People don't come to a park to buy a book," acknowledges Derek Gallagher, director of publications for Western National Parks Association, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., which operates bookstores at 65 sites from California to Kansas, Montana to Texas, and online at wnpa.org. "But they do expect a park to have an authoritative source."
Books may not factor into a visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, but many visitors buy books—along with postcards, maps, patches, pins, and hiking gear. At Western's stores, books account for 45% of revenue, and the association contributed more than $4 million to the National Park Service in fiscal year 2008. Across the country in Fort Washington, Pa., Eastern National operates 130 park stores from Maine to Florida and the Caribbean, as well as online at eparks.com. Books are 48% of Eastern's product mix, and in fiscal 2009 35% of its sales of $26.8 million came from books.
Many of the stores that Eastern, Western, and the roughly 60 other cooperating park organizations across the U.S. operate tend to be organized around themes like geysers and hot springs at Yellowstone, or Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. For a book with the right theme, park stores can make a difference. "It's not significant backlist sales, but important steady sales that come back every year," says Dean Lunt, publisher of Islandport Press in Yarmouth, Maine. Reordering is an automatic process, he notes, and the books don't get moved to the back of the store to make way for bestsellers or books on the latest trend.
To get an entry into a park store, every bookhas to be approved by each individual park—and it can take 30 days or more for a park to decide. "Say we have a book related to the American Revolution," says Kevin Kissling, operations support manager at Eastern. "Each park that interprets that theme has to review it. Then, depending on the review process, we may have one that comes back ‘great item' and another ‘that doesn't work for us.' It's not blanket approval." Books that aren't approved by some parks can still be sold by others.
Accuracy is a key factor in determining what a store will carry. When he was a regional manager in Philadelphia, Kissling recalls several books about Betsy Ross being turned down because they repeated myths or misconceptions, such as crediting her for making the first flag. "There's no proof to that," says Kissling, "and it contradicts what the park is teaching. For us it's all about accuracy. A lot of places don't sell fiction for that reason." Occasionally, a park will make a suggestion about a cover, particularly when the historic image is not-up-to date, but the main thing, says Kissling, is the content.
To make sure Stuart Murray's book on General Burgoyne, Honor of Command, would be approved for sale at the Saratoga National Park, his publisher, Tordis Isselhardt of Images from the Past in Bennington, Vt., took the unusual step of using a staffer at the park as an outside reader. "A book's got to be something that really fulfills the park's educational mission. It's got to be accurate and interpretive—and it's got to sell," says Isselhardt. Murray incorporated all the park reader's suggestions.
As part of their educational mission, park stores stock general nonfiction and scholarly titles as well as children's books. Western has published 11 general-interest children's books in the past 16 years, including two board books, which, says Gallagher, are among its most successful titles. Many of the larger park associations often publish for smaller parks, like the African Burial Ground in New York City, that might not be able to find enough trade titles that address their theme. In addition, the associations publish books that commemorate significant anniversaries. Next year, for example, Eastern, which does 10 to 15 new projects a year and 25 reprints, is planning a Civil War guide book and a children's activity book to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In 2011, it will also publish a children's geology book for Cape Cod National Seashore. Its bestseller, and what may well be the only book with blanket approval across the parks, is Passport to Your National Parks, which has sold 1.5 million copies to date.
So far e-books haven't affected what national park associations sell, or their publishing programs. As Western's Gallagher notes, "The books we do are cheap and small." Still, e-books are something that he's investigating. Eastern is in the midst of revamping its Web site, not to accommodate e-books but to make the site easier for visitors, especially those from overseas, to learn about the parks and what to expect when they get there. Still, with 285.5 million visits last year throughout the national park system, park associations are already doing a lot to boost attendance—and attract potential book buyers.