John F. Blair, Publisher, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based independent publishing house, focuses on general trade books about the Southeastern United States with a strong emphasis on coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia and the Appalachian region, as well as books written by Southern authors.
Company president Carolyn Sakowski said the regional press’ annual list of 10 to 12 titles features everything from cookbooks and travel guides to history, biography, and folklore, as well as one to two works of fiction per year, but no children’s books or poetry.
Blair also distributes an additional five to six titles yearly in its role as the exclusive distribution outlet to wholesalers and retailers across the country for 20 other Southern indie presses, including Hub City Press in Spartanburg, South Carolina; Lookout Press, which is associated with the University of North Carolina-Wilmington; and NewSouth Books in Montgomery, Alabama.
The company was founded in 1954 by John Fries Blair, an English professor with a degree from Harvard Law School who also worked as the assistant director of the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill and was a member of the editorial staff at the University of North Carolina Press.
After seeing UNC Press pass up so many good manuscripts that were rich in regional details because they were not scholarly enough, Blair decided to start his own company. He began by publishing poetry and eventually branched out into other genres; when Blair died in 1986, his family decided to continue his legacy.
Sakowski, who joined Blair’s marketing department in 1987, started out as an independent bookseller. She was the original manager of Wichita, Kansas’ Watermark Books and personally hired Sarah Bagby, the store’s current owner and a former ABA Board member.
“Being an independent bookseller was the best job I ever had,” said Sakowski. “I felt like we were an oasis in the city and anybody with any intellectual curiosity was probably going to pass through our doors at some point. I learned a great deal from many people who were very knowledgeable about their area of interest.”
When it comes to marketing Blair’s books, Sakowski said the company heavily promotes to indie bookstores as well as mom-and-pop gift shops throughout the South that value regional titles.
“Obviously, independent bookstores are very important to our overall strategy,” she said. “I like to think that we have an excellent relationship with all of them, especially the Southern booksellers we know personally and have known for decades in some cases. We do go around and personally visit them, especially the ones in North and South Carolina, and we have sales reps stationed throughout the country. Last year, members of our staff went out and did a coastal tour.”
All of Blair’s new titles are simultaneously released as e-books and all backlist is available in e-book format. Books out this month include a sequel to The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by North Carolina author Steven Sherrill, which became a runaway bestseller 16 years ago. Minotaur tells the story of “M,” who was thought to have been slain by the Greek mythical hero Theseus but is actually still living in a North Carolina trailer park and working as a line cook at a steakhouse. After going on to do a couple books with other publishers, Sherrill returned to Blair to publish his sequel, The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time. Sakowski said Blair was also able to get the paperback rights for the first book back from Picador.
Other new books Sakowski is excited about include The Cherokee Rose by MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Tiya Miles, published last year and available this month in paperback. Based on the true story of Cherokee Indians who owned African slaves on a Georgia plantation, The Cherokee Rose was chosen by the Georgia Center for the Book as one of 2015’s “Books All Georgians Should Read”; it also won both an Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY Award) and a Lambda Literary Award.
“I think the South nurtures that storytelling cliché. Everybody down here learns at an early age how to tell a good story, and I think that just segues as they get older, creating a lot of writers,” said Sakowski. “I also think that the South is very supportive of its writers.”
The inventive short story collection We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams will be published by Lookout Books, one of Blair’s distribution clients, on October 25 and is already getting a lot of attention, said Sakowski. Out in April 2017 is This African-American Life, a memoir by Hugh B. Price detailing his impressive career as president of the National Urban League, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and head of the WNET public television station in New York.
Sakowski also noted that Blair author Vicki Covington, whose first novel in 14 years, Once in a Blue Moon, comes out in March, will appear at the 2017 Winter Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota.