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Nashville Scene Publish or Perish

Small book companies learn to survive in the era of big business

By Michael Sims

JUNE 26, 2000:  Books are a clever form of technology. After their initial manufacture, they require no further energy to operate. They are sturdy, portable, and easily stored. They'll never wake the person in bed beside you. And best of all, by providing only written symbols that must be interpreted by our brains, books exercise the imagination in ways that many other forms of communication do not.

Dire predictions aside, books show no sign of vanishing from our lives. Just as movies did not kill theater, recording did not kill live music, and television did not kill radio, so has no combination of alternative entertainments been able to kill books. Although it has provided a new alternative to reading printed material, even the Internet hasn't dealt the fatal blow. Some of the first organizations to rush online were publishers, bookstores, and libraries.

Even though writers can't stop writing books and readers can't stop reading them, this supply-and-demand equation requires one more factor: a middleman. Somewhere between the writer and the reader there must be a publisher to package the author's vision and convey it to the public. American publishers crank out between 50,000 and 70,000 new titles annually, adding up to annual revenues of $24 billion. And all you have to do to observe publishing in the new millennium is glance around Nashville. We have large publishers and small ones, specialized and general, from the Christian behemoth Thomas Nelson to the one-person Dowling Press. The following article takes a close look at some of the smaller companies, along with a new development that may help these publishers flourish as never before.

Like so many other companies, the major New York publishers may be reaching their size limit--sort of like dinosaurs did eons ago. Nowadays, we know that smaller cities are more livable and smaller cars more responsible. Perhaps smaller publishers are becoming more realistic too. As New York's big publishers bet all their money on sure shots and try to crowd into the bestseller list, small publishers such as the ones discussed below are venturing out of their niches and exploring the new habitats now becoming available to them. Their motto might be the line that British economist E.F. Schumacher made into a book title in 1973: "Small is beautiful."


Dowling Press

Maryglenn McCombs is the owner and sole full-time employee of Dowling Press. As such, she is on the bottom of the publishing food chain, with nowhere to go but up. Determination and optimism seem to be carrying her in that direction.

"I got into publishing wholly by default," she says. "When I graduated from college, I desperately wanted to work in the music industry, and I never found a job." A slender, attractive 29-year-old, McCombs graduated from Vanderbilt in 1993 and then spent a year with Eggman, a Nashville vanity press that gave up the ghost a few years ago. (So-called vanity presses, which frequently label themselves "subsidy publishers," publish books only if the author pays some or even all of the costs. Sometimes they offer an opportunity to test the waters, but mostly they are an author's last resort.)

"I was hired as a freelance editor," McCombs says in a Kentucky drawl that sugarcoats her savvy observations about the publishing business, "and three days later I had a full-time job. When I left there a year later, I kind of threw my hands up in the air and said 'What now?' And then I said, 'I can do this.' " McCombs launched Dowling Press in March 1995. The company's name comes from a great-grandfather's surname.

"The first book I ever published," McCombs says, "was called The Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex. It was written by two local authors. It was a 200-question sex survey that was pretty scandalous." She grins. "We sold about 10,000 copies in six months."

The book was later reprinted in hardback by Harmony Books, a New York subsidiary of Random House. A handful of other Dowling Press titles have also been picked up by New York publishers. This is not an uncommon procedure. Frequently New York houses refuse to gamble on obscure books, iffy subjects, and unknown authors. But they aren't averse to cashing in once the books have proven themselves in editions put out by smaller publishers. In this way, regional publishers occasionally serve as proving grounds much the same way regional theaters do--sometimes, if the show takes off, Broadway beckons.

Merely helping get a book off the ground isn't McCombs' goal, however. "My first two books later sold to large New York houses, but it was never my intention to start a publishing company, see a project up to a point, and then let it go to somebody else. I like to take them start to finish."

Since McCombs was unable to find a job in the entertainment business right after college, in a sense, she ended up creating one. Dowling Press specializes in offbeat entertainment books, including The Non-Inflatable Monty Python TV Companion, by Jim Yoakum; Rock 'n' Roll Call: The History and Mystery Behind Rock Names, by Dean M. Boland; and Ticket to Ride: The Extraordinary Diary of The Beatles' Last Tour, by Barry Tashian, a Nashville resident who played in The Remains, the opening band on that tour.

One of the few exceptions to Dowling's focus on entertainment is the series of Nashville-based mystery novels about detective Kate Banning, by Vanderbilt professor Cecilia Tichi (publishing under the phonetic, not-quite pseudonym Tishy). Tishy's books are exceptions to another rule too: Dowling publishes them in hardback, since Tishy has a paperback deal with Dutton/Signet in New York. Although McCombs is looking at several manuscripts and talking to authors, she lists only one book as currently in the works: another volume about The Beatles.

"I'm not sure how I survived," McCombs admits frankly. "I've learned some about how the business works, about distribution, about how to get a book manufactured, and things like that. I had contacts, and that was in my favor. It took about four-and-a-half months to do the first book--which is amazingly quick, now that I think about it. But it wasn't without its share of near-misses and disasters."

McCombs emphasizes that independents are facing new opportunities now that larger publishers have become so obsessed with bestsellers. "There's absolutely no shortage whatsoever of good manuscripts out there," she insists. "It's hard to believe, I know, but I see between 2,500 and 3,000 a year--and I am a one-person company."

Like every other publisher in the world, McCombs complains that an astonishing number of aspiring scribblers don't even bother to find out the kind of books Dowling Press publishes before dropping their manuscripts in the mail. "It's nothing to look in the mail and have a 1,200-page manuscript, totally unsolicited. And the new thing, which is both a blessing and a curse, is the electronic submission." For this reason, she has a separate manuscript-submission e-mail address linked to her Web site. "It fills up every day. It's amazing. The thing that surprises me is how many people are willing to attach their entire manuscript. I'm just distrustful by nature, and I'm not going to download something from somebody I don't know. Besides, I don't have 64 minutes to spend downloading a manuscript."

Maryglenn McCombs leans back and shrugs. "I'll be the first to say that it's a very hard and often thankless profession. It's a lot of work, and it's a lot of details. I think it has become easier on a lot of levels, though, for independents. But it's still hard to make a name for yourself."


Rutledge Hill Press

Most of the people in the Nashville publishing community are fairly well-acquainted with each other. For example, Larry Stone, the head of Rutledge Hill Press, knows Maryglenn McCombs, and he admires her optimism. "To be involved in publishing," he says, "I think you have to have those characteristics--enthusiasm, perseverance, belief in yourself." At 55, Stone still exhibits this kind of energy himself. A New Jersey native who has spent his entire career in publishing, he has been in Nashville 24 years.

Rutledge Hill Press, best known for publishing H. Jackson Brown's Life's Little Instruction Book and its equally popular sequels, had a genesis as unlikely as Dowling's. In 1982, Stone and Ron Pitkin were both editors at religious publisher Thomas Nelson before it became quite the empire it is today. The former was the editorial vice president over all books, and Pitkin worked under him, as the editor in charge of reference books.

"Rutledge Hill was started as a hobby," Stone remembers, "with the blessing of the people at Nelson." But by 1984, with layoffs ravaging the bigger company, Stone and Pitkin left to develop Rutledge Hill, which had published only two titles so far. They began publishing regional books and books on the history of quilts. "In 1990," Stone says, "it really took off with the publication of Aunt Bee's Mayberry Cookbook, by Ken Beck and Jim Clark, and the first book by Jack Brown."

H. Jackson Brown's story is an example of how smaller local publishers' title lists frequently grow out of their own communities. Originally, Brown self-published A Father's Book of Wisdom and hand-delivered it to Nashville bookstores, telling the stores that he'd come back some time later to pick up any unsold copies. But when he returned, there were no leftovers to retrieve. Ron Watson, owner of Mills' Bookstores at the time, recommended that Brown speak to the fledgling Rutledge Hill Press.

Stone laughs at the memory of his first encounter with Brown. "This shows how good a publisher I am: I told him to go away. I explained to him, 'We do cookbooks; we do books on the history of quilts; we don't do gift books.' So he gave me a copy, and he left. I left that copy of the book on my desk for about four or five weeks, and people who came in would pick it up and say, 'This is really neat.' After awhile, Ron and I finally got it through our thick heads that if everybody thinks this is really neat, maybe we ought to try it."

Rutledge used its success with Brown to develop some other areas, such as humor (including America's Dumbest Criminals) and Civil War history. This fall it will publish Mayberry Memories, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of The Andy Griffith Show.

In December of last year, Rutledge Hill's story came full circle when Thomas Nelson bought the company. It's the first division of Thomas Nelson that doesn't specialize in Christian subjects. "The focus will not change at all from what it has been," Stone says. He insists that Rutledge's title list is acceptable to the famously conservative Nelson because both he and Pitkin believed fully in the editorial goals of Nelson when they were there.

As is often the case when a small company is snapped up by a larger one, Rutledge Hill had suffered a number of expenses back-to-back and was running low on operating capital. However, it had a well-established identity and a thriving backlist, arguably making it a smart investment for Thomas Nelson.

Again and again, smaller publishers chant the mantra that their success comes from identifying a niche, making it their own, and staying inside it most of the time. Acknowledging the major expenses that helped deplete the coffers at Rutledge Hill, Stone also admits that he and his colleagues forgot the cautionary motto about keeping to their niche--and lived to regret it.

"We did not stick to our knitting," he sighs. "We believed people when they said we were wonderful. For example, we did this Cooking With Friends, which we licensed from Warner Brothers. And Warner Brothers said, 'Doggone, you guys sold a quarter of a million copies! You're terrific! Wouldn't you like to publish a book related to Space Jam?' We [said yes] and lost a heck of a lot of money."

Like other Nashville publishers, Larry Stone talks about the difficulty of surviving in the era of mammoth corporations and chain bookstores. "The book trade in general, over the last five or 10 years, has skewed in favor of the big guy. For instance, one of your very large retailers may have 20 buyers [who stock the stores' shelves]. They say, 'We'd love to have you make an appointment and come pitch your wares, but you can only do it if you have five books for this buyer.' Let's say the buyer buys cookbooks and sports. Well, if you're Random House, getting together five books on sports is no big deal. If you're Rutledge Hill Press and you're publishing 15 or 20 titles this year, getting five for one buyer is much more difficult."


Cumberland House

Larry Stone bought out his partner's share in Rutledge Hill early in 1995. After he left the company, Ron Pitkin wasn't sure what he wanted to do. "I didn't intend to go back into publishing," he admits today, after a few years at the helm of successful Cumberland House. "I [had] always wondered if, you know, I ever hit the jackpot and made a pile of money, if I would have enough sense to quit."

Pitkin got his answer: a resounding no. Within a year, he was already forming his new publishing house. "I got bored," he chuckles. At 57, he still sounds excited about the publishing business and especially about Cumberland House's own titles.

Running a publishing company alone is much more difficult than sharing the leadership at Rutledge Hill Press, Pitkin admits. "To some degree," he says, "it's the difference between two oxen pulling a load and one. There was a time when Larry Stone and I worked together that you added one and one and you got three. There was an interaction between Larry and me that made both of us better than we are alone."

Cumberland House is staking out a completely different turf than Rutledge Hill. "There's never been any conflict," Pitkin says. "I had a very generous non-compete with Rutledge Hill. I could not publish their authors unless it was a book Rutledge had particularly rejected, and I couldn't hire Rutledge's employees. The restrictions were very sensible."

These days, Cumberland is a bustling house. That's in part because Ron Pitkin likes variety; this year he will publish between 65 and 70 titles. Recently the company has put out cookbooks, sports books, a series of Civil War battle novels similar to John Jakes' popular series on American history, and The Avocado Drive Zoo, by Earl Hamner, creator of The Waltons. This fall Cumberland will publish The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote, remembrances of Capote's childhood by his maternal aunt.

Pitkin also publishes successful anthologies of mystery and crime stories, including two edited by bestselling mystery writer Lawrence Block and one edited by thriller writer Trevanian. There are several series of thematic anthologies, represented by such titles as Death Cruise (crime stories set at sea) and Opening Shots (authors' first mystery stories). Pitkin also bought the paperback reprint rights to all 10 of William F. Buckley's Blackford Oakes espionage adventures.

One of the things Pitkin is most excited about is that the James Beard Society awarded its prestigious Cookbook of the Year Award last year to a Cumberland House title. This honor fell to a book whose very title is a mouthful--Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, and Scuppernong Wine, by Joe Dabney. It's about the folklore and art of Southern Appalachian cooking.

Small publishers want to publish what genuinely interests them, Pitkin insists, and as a result editors tend to stay longer and be more involved with authors than at larger houses. "In New York," Pitkin complains, "they're all moving around, changing jobs, changing companies. It's like musical chairs."


Vanderbilt University Press

University presses account for about 15 percent of the titles published in the U.S. every year, or an average of 9,000 new titles annually. These books log only 2 percent of annual sales, but sales are not the main goal of scholarly presses. Most are nonprofit, subsidized by a university as part of its academic mission. As a result, few scholarly books make money, and many don't even earn back the cost of their publication. What university presses do, at their best, is contribute to the intellectual and cultural climate of our time. In this, some are more successful than others. The presses of Harvard, Princeton, and others in the upper echelons--like their ancestors at Oxford and Cambridge--are so big and so successful that they are now considered commercial enterprises.

"Academic books are a vicious circle," says Polly Rembert, marketing manager of Vanderbilt University Press. "You can't print very many, because you're not going to sell very many, and the fact that you're not printing very many drives up the unit cost. Nowadays a lot of universities have a trade component to their overall publishing program, to help sustain those scholarly monographs." Vanderbilt publishes a handful of regional titles, but as Rembert points out, the company is late in coming to the regional field.

Vanderbilt University Press fits the norm for university presses. Small and underfunded, it publishes roughly 12 to 15 titles per year, including the ongoing Vanderbilt Library of American Philosophy series. The press has a staff of four, excluding a director. Although a search is ongoing, VU Press has been director-less since August of last year. Vanderbilt professor Paul Elledge was acting director until January, when he became an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.

One of the press's trade-oriented projects is a series of books on the roots and culture of country music, created jointly by Vanderbilt and the Country Music Foundation. Rembert explains how it works: "The Foundation folks act as the acquisition and developmental editors. We copy-edit, handle the production, and market the books. Right now, it's averaging one a year, but the press hopes to increase the number to one per season."

Rembert warns, however, that publishing commercial titles can become a liability for company as small as VU Press. "The push to trade can backfire. If you get too many trade books, generally a university press doesn't have the marketing budget to really push them." She points to Georgia University Press as one academic publisher that created a trade list more ambitious than its marketing department could handle. The result was a lot of returned books. That's because publishing is one of the few businesses in the country that permits its vendors to return items that haven't been sold--if a tool company sells a screwdriver to a hardware store, the store can't return the item for credit just because nobody bought it.

A new development in the publishing world, however, should prevent just this sort of problem: Lightning Source, a component of the massive Ingram book distribution company, is creating a catalog of virtual books. "They scan everything," Rembert explains. "Then books that sell only a handful of copies a year--you don't have to declare them out of print. People can order directly from Ingram or they can order from us." What's especially noteworthy, though, is that this handy resource is located right here in Middle Tennessee.


Lightning Source

The revolution in publishing, like so many other technological revolutions, is taking place all around us, and Lightning Source is a perfect example. Located in La Vergne, about 20 minutes down I-24 from Nashville, it's the latest fiefdom in the Ingram empire. But the company isn't simply a subsidary of Ingram Distribution Group; retaining its autonomy, it exists as a sibling on equal footing within the corporate family.

Technically, Lightning Source isn't a publisher, because it merely makes available the works of other publishers. However, even in its infancy the company is beginning to influence the way publishers think about the future of the business. So far, Lightning Source has printed well over 900,000 copies of various books--more than 9,000 titles for 500-plus publishers.

Ed Marino is CEO of Lightning Source. At a graying 49, he acts like a textbook Baby Boomer executive--no tie, a hearty laugh, limitless enthusiasm. His job is to foresee and help create the future of electronic publishing. His company began in Rochester, N.Y., in January 1998 as Lightning Print, one of the nation's first print-on-demand electronic publishers. Only a couple of months ago, Marino relocated to Middle Tennessee to work with the newly named Lightning Source, which now combines both print-on-demand books and e-books.

"We changed the name," Marino explains, "to reflect an expansion in our business model. We'd originally been established as a just-in-time print service in support of Ingram Book Company."

Marino describes the distinctions between the two forms of electronic publishing. With print-on-demand, Lightning Source digitizes the book's content by scanning it; when a customer requests the title, the company prints and distributes it in the form of a bound copy. An e-book goes through the same process as a print-on-demand book, but the final product is never printed; it's both distributed and displayed only digitally, on a computer screen. Once a book's contents are in the Lightning Source database, it can be "published" in either version.

Lightning Source is cutting-edge technology. In late April, The Washington Post published an article that explored the possible future of electronic publishing and its impact on traditional publishing. The article's title was "The End," and its subtitle summed up the fear of many book lovers: "Name Any Title. Print a Single Copy. And Watch the Book Go the Way of the Stone Tablet." The article reported some startling facts:

Random House is in the process of digitizing all of the 20,000 titles held by the company and its subsidiaries. In the last few months, the Oxford English Dictionary went online. And there will be no more hardbound editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which has been publishing periodic updates for well over 200 years.

Such information suggests that we're indeed headed toward radical changes in publishing, and perhaps even in the way we define a book. It's worth remembering, though, that the field has always been changing, just like any other. Once upon a time, booksellers were skeptical of paperbacks. Many refused to stock them, proclaiming the whole idea just another fad.

Not surprisingly, Ed Marino sees only good coming from his company. "This technology has two effects on the marketplace," he points out. "The first is that it will allow books to remain in print much longer--in fact, forever, really. You don't have to have long, expensive print runs to justify producing the books. You can do them one at a time. We're the Dell of the book business. As orders come in, we make the book when it's ordered."

He pauses, then says, "You know, I hate to be melodramatic about it, but a lot of what we're doing is helping to change the way people read. In the print-on-demand world, not only can you keep books in print longer, but titles are more accessible to people."

For example, last year Oprah Winfrey reached down from Olympus and blessed a book that had been published by the University of Virginia Press--Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. There was no way that the smallish press could meet the sudden unexpected demand for the book, so it called Lightning Print and asked for a print run that would tide the company over until its own edition was reprinted.

Lightning Source manages to turn around most of its titles within 48 hours. That's two days from the time the order is received online until the newly printed and bound book is shipped out. To do this, Lightning Source works around the clock, with three shifts of workers tending machines that print 800 pages a minute.

As The Washington Post noted, the electronic impact on the book business will be staggering. If print-on-demand and e-books genuinely become the books of the future, warehouses will no longer be necessary, and shipping will not be an issue. Still, the book business will remain very much the same in other ways: Good editors will still be crucial; design will still require experts; and prestige, demanding high standards, will still attract the best talent. Really, such a development benefits small publishers most of all. What has kept them small is the overhead: marketing, printing, binding, warehousing, shipping. The new electronic opportunities may democratize the process.

Nowadays, the larger New York publishers are owned by a handful of multinational corporations, and as a result they are obsessed with the bottom line in ways that publishers have never been before. Publishing companies have always had to make a profit, but they have done so by cultivating authors and audiences, by keeping books in print for years--and, of course, by selling whatever the public wants. Small publishers have to struggle to survive, but they also have options the larger publishers do not.

Perhaps the corporate giants of publishing would do well to remember a little evolutionary fable that has been applied to more than one business already. Back in the Cretaceous era, dinosaurs ruled the earth. However, in the very shadow of these giants, enterprising smaller creatures were busily filling every available ecological niche. The small creatures not only survived, they flourished. Along the way, they conquered a little territory of their own and bided their time.

And we all know what happened to the dinosaurs.


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