If Jo Packham and Terrece Woodruff produced romance novels or even cookbooks, their names would be household words.
Their book sales (some titles have sold more than 200,000 each) would make fiction writers envious. The women's design house, Vanessa-Ann Collections, has produced 100 softcover booklets and nearly two dozen hardbound books, all in the span of 10 years.Despite their impressive sales figures and masterfully illustrated books, Packham and Woodruff say they don't command the same respect as the Stephen Kings or Betty Crockers of the publishing world.
The difference is subject matter. The books produced by Vanessa-Ann Collections are detailed how-to books on cross-stitch, quilting or crocheting.
Even when they explain their books have each sold thousands of copies, people respond by saying, "You know, I know someone in my ward who cross-stiches."
Packham and Woodruff usually offer a polite smile and chuckle to themselves. They know likening fiction works to detailed books on crocheting is like comparing apples and oranges. They take solace in knowing that in the crafts arena, Vanessa-Ann Collections' accomplishments are remarkable.
The small company operates out of a restored brick grocery store on Ogden's Historic 25th Street, where graphic artists, writers, editors and support staff produce some of the nation's best-selling crafts books. And although the books are published by Oxmoor House, Better Homes & Gardens and Ballantine, Vanessa-Ann Collections employees create the cross-stitch, needlepoint or crocheting designs; plot the designs on special graph paper (complete with tiny symbols to distinguish colors); stitch, quilt or crochet the featured designs; write and edit step-by-step instructions, photograph the finished product in a background suitable to the particular item, have the printed material set into type and, finally, lay out each page of the books.
It is an unusual method of producing books, but it gives Packham and Woodruff more creative control of their product, they say.
At the present time, Vanessa-Ann Collections is working on projects to be published in 1994 and even 1996. While publications comprise about 90 percent of their business, Vanessa-Ann Collections also sells doll and cross-stitch kits, most of which are designed in-house.
Vanessa-Ann's office seems alive with activity, fed by the creative energy of its employees. But it wasn't that long ago that Packham and Woodruff were a two-woman operation working out of their homes.
Packham operated retail crafts shop in Ogden for about two years during the 1970s. She enjoyed her customers, who ranged from artists to people who dabbled in cross-stitch much like people who do paint-by-number kits.
But what she really wanted to do was develop a cross-stitch design book."At the time, I couldn't draw," Packham said.
A mutual friend introduced her to Woodruff, who had recently moved to Utah and had worked for the California cross-stitch company, Sunset Designs. "I told her `I won't work for you. I'll work with you,' " Woodruff said.
That was in 1979. In the past 11 years, Packham and Woodruff experienced both instant success and near failure. In the crafts arena, a book is considered a success if it sells 10,000 copies, and it's considered a best seller if it sells 35,000 copies. None of Vanessa-Ann's hardbound books have sold fewer than 10,000. Some have sold more than 300,0000.
But the business partners have learned staying on top of the publishing world is a lot harder than getting there.
In 1985, the craft industry bottomed out. While the rest of the country was enjoying an improved economy, Woodruff and Packham were wondering if their business would survive.
The physical fitness craze had erupted and people had more money to spend on recreation and gifts, instead of staying home and making crafts.
"It just about killed us," Woodruff said.
To cut overhead costs they laid off their entire staff and moved into a $400 a month office on 25th Street. "At that time, they couldn't give those offices away," Packham said.
Then they went to New York City to pitch a project to Better Homes & Gardens. "We offered to do for them what we had been doing for ourselves only on a larger scale," Packham said.
Packham and Woodruff agreed to bear half the cost and do all the work on the condition they receive "substantial royalties."
"We worked that first year for nothing," Woodruff said, explaining the company survived on its extensive line of credit. "It was almost two years before we received a check."
Margaret Marti, Vanessa-Ann's executive editor, worked without pay. Marti said she believed since the business had already come so far it would recover. She wanted to be part of it when it did.
"Anyone who had come as far as they had can fall on hard times. But there was still this far to come," she said.
While visiting family in Birmingham, Ala., Marti took samples of Vanessa-Ann's work to Oxmoor House to help stir up some business. Oxmoor officials were interested, but they wanted to visit the Utah operation before signing any contracts.
So Packham and Woodruff asked all of the people they had laid off to "come in the office and look busy" so that the business appeared to be successful. The phones rang often, Woodruff said. Unfortunately, most of the callers were creditors.
Midway through the office visit, Packham said, "Let's go up to my house, it will be quieter."
Packham and Woodruff later confessed they had staged the first visit. The Oxmoor House representative will not let them forget it. On every visit, she asks employees, "Do you really work here?"
Oxmoor House gave Vanessa-Ann substantial money to help them balance their books. "Here we are today, just producing books," Packham said.
They have rehired most of the people they laid off. The staff is comprised of 20 salaried employees and another 40-60 people who work on contract.
But experience has taught the women to diversify. They have developed books that cater to four segments of the craft industry - home sewing, needlework, hardcore crafts and quiltmaking and dolls. And they are among the first design houses in the country to develop books that teach crafts makers to combine the disciplines.
For example, needlework crafted on a plastic canvas is molded into a three-dimensional sculpture. "That way we feed off both markets," Packham said.
They're also working a deal to produce a wedding book.
Seemingly there's no end to their creativity. "I think it can get enormous." Woodruff said.
But do they want it to? "Sure," she says without hesitation. "We don't ever want to go back to being hungry again."