How Thomson-Shore beat the Great Recession and a publishing industry in turmoil

As it did for many companies, the Great Recession marked the end of an era for Dexter-based publisher Thomson-Shore. But it also sparked fresh innovation that's moved the publisher into an entirely new era of success.


Founded in 1972, Thomson-Shore spent decades printing mostly for academia — scholarly books, trade books, and course packs that needed binding, along with the occasional cookbook or children's book. But Thomson-Shore president and CEO Kevin Spall started anticipating major changes in the publishing world when the financial crisis hit in 2008.


"It was a (low) moment in the industry," he says. "Our board and our workers knew we wanted to be a much broader player in the industry of publishing and not just remain a standard print manufacturer."


Few industries have changed as much as publishing in recent years. Words are now read through a host of digital devices, and publishing options for writers have exploded, from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program to niche publishers of electronic and paper books.


Self-publishing has also gained popularity, and Thomson-Shore has set out to capitalize on that trend. The publisher employs a "manuscript to reader" strategy, providing a full complement of services including editing, design, copyright and title registration, distribution, fulfillment, and e-book conversion for those who wish to self-publish.


"We take a manuscript from an author and deliver to the reader a good, high-quality product," Spall says.


Since Thomson-Shore introduced this model in 2010, it has flourished to the point that the company currently places at number 11 of the top 100 companies on the publishing service index compiled by The Independent Publishing Magazine. The ranking of self-publishing service providers is based on a number of factors including author feedback, fees charged, years in existence, and customer support.


"It has to do with what we deliver — not our size but our capabilities, client reviews," Spall says. "It all puts us up there with the largest players."


The smaller size of the employee-owned company allows Thomson-Shore to offer personalized attention that other publishers cannot through all steps of the publishing process.


"The employee ownership model works so well because our employees are wired in a certain way," Spall says. "They want to help, to educate, to hold the author’s hand if that is what he or she wants ... It’s all about bringing the authors along on the process, helping them figure out the best size for the book, what type of paper to use, examine e-book options, and so on. The education component is key."


Another crucial component of the company is its charitable giving. In the past few years, Thomson-Shore has focused its philanthropic efforts on children's writing education nonprofit 826michigan. That relationship began when Spall was in Ann Arbor to see a talk by Dave Eggers, founder of 826 National. Spall visited the Robot Repair Shop, 826michigan's downtown Ann Arbor storefront, and upon discovering that 826 printed its own books he invited Eggers to Thomson-Shore's plant.


At the time, Eggers used printers in China and Canada. He visited the Thomson-Shore plant, found himself hooked, and began using the company to print most of the books for his nonprofit publishing house, McSweeney's.


Thomson-Shore continues to print most of 826michigan's books, as well as occasional books for 826 chapters nationwide. Spall’s admiration of 826michigan is echoed by the nonprofit's executive director, Amanda Uhle.


"Thomson-Shore is an invaluable part of our work," Uhle says in an email interview. "At 826michigan, we believe in publishing our school-aged students’ writing in high-quality books and other projects. It’s a dream to have a world-class book printer like Thomson-Shore down the road from us! Their staff collaborates with us to find ways to make our aesthetic wishes match our modest budget. We are always pleased with the results and more importantly our students are, too."


Uhle passes along several comments from area students, who say the experience of being published makes them feel "important," "awesome," "famous," and "like I own the world."


"The fact that I’m in a real book that’s been published by a professional publishing company makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something — that my writing was good enough to deserve publishing," says 15-year-old Ypsilanti student Calvin Sears.


And that's the basic idea that has turned Thomson-Shore's business around.

"The beautiful piece for our company is that when someone comes to publish, we will print it," Spall says.

Patti Smith lives in Ann Arbor, the best city on earth. By day, she is a special education teacher. By night, she writes novels (that she hopes to sell one day) and articles for Mittenbrew, the Ann, Pulp, the Ann Arbor Observer, and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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