In a time of change in the book industry, the History Press, an independent publisher in Charleston, S.C., is doing a brisk business in titles designed specifically for local markets. From 20 books in its inaugural year of 2004, History Press is on track to release 325 books in 2011. The company currently boasts 17 different series, including Hidden History, True Crime, American Legends, Food & Drink, plus a Civil War Sesquicentennial series, started in 2009. And its reach, in terms of regions covered, is expanding westward; this month and next, History Press releases its first two Oregon titles, Hidden History of Civil War Oregon (yes, the Civil War did reach Oregon) by Randol B. Fletcher and Stories from Jewish Portland (yes, there is a Jewish Portland) by Polina Olsen.
“We’re so busy,” publicist Katie Parry told PW over the phone from Charleston, explaining how the 30-person staff (up from 10 when she started in 2006) manages to publish more than 300 new books. She said the office consists of “myself and one other publicist,” the sales and marketing team, three sales reps, two in-house designers, and about 10 editors.
One of those editors, Joe Gartrell, characterizes the work as a constant hunt for the most vital community voices, the storytellers—not necessarily trained historians—who are already actively engaged in the exploration of their city or region. His latest find is John Carlisle, aka “Detroitblogger John,” whose blog and alternative weekly Metro Times column on the day-to-day of Detroit’s overlooked neighborhoods has won him a journalism award as well as a kind of beloved-local-celebrity status among Detroiters. “My favorite thing,” Gartrell said, “is when I find someone like Carlisle, authors who are really passionate about getting their work out there.” Gartrell’s full-color volume, 313: Life in the Motor City, drops at the end of October.
As special projects manager, Gartrell looks for ways to push the press’s mission in new directions: “313 is not a history book at all,” he said. “The stories were written in the last three years, about people living now. History works for us, but as long as we can identify a local and regional audience and have a passionate author, we’ll try it.”
It was another History Press author, Dan Austin, who brought Carlisle to Gartrell’s attention. Austin, author of Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the City’s Majestic Ruins, is a native Detroiter, an urban explorer, and an architecture enthusiast whose blog caught Gartrell’s eye in 2009. Austin’s image-heavy volume, made with his trusted lensman Sean Doerr, has become one of the History Press’s biggest sellers, having gone back to press five times (including two minor revisions) since its release in August 2010. (A typical run for the press is 1,500; Lost Detroit has some 10,000 copies in print.)
Another bright spot on the horizon is what Gartrell described as an unofficial miniseries on building advertisements, the kind painted directly onto brick or concrete. The first, Fading Ads of New York City, will be released in a few weeks as a full-color hardcover—one of about four hardcovers the press releases every year. If History Press sounds a bit like its Charleston neighbor Arcadia Press, that’s because HP’s founder, Kirsten Sutton, was one of the cofounders of Arcadia, which specializes in local, photo-heavy books.
After seven years, History Press has a backlist of 1,200 titles; with about 10% of its list available digitally, the company is working to up that percentage as quickly as possible. “My favorite thing about this company,” said Gartrell, “is that even though we’re small, and there are specific things we’re really good at, we’re always willing to take new chances, try new things. There’s this really great energy to the company, and that helps us attract the right kind of author.”