Over the past two decades Bancroft Press in Baltimore, Md., has quietly produced a body of work that ranges from Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s first novel, Those Who Trespass, to a forthcoming true story by Kevin Kelly about his 30-year quest to learn more about a high school football coach in Boston during the 1970s who worked as a Mafia enforcer at night, Both Sides of the Line. Nor has the press, which publishes between three and six books a year limited itself to books for adults. Bancroft has published several YA novels, including Matthew Olshan’s Finn and it just released its first picture book, J. Scott Fuqua’s Calvert the Raven in the Battle of Baltimore. “If there’s a book I really like, I’m going to publish it,” says publisher Bruce Bortz. “In this industry so many people want to say ‘no’ to books. I try to look for a reason to say ‘yes.’ ” Although he acknowledges that operating a independent house can be difficult, Bancroft Press made a small profit last year, Bortz says.
Bortz, an attorney specializing in intellectual property, who founded Bancroft in 1992, prides himself on running an “unconventional press.” That means sifting through 10,000 pitches a year from individuals and agents. He regards the BOMC and History Book Club selection Live by the Sword, a book about the Kennedy assassination, as “probably the most important I ever did. The author [Gus Russo] approached me at the Baltimore Book Festival.” More recently, he was surprised to discover that his tennis partner, David Andrews, dean of the Education division at Johns Hopkins, had written a book on male role models. Bortz signed that, too, and plans to publish Andrews’s My Father’s Day Gift in March 2014.
Being a maverick also applies to the way Bancroft promotes and sells its books. After signing with National Book Network to distribute the press’s titles to the trade for the first eight years, Bortz decided to take back distribution and do it in-house. “I’m not persuaded when it comes to the bottom line that we would do better with a distributor,” he says. “Having to give up 20% to a distributor, you don’t end up better monetarily.”
Bortz also sells film rights directly for his books—and doesn't take a commission from his authors. Every year Bortz and book editor Harrison Demchick make a pilgrimage to Hollywood. They meet with up to 30 production company executives over the course of a week. To date Bortz has sold or optioned film rights to a half dozen, including Stephen Besecker’s thriller, The Samaritan, which was just sold to moviemaker Mace Neufeld, a producer on Invictus. Demchick, who won the 2011 Baltimore Screenwriting Competition, often writes a treatment for each book before the pitch meetings, and will research which director, actors, and agencies should be attached. Bortz says that furnishing a screenplay, even if it isn’t used, helps give a producer a more realistic notion of how a particular book could be a movie.
Like most houses, Bancroft doesn’t limit itself to print. The press’ 80-plus backlist is available in digital editions. “Converting the entire list to e-books has made it easier,” says Bortz. “The backlist keeps selling that way and provides a safety net.” A self-described “recorded book addict,” Bortz is current working with ACX, part of Audible platform, to convert all its books to downloadable audio.
That Bancroft has succeeded for more than 20 years outside New York speaks to Bortz’s commitment to quality publishing done his way.