When you think of Nashville the first things to come to mind are country music and churches. With its roots in song and spirituality, it should come as no surprise that Nashville has become fertile ground for writers. A burgeoning trade publishing scene has followed—one that includes a wide variety of publishers, from trade houses like Turner Publishing to hipster shops like Third Man Books, as well as university presses, like Vanderbilt University Press.
Julie Schoerke is founder of JKS Communications, a Nashville-based book publicity company, and moved to the city in 2005 from Greensboro, N.C. “I just love the vibe here,” she says. “And in the past 15 years, the city feels like it has really grown and come into its own."
Schoerke is right: between 1998 and 2018, the population of Nashville grew by 150,000, and the greater metropolitan area will hit two million people sometime this year. “With so many people moving here, there’s always someone new to work with, and a lot of those people are multi-talented,” says Schoerke, whose own company has grown to such an extent, it now has a presence in New York, New Orleans, and Montreal, and recently launched two new companies, Books Forward, which will offers marketing and branding support, and Books Fluent, which offers publishing services. Schoerke specifically cites the presence of several prominent authors as having a positive influence on local literati.
These include the novelist Ann Patchett, whose Parnassus Book Shop plays a significant role in the city, and Jon Meacham, the former editor-in-chief of Newsweek and executive editor at Random House who is now also distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. Meacham’s latest book, Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation (Random House) was cowritten with another Nashville celebrity, country musician Tim McGraw.
Nashville has long been a hot spot for celebrities, particularly musicians, and there is a genuine talent trade happening between Los Angeles and Nashville. Recently, celebrities who have become closely associated with the city include Nicole Kidman (who is married to musician Keith Urban) and Taylor Swift. Actress Reese Witherspoon runs Draper James, a popular women’s boutique in Nashville. Authors are known to drop off their books at the store in the hope that Witherspoon will pick one for her Instagram book club, Reese’s Book Club, which has 1.4 million followers, or adapt it into film with her production studio, Hello Sunshine.
The interplay of celebrity and literature has led to the development of a young publishing house. Third Man Books is a philosophical extension of Third Man Records, the recording label run by Jack White of the band the White Stripes. Third Man Books was founded in 2005 and made a splash with its first publication, Language Lessons, an ambitious 300-page hardcover poetry and prose anthology by poets and musicians that included two vinyl LPs of music and five artist broadsides. “We’ve since published some 30 books, including poetry, fiction, children’s books, and nonfiction,” says cofounder Chet Weise, who is another Nashville transplant, having moved to town in 2004; for years Weise hosted a popular open mic reading series called Poetry Sucks! “When I first got here, there was no literary scene to speak of,” he adds, “and now there is so much going on that it is hard to keep track of it all.”
Weise draws heavily from the local community when looking for books to publish. He says it is relatively easy to find talented writers, and he also points to organizations like the Porch Writers Collective, which offers workshops, as well as the Free Nashville Poetry Library, which offers 1,600 poetry books on loan, as helping to foster the local literary community.
It should come as no surprise that Third Man’s Books’ most popular titles so far have been music related: White’s children’s book, We’re Going to Be Friends, illus. by Elinor Blake, and an oral history of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Total Chaos, by Jeff Gold. Other recent notable books include the historical novel and Walter Scott Prize winner Gallow’s Pole by Benjamin Myers, and And What Would You Say if You Could?, the debut collection of poems by Nashville youth poet laureate Haviland N.G. Whiting.
“We are kind of like Nashville itself—racially diverse, a little left of center, and willing to perform live almost anywhere,” Weise says. “If you fit that mold as an author, we’re your publisher.”
Betsy Phillips published Jesus Crawdad Death, a poetry chapbook, with Third Man and will be publishing her next book with the press sometime next year. That book, Dynamite Nashville: The KKK, the FBI, and the Bombers Beyond Their Control, looks at an investigation into three unsolved bombings in Tennessee during the late 1950s and early 1960s. “I tried to solve the mystery that has haunted Nashville for a long time, and it should captivate readers here,” says Phillips, who is also the marketing and sales manager of Vanderbilt University Press.
Nashville residents are becoming more interested in their own history. Vanderbilt University Press will publish Greetings from New Nashville by Steve Haruch in the fall, which looks at the evolution of the city in recent years, and Phillips is overseeing the launch of a new series of short local-interest books dubbed Truths, Lies, and Histories of Nashville. The series will comprise 25 volumes, with the final volume appearing in 2029—the 250th anniversary of the founding of Nashville. “We want the stories that have never been told, the truths behind the oft-told tales, the things that keep us in love with the city, and the parts of the past that have broken our hearts, with a priority on traditionally underrepresented perspectives,” Phillips says.
The new line of books is among the first changes under the new leadership of Gianna Francesca Mosser, the previous editor-in-chief of Northwestern University Press, who took over as director at Vanderbilt in February 2019. So far, Mosser has indicated she’d like to lead the eight-employee press in a more trade-oriented direction and boost its output, bringing it up to 35 or 40 titles per year, from 20 to 25, and to expand its mandate.
For more than 20 years, the press has had a copublishing arrangement with the Country Music Hall of Fame, which has produced a long list of titles, including A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry by Charles K. Wolfe and Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles by David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren. The press’s most popular title has been Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss, about the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference; that book received the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award for civil rights and the RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition Prize for social justice.
Phillips says that the musical community in Nashville is extremely supportive of its writers, particularly poets, who are seen as allies. “There’s a natural relationship between songwriting and poetry, so it’s not surprising to go out at night and hear a poet open for a musician or vice-versa.”
Or, as Third Man’s Weise notes, “One is the language of music, the other is the music of language.”
Another Nashville connection between the music industry and publishing is audiobooks. In fact, a nearby company, the Lebanon, Tenn.–based restaurant chain Cracker Barrel, contributed to the popularity of audiobooks in the U.S. when its stores started renting audiobooks on cassette and CDs to cross-country road-trippers in the 1990s. Naxos of America employs some 60 people in Franklin, Tenn.—though it is moving to Cool Springs in the next few months—and the company offers a vast music and audiobook library. For much of its history, the company produced CDs and other formats in the U.K., where it is headquartered, and shipped them to Tennessee for distribution to libraries and schools from the company warehouse. In 2019, Naxos went entirely digital, switching to a streaming subscription model, which can be accessed at naxosonlinelibraries.com.
“We have seen significant growth and interest in our library of spoken-word titles in recent years, in line with the growth of the overall audiobook market,” says Nick Floyd, manager, licensing and library sales at Naxos of America. To capitalize on this growth, the company is publishing more of its own original productions; one recent title, To the Island of Tides by Alistair Moffat, a Scottish travelogue, won an Earphone award from Audiophile magazine. “That’s validation for us,” Floyd says.
When it comes to innovation, local publisher Jonathan Merkh is in the vanguard. After a long career at Nashville-based Thomas Nelson and at Simon & Schuster, where he had several #1 bestsellers, including books by Dave Ramsey and the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame, he launched Forefront Books in 2018. Forefront focuses on self-help, business, and inspirational memoir, with an emphasis on celebrity authors. The model, says Merkh, is based on profit sharing rather than on offering big advances. This is good for celebrity authors, who come with a big platform and take home more revenue, but also solves what Merkh calls the “chicken and egg” syndrome, where an author has “a great book idea but can’t get a deal because they have no platform, but yet they need a book to build their platform.”
Merkh cites several success stories, including About My Mother, a bestselling memoir by Peggy Rowe, the mom of television personality Mike Rowe. ForeFront will publish a follow-up, About Your Father and Other Celebrities I’ve Known, later this spring. He also points to Fritzy Finds a Hat, a tale of a little boy whose mom has cancer, written by figure skater Scott Hamilton and illustrated by country music superstar Brad Paisley. In addition, television journalist Joan Lunden is writing a book about aging for Forefront.
“Nashville is a hotbed of creativity and is full of talented people,” Merkh says in praise of his hometown. “You have access to some of the best freelance talent in the business right here, from ghostwriters, experienced editors, graphic designers, to publicists and cutting-edge marketing firms—everything you need to run a publishing business can be found in Nashville.”
The largest indie trade publisher in the city is Turner Publishing. Initially, the house was based in Kentucky and focused on military history titles. When Todd Bottorff acquired Turner in 2002, he moved the company to Nashville and expanded rapidly, acquiring a variety of companies, including the books division of Ancestry.com, Basic Health Publications, Cumberland House, Hunter House, and several category lists from Wiley. Turner currently publishes 5,000 titles across 11 imprints and numerous categories, including fiction, business, YA, history, romance, mystery, religion and lifestyle titles.
In 2019, Turner had a string of notable successes, including a pair of YA novels: The Ables by Jeremy Scott, cocreator of the YouTube channel CinemaSins, and The Escape of Light by Fred Venturini, about a teenage burn survivor overcoming his physical and emotional scars. It also had a hit with Bryan Kozlowski’s The Jane Austen Diet, a self-help guide culled from the works of the eponymous author.
Merkh neatly sums up what publishers think of their hometown when he says, “Nashville is the kind of place you never want to leave once you get here. But please let everyone know—come and visit. But don’t stay! There are no more vacancies, because we’re full.”