A Commentary on Sunset Books

by Melvin B. Lane

Former Publisher, Sunset Magazine and Books, Stanford Class of ’44

Originally published in 1998 on Stanford Libraries' web site and in Sunset Magazine: A Century of Western Living 1898 - 1998

During the Southern Pacific ownership of Sunset magazine (1898--1914), it was a literary magazine of articles by prominent Western writers. There was little book publishing. The most notable was a series of paperback booklets on each of the counties in California. This was part of Sunset's self-appointed Chamber of Commerce role promoting real estate and commerce in California. The primary market for the magazine was in the Midwest and East. The magazine also published a few picture books of the beauty of the West to promote tourism and Western migration but did very little to convert magazine editorial content into books.

There is no record of any peripheral publishing activity during the Woodhead-Field ownership (1914--1929), even though many of the magazine's articles were written by some great early Western literary talents (e.g., Jack London, Peter B. Kyne, Sinclair Lewis).

When Sunset was purchased by L.W. Lane, Sr., and his Iowa friends in 1928, it was changed to a magazine for Westerners, with some staff-written and freelance "how-to" articles on gardening, cooking and entertaining, architecture and landscaping, and travel.

After a few years, the accumulated inventory of Sunset magazine articles lent itself to packaging some of these articles into booklets. These booklets were offered as premiums for new subscribers or renewals by existing subscribers. They were saddle-stitched and 6" by 9" in size. The editorial content was created by magazine editors and some freelance writers under the direction of Sunseteditors.

The use of booklets to aid subscription sales was phased out in the late 1930s, and a few of them were converted to hardbound books (often with significant revisions and enlargements), which were sold by filler ads in Sunset magazine and a few Western bookstores and specialty retail outlets in the West.

Lane Publishing Company began to take more interest in book publishing in 1938, and about a dozen titles were published before this effort was curtailed by World War II. The market continued to be Westerners who were Sunset magazine readers (home owners looking for how-to-do-it, etc.), with nearly all the content coming from magazine articles or created for the books by magazine editors and freelance special-interest writers. These were initially used to promote circulation. Some of the booklets in time were enlarged into books and became mainstays of the book-publishing wing of the company in later years, e.g., Barbecue Cook Book, Kitchen Cabinet Cook Book, The Sunset Visual Garden Manual.

In 1946 a separate Book Division was created with directions to expand the program. New offerings included three or four new titles a year and some major revisions of earlier titles. The market and distribution were the same, i.e., Westerners involved in the Sunset way of living. Bookstore sales were expanded. After World War II nearly all new titles were the same trim size as Sunsetmagazine, and this format began to create more of a series. In 1950 the Book Division program was enlarged to a dozen or more new titles and major revisions per year.

There was some early testing of sales in nontraditional outlets (wholesalers and retail chains, stores that traditionally did not sell books, e.g., hardware stores, large discount stores, supermarkets, garden and nursery stores, craft shops, etc.). Sunset provided racks. A major effort was made on all the existing and new titles to fit into a series (same trim size, cover design, paperback) in the four magazine editorial fields (building and crafts, cooking and entertaining, gardening and landscaping, and travel).

In 1949 a professional book publisher from the East, George Pfeiffer, was hired as the manager of the Book Division. He greatly increased the number of new titles within the magazine's four editorial fields. He started using direct mail to sell the books and expand sales in bookstore and newsstand outlets in the West. The expansion of distribution into nontraditional outlets was continued.

This set the stage for Sunset Books sales and profits to skyrocket in the late 1960s and '70s. Sales went from $3 million to $4 million a year in the mid-1950s to over $50 million in the late 1960s, with nearly half the sales outside the West.

The formula revolutionized this type of book marketing. Most of these sales were through jobbers and wholesalers who would place the racks in stores and service (refill) the racks on a schedule, usually one or more times a week. Many of these were stores that carried the products needed to implement projects in the books. Sunset added sales staff in all parts of the United States to sell the line to different kinds of wholesalers and then monitor and help them. In many cases Sunset hired part-time people to help the jobbers and wholesalers inventory the racks and refill them. Sales were slowly expanded into Canada, Australia, and New Zealand through special distributors.

In the late 1950s, Sunset Books launched a very successful mail order business of coffee table books on Western subjects in the $9.95 to $14.95 price range. This preceded the boom of coffee table books in the publishing industry. Sales were primarily by mailings to Sunset magazine subscribers and bookstore sales. Examples would be National Parks of the West, Earthquake Country, California Missions, Ghost Towns of the West, Back Roads of California, Beautiful California, The Sea of Cortez, and many others. Sales by mail order ranged from 100,000 to 250,000 copies.

There were also some specialty books that were done to benefit Sunset magazine or for publisher fun or satisfaction in filling a societal need, even though little profit would result. A line of Sunset Junior Books was created as a test in the early 1960s in the hope of being adopted by the California State Department of Education as grade school supplemental books. This line met with only a modest success in the political jungle and was dropped after a few years. A large-format book called Peter McIntyre's West was created by the famous New Zealand artist and was published in 1970.

After World War II, Sunset magazine staked out travel to Pacific countries as a major expansion of editorial coverage and potential advertising sales. The Book Division assisted by publishing a Pacific Area Travel Guide which covered all the major tourist or business destinations. This was followed by a series of guidebooks to each major destination country, which filled a badly needed niche in bookstores in the United States.

The one title that has prevailed from the 1930s to today is The Western Garden Book. It is the unchallenged how-to book for gardeners in the West. Sales have exceeded 5.5 million copies. It started from booklets in the 1930s (The All Western Garden Guideof 1933 and other booklets). The real beginning was in 1939, withThe Complete Garden Book, followed by The Western Garden Book of 1954, which was organized around different climate zones in the West.

In summary, Sunset was a leader in book publishing in several respects: regional how-to publishing specifically for Westerners; large volume coffee-table book publishing sold by mail order; distribution of a series of books in racks by jobbers and wholesalers into retail outlets which normally do not sell books; and travel guidebooks to Asian and Pacific countries. Most notably, however, Sunset led the field by launching a highly successful book publishing business based on the innovative idea of using editorial content and expertise of a well-known magazine, and benefiting from a valuable mailing list and the Sunset name recognition.