Good Taste and Hard Work Help Build a Notable List for The Permanent Press

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On a 22-acre farm in the Hamptons of Long Island, Martin and Judith Shepard have developed a skill for growing Book Sense titles.

In the span of a little over a year, The Permanent Press of Sag Harbor, New York, has garnered five Book Sense selections. It's even more laudable when you consider that this press has a full-time staff of four and publishes just a dozen books of fiction a year.

"We're very fortunate," said co-owner Martin Shepard in a recent phone interview. "We publish what we like, and we don't have to worry too much about the bills."

The five Permanent Press Book Sense selections in the last year include a novel about the 19th century American painter Mary Cassatt (Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper), a surreal parable about factory-style egg farming (Fresh Eggs), a blackly humorous Midwest novel about toxic house paint (Serendipity Green), a crime novel featuring New York City cop-turned P.I. Moe Praeger (Walking the Perfect Square), and an outrageous "rediscovered" memoir of a Renaissance court food-taster (The Foodtaster). The latter book Martin Shepard describes gleefully as "Tom Jones meets Men in Tights."

The Shepards have established a solid reputation over the course of the Permanent Press' 23-year history by following a simple, but proven, philosophy: publishing books they enjoy reading. "We look for books that excite us, books that are well written," said Martin. Both he and Judith comb through between six and seven thousand manuscripts and submissions they receive each year.

Their tastes in fiction are remarkably similar. Martin guessed that the duo agree about 85 percent of the time. But unless they're both solidly behind a book, they won't publish it.

"We both have very eclectic tastes," said Judith. "And if we both agree, then the book will probably have legs. It's a subjective process. Recently, we had a book proposal letter from an author, and I just loved the names of the characters. So we said, okay, send some sample chapters. It's very subjective."

Neither Judith nor Martin began their careers in publishing, but they'd been bookworms all their lives. Before opening the press, Martin Shepard had worked as a practicing psychiatrist, was a published author of 10 books, and had built houses in the Hamptons. Judith worked for many years as an actress, and her ability to scrutinize scripts carried into her second career. "I like how words are put together on the page. Every story's already been told," she said. "How you tell it is what intrigues me the most."

After a publisher stopped publishing one of Martin's books in the late 1970s, he was convinced that he could still make the book profitable. "I've become notorious as one of those people who won't take no for an answer," he said. An 80-year-old neighbor talked Martin into publishing the book himself, and The Permanent Press was born.

During the first seven years, the press got by on healthy doses of credit cards and moxie. Martin Shepard also started Second Chance Press, a reprint house for titles that have been out-of-print for more than 20 years. Slowly, through word-of-mouth and growing contacts throughout the industry, the Shepards began establishing Permanent Press' reputation as a home for literary fiction. "Luckily we didn't have an early success," said Martin. He's convinced that the slow, patient road to profitability gradually taught them the skills that would keep the company in business for nearly a quarter century.

The company's name is indicative of another Shepard publishing philosophy: Almost all of the approximately 300 books published by The Permanent Press remain in print. When the Shepards commit to a novel, it's for a lifetime.

The press manages to stay profitable by keeping overhead low (the house does not use a distributor or hire sales reps) and by focusing on small but profitable press runs of 1,000 to 2,500 books. The Permanent Press has been honored with National Book Award and Edgar nominations, a Poor Richards Award from the Small Press Center, and, in 1998, Literary Market Place's Award for Editorial Achievement.

Over the years, the Shepards have built lasting friendships with a close-knit circle of agents and authors. "We generally only work with people we'd like to have over for dinner," said Martin. They have also established a core following of about 30 - 40 independent stores that consistently seek out Permanent Press titles. "It's a little tough to get above that number," he admitted.

The recent string of Book Sense successes may help. "I love the idea of Book Sense -- it's a terrific concept," said Martin. "It enables small publishers who are serious about doing quality material a means of getting a book into booksellers' hands, and really handselling and promoting it."

Oftentimes the books the Shepards publish have a well-sharpened satiric edge. Once a political activist during the Vietnam War, Martin Shepard has reawakened his political fires recently: In January 2003, The Permanent Press will make a departure from its usual fiction stomping grounds and publish a nonfiction book entitled Hail to the Chiefs: Presidential Mischief, Morals & Malarkey from George W. to George W.

In an unusual move, the Shepards recently sent out 750 bound galleys of the upcoming title (including one to each of the nation's senators). But they aren't sweating the details. This publishing couple doesn't waste a lot of time worrying about testing markets -- they just continue to publish books they like, and hope that booksellers and readers will agree with their reading tastes. "You know, the book business is unfigurable," insisted Martin.

But with five Book Sense successes under their belts, The Permanent Press has figured out that booksellers respond to quality over hype. -- Andrew Engelson