, involving choices that may or may not be earthy-friendly, but that is a topic for a different article.
If your goal is speed, this may not be the right route for you. But if you like the idea of giving your ideas deep thought and curation and want to share them in a physical format that endures, then I think a book is a worthwhile route.
When I was at Abrams, most of my authors spent about nine to twelve months working on their manuscripts. During that time we communicated regularly, went back and forth with edits, and planned and executed the photography and illustration. The layout and design of the book took an additional three months or so in collaboration with a graphic designer. If that sounds like a wonderful creative immersion, I encourage you to pursue it. If you think your idea would be served just as well or better as a blog post, video, downloadable pdf, or the like, then obviously that is the route you should take. All of our new technology gives us more choices, so choose the one that makes the most sense for you.
In terms of marketing, I often think of a book as a very fancy business card. If it’s well-executed, it will get you noticed and open doors for you. It can also act as a portfolio or resume. Anyone who sees the book will likely make assumptions about who you are and how you work based on the quality of the content and design. I have gotten jobs thanks to my books and I know of many other craft-book authors who have also benefited in this way. Kelly Wilkinson got her position as the editorial director of Creativebug after founder Jeanne Lewis happened upon a copy of Kelly’s book Weekend Handmade and reached out to her. Joelle Hoverson took notice of Kristy McGowan’s design talent when she saw photos from Kristy’s Modern Top-Down Knitting in my office, and recently she hired Kristy to work as a designer for Purl. And Heather Ross caught the attention of her now literary agent—a prestigious one at that—when his girlfriend showed him a copy of her first book, Weekend Sewing.
A book is a tool
A well-executed book can also be an effective tool for growing and diversifying a business. Natalie Chanin, founder and creative director of Alabama Chanin, started writing books in order to share the techniques she and her team were using to create the company’s coveted, hand-stitched, organic cotton clothing and to explain their eco-conscious, community-focused business philosophy. Natalie couldn’t lower the price of these couture garments and still pay her artisan stitchers a decent wage or even sustain the business, so she decided to share the knowledge and the patterns so that anyone could make their own clothing in the Alabama Chanin style. Once the first book, Alabama Stitch Book, came out, the company began selling kits, tools, and materials as well as offering workshops, and recently they established The School of Making under which the now important DIY arm of the business falls. Natalie’s fourth book, Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns, was published last Spring.
Finally, the release of a book puts you in the news. Reviewers, podcasters, stores—they all want to know what’s new—and for a short while, you and your book could be the highlight. But, once the newness wears off, it’s up to you to keep your book relevant. This is where some authors become dismayed and lose steam. It takes energy, focus, creativity, and commitment to continue to promote a book indefinitely. In other words, it’s hard work. But if you start with an idea you’re passionate about and make it part of a multifaceted business or personal plan, then the work can pay off. I specify multifaceted because the truth is that few people can support themselves on craft book income alone.
I wrote my first book in 1996 and I’ve authored five in total. I’ve probably edited more than a hundred. And, as it turns out, I’m pretty sure I’d like to write another. I’m still distilling my ideas in order to figure out what I want to write about, but when I do, I know I will feel excited. I often ask potential authors this question: What is the book that is bubbling out of you, the one you feel you can’t not write, the one that you would buy yourself? An honest answer to that question is probably a good path to a book that is worth writing.
Melanie Falick, until recently the publishing director of STC Craft, an imprint of Abrams, is the author of Making a LIfe: Working By Hand and Discovering the Life You’re Meant to Live. She is also the author of Knitting in America (known as America Knits in paperback), Kids Knitting, Weekend Knitting, and Knit: A Personal Handbook, and the co-author of Knitting for Baby, with over 400,000 books in print. She has proudly edited books by many wonderful authors, including Natalie Chanin, Kaffe Fassett, Lotta Jansdotter, Denyse Schmidt, Heather Ross, Lena Corwin, Gretchen Hirsch, and Spoonflower.