- Associated Press - Sunday, July 19, 2015

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - If the earth titled ever-so-slightly during a workday, Neil White might not survive.

Books, boxes and stacks of paper are just about everywhere in the offices of Nautilus Publishing Co., where White is the owner, creative director and publisher.

“We have three full-time employees, and about 30 freelance people we work with for writing, design and copy-editing,” White said.

Recent Nautilus titles include “The Education of a Lifetime” by Robert Khayat, “Mississippi’s Greatest Athletes” by Rick Cleveland and “Stennis: Plowing a Straight Furrow” by Don Thompson.

“I don’t know about hitting our stride,” White said, “but we’ve got a lot going on.”

He started the operation at a kitchen table in 1994, and the business grew out of desperation.

His memoir, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts,” details White’s conviction for bank fraud and his incarceration at the Federal Medical Center in Carville, Louisiana, which also housed more than 100 men and women with leprosy.

The book ends with his release, and that’s where the story of Nautilus Publishing begins.

“I couldn’t get a loan. Who was going to loan to me? I called a lot of my friends,” White recalled. “I said, ‘I lost my freedom, I lost my money, but I didn’t lose my mind. I’ll do anything.’”

A former fraternity brother worked in marketing at a bank, and he started pushing some brochure work White’s way. It might seem odd that a bank offered a lifeline, but a business set up at a kitchen table doesn’t have much overhead.

“I guess they spotted a good deal,” he said.

He chose the name Nautilus Publishing Co. because the shell was the symbol for a magazine he’d published on the Gulf Coast. When his property was seized, brass dies were left behind.

“They allowed you to do foil stamping and embossing,” White said. “I had that shell and it made everything look more professional.”

The company took a step forward when White came up with an idea to help guide high school seniors into the first year of college. He called it “Life 101,” and another bank, Tupelo-based BancorpSouth, bought copies of the magazine for every senior in Mississippi.

“It went incredibly well,” White said.

He got Bank of America, Chase Bank and others on board, and by 1998, he was producing about 2 million copies a year.

It was a significant chunk of Nautilus’ budget, and President Obama wiped it out with the stroke of a pen in 2009.

“That law got banks out of the student loan business,” White said. “About half of my business disappeared. I had to reinvent it.”

He and his team still produce magazines. Two of their biggest are for clients in New Jersey. One is a health care magazine for the University of Princeton Medical Center, and the other is a publication for New Jersey high school seniors.

But his experience with “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” showed him how a world-class publishing company works.

“It didn’t look like rocket science,” he said. “It was small, efficient marketing, where you didn’t spend a ton of money on advertising.”

He decided to stick with nonfiction so he could more easily find potential readers.

“Let’s say somebody submits a beautiful work of poetry or fiction,” White said. “I don’t know how to market that, so I turn it down”

“Mississippians,” a coffee table book featuring Oprah, Elvis, Kermit and others with Magnolia State ties, became an early success, and it taught the Nautilus crew an important lesson.

“You don’t make money just selling books to bookstores,” he said. “When we did the first ‘Mississippians,’ we pre-sold 3,500 copies before they reached the bookstores.”

Nautilus will change the book’s cover for different companies that give copies away as corporate gifts.

A similar strategy works with “The A Game: Nine Steps to Better Grades” by Ken Sufka.

It’s available individually, but the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Washington State University and the University of Mississippi buy them in bulk to give to college freshman.

Schools get their logos on the cover, and Sufka and White are happy men.

“There are 500 colleges deeply interested in that book and one person in charge of student retention at each school,” White said. “We can find those 500 people.”

Nautilus’ collaborations with Khayat and Cleveland have natural audiences. “The Education of a Lifetime” was selected for Ole Miss’ common reading program.

As for Cleveland’s book, “Mississippi’s Greatest Athlete,” White said, “Rick is a good writer, and I know how to market to Mississippi. This is the first book we’ve published that we ran out of during the Christmas season. We were three weeks without books, and we lost who knows how much.”

They haven’t all been home runs. “Memphians” was a follow-up to “Mississippians” with far different results.

“We put 10,000 out. That was four years ago,” White said. “We still have 5,000 copies in a warehouse. A huge flop.”

Nautilus’ pipeline includes a “Memories of Tupelo” coffee table book and a coffee table book commemorating the 150th anniversary of Tupelo’s First Presbyterian Church.

White gets about 80 queries a month. He estimated that 97 percent are turned down.

He doesn’t necessarily enjoy saying “No,” but it’s a nice problem to have for a company that began at a kitchen table.

“Word is spreading. It started with Robert Khayat’s book,” White said. “We can be a little bit more selective because more people are coming to us.”

All good news must be tempered with the facts. According to White’s estimate, 99 percent of books published sell fewer than 1,000 copies.

“You try everything because you never know what’s going to work,” White said, “and I’ve tried a lot of things that didn’t work.”

On the plus side, the misses make the hits that much more enjoyable. The business might have grown out of desperation, but that’s not what drives Nautilus Publishing Co. more than 20 years later.

“Really, I’m having fun,” White said in an office crammed full of books, contracts and assorted paperwork.

___

Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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