Some Indies Going from Bookstore to Publishing House

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Following in a noble tradition, in the past few years, some independent booksellers have begun publishing or writing their own books. These booksellers noted that -- despite experiencing many challenges along the way -- publishing or authoring books has given them a sense of accomplishment and has allowed them to bring to light important books or ideas that otherwise might never have been published.

Bookselling This Week recently interviewed three bookstore owners who have started small publishing companies to complement their independent bookstores, as well as a bookstore-owning husband and wife team whose first book is being published by Thomas Dunne Books and will be released in early October.

Grace Roth, The Town Book Store, Westfield, New Jersey

In 1998, The Town Book Store in Westfield, New Jersey, held an exhibit of artwork from several of Harry Devlin's books. "He considered us his 'home' bookstore," said Grace Roth, Town Book Store's owner, "and had been a customer for decades. We got to talking about several of his titles, which had been out of print for years, and how, in today's publishing marketplace, those stories would be gone forever. My husband started doing a little research, and, before the exhibit was over, we were ready to become a publisher and offer a contract to Harry and Wende Devlin for How Fletcher Was Hatched."

Over the past four years, Town Book Press has published a total of 12 titles. Roth said that she tries to focus on local authors or subject matter. "But we have published a couple of titles just because we received a submittal and decided that it was worthy of being published," she added.

Roth noted that new technologies have made it simpler to start a small publishing house, though it remains a costly endeavor. "The ability to use the Internet for research and communication -- combined with the ease of scanning and storing the book digitally and being able to use CDs and e-mails to get files back and forth -- meant that we could go into the business without a lot of printing know-how," she explained.

In terms of print costs, "unit cost curves for short run prints are more reasonable than they could have ever been before," Roth continued, "but that just lets us set our print runs at a lower number. Printing prices overall are not lower."

Like independent booksellers, small, independent publishers face many obstacles to becoming successful, said Roth. "Access to distribution, the chains, and the media are all challenges," she said.

Nonetheless, her experience as a bookseller has helped Roth in choosing titles and knowing how each should be marketed to other bookstores. "We have a good handle on what consumers look for in a book, and, also, know a bit of what influences the booksellers' decisions to stock a title," she explained. "We won't publish a title that we wouldn't want to handsell as a bookseller."

Virginia Hobson Hicks, The Book Shop, Inc., Townsend, Georgia

If local Georgia historians of the 1920s hadn't mistakenly identified English ruins as old Spanish ruins, Virginia Hobson Hicks might not be publishing books today.

Hicks is the owner of The Book Shop, Inc., bookstore, and The Book Shop Press, Inc., both in Townsend, Georgia. Since 1999, Book Shop Press has reprinted three local-interest books. "I republish out-of-print books that need to be republished," Hicks stressed to BTW.

The reprinting of Book Shop Press, Inc.'s first two books began with a remarkable coincidence and a mysterious, rusty old trunk. Whoever had once owned the trunk had brought it to Buffalo, New York, from Georgia sometime during the 1930s. Amazingly, two young men who just happened to be former employees of The Book Shop, Inc., found the trunk in the late '90s at an estate sale and, inside the trunk, they found a dusty, small book published in 1931. Though not a familiar book, the title, Sketches of Coastal Georgia, by Margaret Davis Cate, prompted them to call Hicks, who they knew had a deep interest in Georgia history.

As it turned out, not only was the book about the local area, Hicks told BTW, the late Cate had been a well-known local historian. "[Cate] took me on my first buggy ride," said Hicks. "I called the Cates and friends of mine, but none had ever heard of the book."

Spurred by this event, Hicks recalled that a book on a similar subject matter had been published 11 years prior to Sketches, in 1920. She knew that a friend of hers, E. Ralph Bufkin, happened to have a copy of the out-of-print book in his possession. The book, Spanish Days in Glynn County, had been written by a local woman and well-known historian, Mary L. Ross.

Ross had been a teacher at the University of California, but, in the late 1960s, moved back to Georgia after she was crippled in a car accident. Both Hicks and Bufkin would visit her often up until Ross died in the early 1980s. At one of those visits, Bufkin brought to Ross a copy of Spanish Days. Hicks, who was there at the time, recalled that Ross, ever the perfectionist, just grabbed the book from Burton and went through it, correcting in ink some factual errors in the book. Most significantly, she changed all references about "Spanish ruins" to "English ruins."

At around the time of the reprinting, Hicks found out through the Ross family why the book went out of print. They informed her that Ross had destroyed all known copies of Spanish Days when another book, Debatable Lands, by E. Merton Coulter, proved that the Spanish ruins named in her book were actually English. The news so distressed Ross that she burned all her copies. However, Bufkin still had the original -- with the author's corrections. "Our printer was able to bring up these corrections as written by the author," Hicks said.

Since Cate's book also referred to the "Spanish ruins," Hicks assumed that Cate destroyed her book, too. "She died not too long ago, before the book was found," Hicks said. "We think she destroyed it when she realized she made the same mistake."

Overall, the books contain valuable local history, Hicks emphasized. "There's nothing wrong except the [mis]identification of the Spanish ruins," she said. The Book Shop Press, Inc., reprinted Ross' book in 1999 and Cate's book a year later.

The third book in Hicks's stable is Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall, a collection of rare and unusual recipes by the former Paris Review editor Eugene Walter. "He did this before he went to live in Paris," said Hicks. The book went out of print "years ago," she added.

Hicks explained that she knew Walter very well: Termite Hall is Hicks' former home in Mobile, Alabama, where Walter would often stay when he was a "little short on money," she said with a laugh. The delectable dishes were recipes from all over the world, including old Mobile, France, Holland, Italy, Denmark, and Germany.

"He always loved the name Termite Hall," Hicks recalled. "Everything in Mobile is called a hall.… He moved into Termite Hall with us, and then, when he got enough money, he bought a house. But, in the late '70s, he asked me, 'Virginia promise me you'll keep Delectable Dishes alive,'" she said. Another friend of Hicks' and Walter's, author Pat Conroy, wrote the book's preface.

Aside from satisfaction of reprinting important books with a local flavor, Hicks noted that she especially enjoys the marketing aspect of publishing -- it brings her closer to people. "I enjoy … taking the books to our signings and interacting with the audience," she said.

Janice King and Ellen Shapiro, The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, New York

Ellen Shapiro, owner of The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, New York, said that ever since she opened her store in 1978, one of her goals was to start a small publishing house to publish local books. The bookstore published its first book -- Woodstock Landscapes, Photography by John Kleinhans -- under the imprint Golden Notebook Press in 2000.

Golden Notebook Press' second book, Taking Wing: Poems from the Oregon Outback to the Hudson Valley (A Wyatt Book for Golden Notebook Press), by Janice King, which was released in July 2002, came about by sheer accident, said Shapiro. King has been a bookseller at The Golden Notebook for almost 20 years and was fairly well known in the tight-knit Woodstock community.

Nonetheless, few knew that King was a poet -- that is, until she read at the very first Woodstock Poetry Festival in August 2001, noted Bob Wyatt, a Woodstock resident and publisher of the eponymous imprint A Wyatt Book (previously affiliated with St. Martin's), who co-published King's book. "She's a very private person," he told BTW. "It was at the poetry festival that I discovered that she was a talented poet."

At Shapiro's urgings, Wyatt co-published King's Taking Wing. "I thought, why not?" he explained. "It's much different from what I'd been doing at St. Martin's."

Wyatt remarked that Taking Wing had a built-in market in Woodstock because of King's involvement in the community. "She contributes her time to charitable activities, including talking about poetry at the school," he said, and added, "She's a very skilled bookseller."

Still, there is the matter of Golden Notebook Press marketing its books nationally. Like many small publishing houses, Shapiro takes a more grassroots approach to marketing. For instance, since King hails from Oregon, Shapiro and King set up a mini-book tour at bookstores in that area, said Shapiro. "Janice gave me a list of bookstores she knew out West," she explained. "She's doing her own publicity -- contacting the stores that she's familiar with."

Currently, Shapiro is working on getting King's book listed with the major distributors, she said. Thus far, Baker & Taylor has picked up Taking Wing for distribution. All told, the book has sold 550 copies, approximately 400 of which were sold locally. "She's thrilled to have her book in print, but she hasn't become a non-bookseller," said Shapiro. "I'd be sorry if she did."

Bern Marcowitz and Margot Rosenberg, Dog Lovers Bookshop, New York City

Bern Marcowitz and Margot Rosenberg wanted to find a simple book on book care, but, as far as they could tell, none existed. So they decided to write one: The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, October 2002).

As owners of the Dog Lovers Bookshop in New York City, which specializes in out-of-print, rare, and new books on dogs and dog care, Marcowitz and Rosenberg found themselves spending a great deal of time repairing and caring for their older books. "The longer we had our shop, the more interested we became in [caring for] the older books," said Rosenberg. "We wanted to see if we could make them last longer, and we didn't want them to smell."

With no previous experience in book repair and care, Marcowitz and Rosenberg looked for how-to manuals, but found nothing except complicated tomes on book restoration. "We didn't want to become restorers," said Rosenberg. "We couldn't find a book on mid-level care, similar to a common sense guide to taking care of your dog. We couldn't find a book that took the middle ground."

Instead, over the course of two or three years, the couple began experimenting with the "caring and feeding" of books. "We managed to learn to care for most of the ills that books manifest," Rosenberg said. "We began sharing these results of our experiments with our customers -- many of whom wanted to repair historical books without losing authenticity."

Eventually, Marcowitz and Rosenberg decided to put what they ascertained from their experiments down on paper and then sought out a publisher. "We tried a publisher that publishes books like this," Rosenberg said. However, because Rosenberg and Marcowitz often used dog-care analogies to make points on book care, it scared off a number of publishers. "The dog aspect was not well liked," Rosenberg explained. "They thought we were off the rails. But it was always on our mind, the caring-for-a-dog mindset is the same as for books."

In the end, they sent the book to Thomas Dunne, simply because his logo was a dachshund, so "we figured he liked dogs," said Marcowitz. "He understood the purpose of using dogs. It makes it more readable. He liked it and said let's do it."

Rosenberg and Marcowitz noted that their experience as booksellers would help sell the book. "We have a feeling for booksellers and how to encourage them to stock the book," said Rosenberg. "Better books equal happier customers. We didn't think about that when we started our store, but it's true -- books get dusty, they fall. They need constant attention." --David Grogan