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The Little House That Could

A Little Luck and Lots of Creativity Account for Algonquin's Success

By Frank Diller | Posted 5/9/2001

At a time when independent bookstores are disappearing from the literary landscape and chain stores sell space on their display tables like prime real estate, small publishers are often left to their own devices in promoting their wares. "There's a lot to compete against, and you have to change constantly," says Craig Popelars, marketing director for Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C. "We're always looking to get the attention of the customer and the bookstore."

For this small press to get its annual list of 20 to 25 books noticed, that often means transforming an author appearance into an event. Three years ago, Algonquin promoted Ann Mariah Cook's Running North, a true account of a New Hampshire family's entry into Alaska's Yukon Quest dogsled race, by hosting a dogsled expedition between two New Hampshire bookstores. Popelars says the event drew an impressive crowd. "People that would never go to a bookstore walked away with that book," he says.

This month's Algonquin events include artist and author Diana Gessler painting watercolors of every California bookstore she visits and novelist Larry Brown teaming with singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo for a series of free in-store keg parties. Popelars says such unorthodox, informal promotions allow customers to connect with an author: "It makes them invested in the book and the experience."

But creative marketing is just one reason for Algonquin's success. Since its founding in 1982, the small press has combined a good eye for literature with a willingness to adapt and survived where many, many others have failed. While publishing giants flood the stores with product, Algonquin releases only a handful of works each year, thus maintaining a high standard of quality, a diverse catalog, and a distinct Southern charm. With a positive attitude and little luck, Algonquin has even turned a potential threat--its purchase 12 years ago by a larger company--into a lucrative advantage that allows it to tap into the marketplace and promote new talent on a national stage.

Over the years, Algonquin has introduced readers to Julia Alvarez (Yo!), Jill McCorkle (Carolina Moon), and Daniel Wallace (Big Fish). Critics from Granta, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times have praised Algonquin's novelists, and two of its authors turned the head of one of today's most powerful readers--Oprah Winfrey.

In October 1997, the TV talk-show host selected Kaye Gibbons' novels A Virtuous Woman and Ellen Foster for Oprah's Book Club. Although Algonquin had already sold the paperback rights to Gibbons' works to a large house, the small publisher benefited from the Oprah craze by unloading many of its remaining hardcover copies. When Winfrey selected Robert Morgan's Gap Creek in January 2000, Algonquin hit the Oprah lottery big by selling more than a half-million hardcover copies and moving a lot more of Morgan's earlier work, The Truest Pleasure.

Algonquin's publisher, Elisabeth Scharlatt, says Morgan was "astonishingly unspoiled by that event, and he's already finished a new novel which we're publishing in the fall." She notes that Algonquin's decision to publish more of Morgan's work was made well before his entry onto the bestseller list: "We were happy publishing his books . . . and we still had a very strong commitment to him and we would have published his work without the Oprah [publicity]."

Algonquin's commitment to an author's body of work shows in a back catalog that features multiple releases from authors such as Brown (Fay: A Novel), Lewis Nordan (Boy With Loaded Gun), and Marylander Tim Junkin (Good Counsel). As a small publisher, Algonquin lacks the resources to promote many novels successfully, so it chooses its titles carefully."We still have a commitment to publishing first novels and first books on every subject," Scharlatt says. "Instead of doing five or six . . . on a list, we will now highlight one or two and support it."

The strategy is buttressed by the company's development of a "backlist"--nonfiction books that sell steadily without requiring much promotional effort. Sales of these backlist titles help pay the costs of promoting the more high-maintenance literary fiction that's close to the company's heart. Over the past five years, Algonquin has dramatically increased sales of gift books, such as Ilene Beckerman's Love, Loss, and What I Wore; cookbooks, such as Party Receipts from the Charleston Junior League; and memoirs like Educating Esmé, an inspiring diary of a teacher's first year in an inner-city school that went through five hardcover pressings and is slated for paperback release in June. Many of these types of books end up as gift purchases, a purpose to which novels are put far less often. After all, Popelars notes, "literary fiction isn't an impulse buy."

And marketing literary fiction becomes harder as advocates disappear from the front lines. Scharlatt, who joined Algonquin in 1989 and became publisher when co-founder Louis Rubin Jr. retired in 1992, credits Algonquin's survival in part to "terrific support from independent bookstores and . . . serious critics. We still have the support from independent stores, but sadly those numbers have shrunk."

"The independent booksellers put Algonquin on the map," Popelars says. He characterizes the recent demise of Baltimore's Bibelot stores as a serious loss for small publishers. "Bibelot was a major player and a great advocate of independent publishing," he says. "When you realize you're losing an advocate out there and there's not another independent [to take its place], it's hard."

But Algonquin does reap the benefits of an aggressive national sales effort thanks to its parent company, New York-based Workman Publishing. Best known for its cookbooks and practical books, Workman acquired Algonquin Books as an imprint in 1989. "The connection to New York is an important one and, for us, it works in the best possible way," Scharlatt says. "We have the support of Workman . . . and we benefit from their history and their credibility in the marketplace."

Rather than spelling the end of Algonquin's independence and success, being acquired ensured the press could continue its work. Editor Shannon Ravenel says that when she co-founded Algonquin Books with Rubin, a University of North Carolina English professor (and Johns Hopkins alum), in 1982, their backgrounds were based firmly in the literary world: "Louis and I had no idea about marketing." She says Workman's sales savvy complemented Rubin's ambitions. "[They] knew what the publishing world wanted, and Louis knew what the literary world needed and was missing. That proved to be an unexpectedly productive marriage."

Despite Algonquin's corporate connections, the publishing house offers a viable alternative to the media conglomerates populating the industry. Its authors appreciate the personal touch. "There's less of a corporate monolith looming in the background at Algonquin," says author Tony Earley (Jim the Boy), whose work is also published by industry giant Little, Brown & Company. "And I like the fact that, sometimes when you call the offices, Shannon answers the phone. What other [publishing house] would have an editor answering the phone?"

Earley has known Ravenel for years and contributed short stories and a preface to her annual New Stories From the South anthology. When his current publisher passed on a collection of his nonfiction work, he brought the manuscript to Algonquin for more than just Ravenel's phone manners. "She's one of my favorite kind of women," he says. "She's a genteel, cultured, polite Southern woman who can rip you to shreds if you need it and stay polite when doing it--not that I've ever needed it."

Earley's excellent nonfiction collection, Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True, was released earlier this month by Algonquin bearing the stamp a shannon ravenel book. Last year, Ravenel stepped down as editorial director to focus on a series of four to eight books per year. "I get to direct what happens and to work on all aspects [of the publishing process]," she says. The new position also gives her a break from dealing with the approximately 1,500 manuscripts (and even more proposals) that pour into Algonquin each year.

"In order to make ourselves receptive to young new, unrepresented writers," staffers read each manuscript in the order in which it is received, Ravenel says. The press tries to furnish a reply in six to eight weeks, a far more conscientious response system than is typical in the industry. (Most publishers pull from their pile of unsolicited manuscripts on an irregular basis.) Ravenel established this policy when she co-founded Algonquin and, despite the house's evolution, she notes with evident pleasure, "this has not changed."

Ravenel says that with bigger houses taking fewer and fewer books each year, it actually may be getting harder for aspiring authors to get a deal. Every Algonquin book, however, must meet one general standard, she says: "[I]n order to publish it we have to be nuts about it."

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