BRANDON – When Gwen McKee began publishing cookbooks from her dining room table, it took years to sell 30,000 copies. With one appearance on QVC, she sold 30,000 copies in 22 minutes.
“We were absolutely shocked – and delighted – at how quickly our products sold on QVC,” said Gwen McKee, editor-in-chief of Brandon-based Quail Ridge Press. “It’s definitely the best thing that’s happened to our little company.”
Since McKee published the first cookbook in 1978, more than 170,000 cookbooks have been sold. (Of 98 published books, 91 are still in print.) Last year, Quail Ridge reported sales of more than $3 million, and increased its staff from eight to 11 employees.
“Being on QVC is an extreme honor and takes tremendous coordination,” said Sheila Williams, associate publisher of Quail Ridge Press. “The biggest challenge is getting the books produced in the time frame QVC requires. It’s to the point now that, if we tell them about an idea, or are in the beginning stages of a project, they jump on it. However, we never compromise quality.”
Williams deals with QVC staffers on a daily basis, coordinating new and existing products and handling details for an upcoming recipe contest.
“In the contest, anyone who submits a recipe qualifies for a grand prize, which includes an all-expense paid trip for two to QVC – hotel, airfare, car rental, $500 spending cash and the opportunity to appear on QVC with Gwen,” Williams said. “We’ve been working with QVC’s legal team to get the contest rules nailed down. QVC has put together an entire committee to deal with the logistics of the new book. Then there’s coordination between the panel of judges that will select the winning recipe. Fortunately, the buyer we work with is almost always accessible. We hardly ever have to leave a message, which is amazing, given the number of products QVC showcases.”
Gwen McKee established Quail Ridge Press in 1978 after her husband, Barney McKee, then director of the University Press of Mississippi, brought home a cookbook manuscript that University Press couldn’t publish.
“Barney asked me to take a look at it because he knew I liked to cook,” McKee said. “I thought it was such a cute idea and Barney asked me, ‘Why don’t you publish it?’ I had no idea what I was doing and probably had no business trying to publish it, but I thought I’d give it a try.
We made what we thought were monumental decisions at that time, such as how many to print,” she said, with a laugh. “We thought we could stick our necks out and print 5,000 because we got a better price, but were maybe safer with 3,000, so we settled on 4,000. We were shocked when we sold out in three weeks.”
That first book, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” by Ruth Moorman and Lalla Williams, sold for $3.75. Featured on Quail Ridge’s website for $5.95, it still sells well, McKee said.
The next year, Quail Ridge Press published “Seven Chocolate Sins,” followed by “A Salad A Day.”
“It took a whole year to publish a cookbook, doing it all by myself,” she said. “After a while, I became known as the ‘cookbook lady’ and I’d often be asked, ‘What’s your favorite cookbook?’ My husband had the idea to take all of the Mississippi cookbooks, get everyone to submit their favorite recipes, combine it in one book and publish “The Best of the Best of Mississippi.” That led to the “The Best of the Best of Louisiana.”
“One day, I asked my golfing partner, Barbara Moseley of Florence, if she’d like to do it with me,” said McKee. “We’ve been doing ‘The Best of the Best’ series since then. By 2003, we hope to have all 50 states represented.”
In 1989, Barney McKee left University Press to work full-time in the family business. Four years later, Quail Ridge Press moved out of the McKee home and into an office in Brandon. But the publishing house didn’t take off until the company won a QVC-sponsored contest.
“Several years ago, QVC sent out notices and traveled the states, looking for new products,” McKee said. “The contest was held at the Ag Museum in Jackson, and we had a table filled with our books. We had no idea what they’d be interested in, but of the 20 total products they selected that year, they chose ‘The Best of the Best from Mississippi.’”
When McKee initially appeared on QVC on Feb. 5, 1997, she said she was so nervous that she could barely talk.
“They gave us 10 minutes, and we sold out in two, before we could even show any recipes,” she said. “We were the No. 1 winner that year and were invited to come back to their studios in Westchester, Pa., to be on the air. We were on two shows in April and sold out fairly quickly. We’ve been invited back ever since.”
On March 9, QVC will introduce Quail Ridge’s newest cookbook, “Recipe Hall of Fame Quick & Easy Cookbook,” in an hour-long program, with 32 million viewers watching. More than 100,000 copies of “Recipe Hall of Fame Cookbook” and “Recipe Hall of Fame Dessert Cookbook” have been sold, primarily on QVC. The “Recipe Hall of Fame” series features winning recipes from “The Best of the Best” series.
Even though appearances are booked on QVC in March and April primarily touting cookbooks, Quail Ridge Press has been cooking up diverse offerings, including Wyatt Waters’ “Another Coat of Paint,” Phil Hardwick’s “Mississippi Mystery” series, the offbeat, award-winning “Cat Hymns,” Laurie Parker’s children’s books, and the biography of Mary Mahoney, the flamboyant founder and hostess of Biloxi’s famed Old French House Restaurant, in Ed Lepoma’s “A Passion For People: The Story of Mary Mahoney and Her Old French House.”
“We started out as a very small company that published primarily cookbooks, then a few regional titles, but we are branching out everywhere,” McKee said. “We’re publishing national titles with wide appeal by popular authors. There’s just no telling where we’ll go from here.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.