The Pacific Northwest is famously home to Amazon—but it is also home to the indie press that publishes How to Resist Amazon and Why, a statement that reflects the richness of one of the nation’s most vibrant publishing scenes. The Pacific Northwest is known for its many bookstores, publishers, colleges and universities, and for its innovative libraries. And there is a strong ethos of community and cooperation which has served the region well during the Covid-19 crisis.
Much has changed since PW last highlighted the region back in November 2016. But if anything, the challenges of the last two years have a highlighted the qualities that make the Pacific Northwest book publishing community exceptional: tech savvy and a spirit of innovation, individualism and resilience, environmental awareness, and a deep commitment to equity and fairness, independence and community.
For this look at publishing in the Pacific Northwest, we conducted more than 50 interviews. What we found is a region that has creatively weathered the challenges of the last few years. A sampling of the region’s publishers follows, but check out the PW website for an expanded look at the region, including booksellers.
In 2018, Jelani Memory wrote a book for his kids: A Kids Book About Racism. “Growing up as a Black kid in the whitest city in America, it felt important that my kids not only know and understand what racism is but be able to talk about it openly,” he says. So began Memory’s journey from concerned parent to media business owner—still in “the whitest city in America,” Portland, Ore.
There are now dozens of “A Kids Book About” titles, all on important topics that can be hard to explain to kids. The books are distinctive for their beautiful textual design—but are not illustrated. “Sorry, but no dragons or princesses here,” Memory says. “Kids have real experiences, ideas, and questions. These books talk up to them, treat them like they’re smart, and create space for conversation.”
What began as a direct-to-consumer book business for kids ages five to nine is now a multimedia company that allows kids to interact with content in the many places they live—on phones, in books, at home, in the car, or through headphones. The company recently expanded the age range of kids for whom it makes content to 10–16. And AKCA now has launched nine podcasts, all featuring diverse hosts and covering topics like climate change, how to investigate facts, and how to be an activist (which is hosted by an eight-year-old).
AKCA lives the values it publishes. Authors and employees come from diverse backgrounds. And the working environment is remote-work and family-friendly. “As a kids company, we have a lot of parents on our team and the expectation is that life with kids is unpredictable and not always routine,” observes editor Emma Wolf. “So when things come up, everyone is really understanding and empathetic about putting things on pause or moving things around. Speaking as someone who doesn't have kids, I feel that same level of empathy offered.”
For Memory, much has changed in the wake of the pandemic hit. “Covid-19 has impacted our business in a few ways,” he says. “First, we are a fully distributed team because of Covid-19, and intend to stay so even when the pandemic cools. Second, our business accelerated when e-commerce boomed in 2020 because of the pandemic. Lastly, we believe our products are more important than ever because of the inequities highlighted by the pandemic.”
You can’t talk about publishing in the Pacific Northwest—or, in fact, anywhere—without talking about Seattle-based giant Amazon. But how to do you talk about a global powerhouse that holds enormous leverage over the publishing industry in a local context?
As a publisher, Amazon continues to push boundaries. Its Kindle Direct Publishing unit empowers vast numbers of self-published authors. Its Audible division is a leader in the surging digital audiobook market. And since its founding in 2009, Amazon Publishing, the company’s trade publishing unit, has grown to 16 imprints and is home to up-and-coming writers as well as some major authors, such as Dean Koontz and Patricia Cornwell. Last year, the company struck a deal with the Digital Public Library of America to lend its digital books in public libraries. And its Amazon Crossing imprint is a leader in a market that has been vastly underserved for years: translated works.
“I’ve lived in Seattle and worked at Amazon for 13 years now, and it’s proven to be the life I left New York for—a vibrant literary scene surrounded by nature and a spirit of possibility,” says Gabriella Page-Fort, Amazon Crossing editorial director. “In my time at Amazon Crossing, we’ve accomplished more than I ever imagined. We’ve published over 471 books by authors from 51 countries writing in 30 languages. One of my favorite local events last year was hosted by the Seattle Public Library, featuring Iraqi author Mortada Gzar discussing his PEN Translation Prize–longlisted memoir I’m in Seattle, Where Are You? It was the perfect example of how our big-world focus at Crossing fits right into the local community.”
A boutique, vegan-owned publisher of environmental literature Ashland-based Ashland Creek Press recognizes “the urgency to save and protect our planet and its creatures,” says co-founder Midge Raymond. A believer in “literary activism, Raymond says her job extends beyond selling books. “If we can inspire change through good stories, we've done our job.”
Aspiring authors are telling those tales: In 2021, submissions poured in for the press’s sixth Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, which promises a $1,000 prize and a two-week residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. “A lot of people who had a book in progress had time during the pandemic to finish it and send it out,” Raymond observed.
In February, Ashland Creek published the 2019 Siskiyou winner, A.E. Copenhaver's My Days of Dark Green Euphoria. Raymond described Copenhaver’s work as “a satirical literary novel that perfectly captures the challenges and eco-anxiety we face in the twenty-first century.”
Other endeavors include the publisher’s four-week online course, Writing for Animals, which focuses on “how to portray animals authentically and empathetically during a time of mass extinction and devastating climate change,” Raymond says. Participants joined synchronously or in “a self-paced version” across global time zones, and the course culminated with an “open mic” style reading via Zoom.”
There were challenges, of course, Raymond acknowledges. “The pandemic affected our usual commitments to attending conferences and book festivals, as well as author events,” she says. “And being packed and ready to go during our six-month fire season is always a challenge.”
In the coming months, Raymond says she’s looking forward to pandemic conditions easing up enough to once again gather in person with other writers and publishers. But whatever the challenge, the mission remains constant. “We will continue to publish literature that we hope will open hearts and minds to the issues facing our planet.”
How’s this for focus: Bard Press Publisher Todd Sattersten launches one book a year. It’s a strategy that wouldn’t work for many publishes, but Sattersten says it’s a sound strategy for his company. “By releasing one book a year, we can tell our distributor and retail partners that your book matters. Selectivity captures their attention and makes them open to hearing about the book and its upcoming launch. Our sales reps often say, ‘Bard Press publishes one book a year — this is it.’”
But why pin the company’s fortunes on one book at a time? As a publisher of data-informed business books the decision is rooted in data, of course. In a blog post called The Magic Number (10,000 sales in the first year) Sattersten, who previously co-founded the business and technology press IT Revolution Press with Gene Kim, explained how, statistically speaking, lavishing care upon one title increases its chances of being an evergreen hit.
“The first slice of data partially confirms book publishing’s rules of thumb: if a book doesn’t sell 10,000 copies in its first year, there is only an 11% chance that the title will ever sell more than 10,000 copies.” However, he explains, “if you can get into the 10,000 to 25,000 copy range for first year sales, you have a 42% chance of selling more than 25,000 copies in lifetime sales.”
From its modest roots selling audiobook cassettes out of a garage in Southern Oregon in the 1980s, Blackstone publishing has grown into one of the most respected and formidable indie publishers in the nation. In the booming audio market, Blackstone is a major player—and its push into print and e-book publishing in 2015 has proven well-timed.
“Despite Covid-19 challenges, Blackstone Publishing has been able to adapt and expand during the pandemic,” says Lauren Maturo, director of publicity. “Last year, we successfully launched our own on-site printing press at the Blackstone headquarters in Ashland, and we now print the majority of our physical books in-house. The flexibility, customization, and speed created by printing on demand and in-house has benefited Blackstone, our authors, and our partners.”
Blackstone’s growth is also benefiting workers. “Our team is growing and we are creating new jobs as part of the in-house printing initiative,” Maturo says. “We are also expanding our sales, production, editorial, marketing, and publicity teams, as we increase the number of books we publish each year in print, e-book, and audiobook.”
While business has been strong, it hasn’t been easy—and not just because of the pandemic. Blackstone Publishing staffers endured devastating wildfires in Southern Oregon in September 2020. “Fortunately, our headquarters in Ashland was spared from the fires, but many of our employees lost their homes,” Maturo said. “It rocked all of us to see members of the Blackstone family and the Rogue Valley community suffering from so much loss. Under the leadership of Blackstone President and CEO Josh Stanton, our company banded together and created a fundraiser to aid employees who lost their homes in the fires, ultimately raising over $125,000, with Blackstone matching donations to the fund.”
Despite the tough times, Blackstone Publishing staff and authors continue to have reason to celebrate. Stanton was named Strand magazine’s Publisher of the Year for 2021. And three of the publisher’s titles—Catherine Ryan Howard’s thriller 56 Days; Cadwell Turnbull’s fantasy No Gods, No Monsters; and Eric Rickstad’s thriller I Am Not Who You Think I Am—were all named New York Times 2021 Best Books of the Year, among other accolades. Latina pilot Cecilia Aragon’s memoir Flying Free won the Nancy Pearl Award from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and Brian Freeman’s mystery The Deep, Deep Snow was an Edgar Award nominee and a Minnesota Book Award winner.
In many ways, Blackstone represents the very essence of what it means to be a Pacific Northwest publisher. And a substantial list of nominations and awards for its titles shows that it has also become one of the nation’s major indie players.
A hybrid micro-press in Tacoma, Wash., Blue Cactus Press spotlights Queer and BIPOC authors—and publisher Christina Vega says the Pacific Northwest community is part of their success. “There is a bubble of safety and collaboration among Queer and BIPOC creators in the Pacific Northwest that has allowed my press to grow over the last five years,” Vega says. “I don’t know if audiences and professional networks outside of this region would have received our message as gracefully.”
Vega says they have appreciated the mentorship of sweet pea Flaherty, owner of Tacoma’s King’s Books, and Blue Cactus members’ support through Patreon. “We’ve received heartfelt notes, had great discussions at workshops, and connected at virtual events on a level that I don’t think we would have if the pandemic hadn’t forced us to change how we relate to each other and the world around us,” Vega says, adding that part of Blue Cactus’s mission includes “teaching creatives how to self-publish high-quality, meaningful books.”
Vega also pushes back against the “pervasive idea” that today's "hybrid" publishers are vanity presses. “We curate our catalog. We screen authors and search for the best manuscripts we can get our hands on. We edit our asses off and coach writers through the editorial process. We put 100% effort into making professional, market-ready, and attractive books,” Vega insists. “The only difference is that we are sometimes willing to share the financial risks and resources of publishing with authors.”
As Phil Bevis, cofounder and publisher of Seattle’s Chatwin Books, sees it, we have entered an era of “continuous change,” which will require “continuous adaptation.” And Chatwin Books has embraced this new approach, he says, citing an example from the early days of Covid-19, when Seattle was effectively shut down.
“We are located in a part of Seattle where all the storefronts had to be boarded up, which was at first depressing, but then led to a huge creative explosion of storefront murals that raised the spirits of people in our city,” Bevis recalls. “Realizing that if this was not documented it would be lost, we started work on what was for us a breakthrough book.” That book was Viral Murals: Seattle Artists, Storefront Murals, and the Power of Art During Crisis. “Because we have our own color printing presses, we were able to produce it here,” Bevis says. “But even producing it in-house, a 224-page color art book is an expensive undertaking.”
The risk proved worthwhile. “People across the city recognized us for trying to do something positive in a dark time, and their response—whether they purchased it or not—provided the energy we needed to keep going when things were so dismal,” Bevis says.
Speaking of adapting, Chatwin Books staff have adapted to remote work and the challenges to produce a string of successes. In addition to Viral Murals, teams produced the tribal-health-related publications Plant Teachings for Growing Social-Emotional Skills and Feeding 7 Generations: A Salish Cookbook; Charles and Elisheba Johnson’s The Tomorrow No One Wanted, book three in the Emery Jones series; and Rebecca Brown’s forthcoming essay cycle, You Tell the Stories You Need to Believe, which Bevis says is seeing “outstanding” preorders.
“Because we are in a corner of the country, supply chain problems have presented issues,” Bevis acknowledges. “But we’ve been lucky to have our own production facility, and we have shifted more work in-house to avoid delays. We are also doing more work for other Pacific Northwest publishers. We’re so thankful that we have been able to survive, and in fact grow and expand, during this challenging time.”
Beyond Words has been publishing metaphysical, spiritual, and self-help material for 39 years. They distribute books, film, audio books, card decks, music and meditation CDs.
“Covid affected us in a number of ways,” said Michele Ashtiani Cohn, Acquisitions Editor and Creative Director. “Book sales and revenue dropped 40% in the first year due to stores being closed and Amazon deeming our products non-essential for at least 4 months.” Cohn is grateful to Simon & Schuster which agreed during Covid to move 100 pallets of inventory of books and DVDs to their warehouse in New Jersey and to provide distribution for all Beyond Words products.
Outside-the-box thinking also helped Beyond Words navigate the sudden interruptions to several in-person book launches,” said Brennah Hale, Director of Marketing and Public Relations. New social media platforms such as Clubhouse and TikTok “had a great impact in the way we reached readers.” As the pandemic wore on, social media management was a “major player in maintaining visibility. Influencer marketing became a component for all campaigns and will continue to be going forward,” Hale said.
Although there has been some momentum in re-opening in-person events, there is still caution about how to be successful while still maintaining safety and comfort. “At the end of the day, we want our authors to feel comfortable in the promotional activities that they take on,” said Hale.
For Seattle-based indie Chin Music Press, the Seattle arts community was vital in getting the press through the pandemic, says publisher Bruce Rutledge. “Especially the Pike Place Market Foundation, the Pike Place Market PDA, and 4Culture,” he says. “They offered us grants and breaks on rent that made a huge difference to our efforts in 2020. The Pacific Northwest has an ecosystem that supports indie publishing which I don't think is replicated everywhere—lots of indie bookstores, strong libraries, great coffee shops to hang out in and read during the very often overcast weather, and strong literary organizations.”
Meanwhile, in 2021 Chin Music Press had a hit title with We Hereby Refuse, a graphic novel called that took a new look at World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals, dispelling “the model minority myth and showed how much resistance and fight there was in the community,” Rutledge says. “The book came out in the midst of hate crimes against Asian Americans along the West Coast in spring 2021, and it hit a nerve. We are now in our third printing. We are very proud to have added to the resistance to that strain of bigotry.”
Nationwide, graphic novel sales were up 65% in 2021, with manga up 76% and comics up 49%. And the Pacific Northwest is home to a number of major comics publishers, including Portland-based Dark Horse Comics. Known for works like Hellboy and its comics of hit film franchises (Alien, Predator, Star Wars, etc.), Dark Horse, which was recently acquired by Swedish video game company Embracer Group, reported a strong year in 2021, thanks in large part to the vibrant comics community. “Local comics shops have really kept the whole community going,” says Dark Horse associate editor Jenny Blenk. “Their owners’ creativity and entrepreneurship on top of their usual hard work has been invaluable.”
Cara O’Neill, director of marketing communications at Dark Horse, says the company found new ways to connect with readers and retailers during the pandemic, providing more virtual and livestreamed content and sharing activities that people could enjoy safely from home. Like many publishers, Dark Horse also shifted to hybrid work options during the Covid-19 crisis, with many staff continuing to work remotely. Dark Horse also started an innovative new online-only internship program, led by Blenk. The program offers students an opportunity for comics publishing exposure, even during uncertain pandemic times. “The industry is strong,” Blenk says. and we want to be here for a long time, making awesome content.”
Publishing is hard work in the best of times. And Knox Gardner, publisher and one-man show at Seattle independent poetry press Entre Ríos Books, doesn't sugarcoat it when asked how the pandemic has impacted his work. “We dropped two new books in the first weeks of the lockdowns—a complete disaster,” he says. “Early March 2020? OMG, the worst time to drop a poetry title ever.”
Entre Ríos Books publishes two or three titles a year, many of which include audio and other hybrid elements (such as Shin Yu Pai's recent project, ENSŌ). And while Gardner expresses gratitude for the support of the Pacific Northwest literary community. including Open Books (Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore), Elliott Bay Book Company, the volunteer-led Seattle Art Book Fair, and CLMP, it is clear there he has much on his mind.
“I am struggling to figure out how much I want to participate in traditional publishing—the long lead times, the cost of distribution, the endless consumption and carbon footprint of it, the face-outs-or-die nature of bookselling,” said Knox Gardner, publisher and one-man show at Seattle independent poetry press Entre Ríos Books. “In a good year, this work is overwhelming, but even more so right now. I think often of Matvei Yankelevich's "‘Power to the people's mimeo machines!’ or the Politicization of Small Press Aesthetics" and think, ‘How did I get into this complicated way of sharing these poems? Why am I trying to compete with presses with staff and division of labor?’”
Gardner says has been impressed by how organizations and bookstores, like Seattle’s literary space Hugo House, have pivoted to continue programming online, "none of it takes the place of live events for the actual sales that a small press truly depends on,” he says. “Heck, being in your pajamas eating snacks while half listening is fantastic. Like, no shame. And also not having to pretend to be engaged with something dull. But the reality is, people are not buying books in the same way from Zoom readings, and it feels a bit like publishing into the void.”
A Portland-based children’s book publisher well-known for its particular illustration style and high-quality board books, picture books, and chapter books, Hazy Dell Press says delays and increased costs from Covid-19 have impacted the press. But Hazy Dell owner Renee Yama says the press has benefited from the dedicaiton of a strong team of partners, artists, authors, printers, and its distributor, Consortium.
“Portland isn’t considered a mecca for book publishing,” Yama says. “We don’t bump elbows with national book reviewers or media outlets. However, Portland punches far above its weight when it comes to creative talent.” Yama says that with remote work it’s easier than ever for publishers across the country to tap the Pacific Northwest’s robust talent pool. “With a community as relatively small as Portland’s, it’s all the more important for our local organizations, like PubWest and the Oregon-based Literary Arts, to nurture a tight-knit and supportive community of small and midsize independent publishers like us.”
Yama also expresses gratitude for the larger book publishing community. “Small independent publishers like us wouldn’t stand a chance without librarians, teachers, booksellers and publications like Publishers Weekly, who make the effort to seek out books from independent presses and provide that critical platform for small businesses like ours,” she says.
Named a Publishers Weekly Fastest Growing Small Publisher in 2021, The Innovation Press publishes children's books that inspire learning, enliven creative thinking, and spark imaginations. Their books have been recognized by The New York Public Library (“Best Books for Kids”); The Chicago Public Library (“The Best of the Best”); The National Science Teachers' Association (“Best STEM Books for Kids and Outstanding Science Trade Books”); A Mighty Girl (“Books of the Year”), The ILA-CBC Children's Choices Book List as well as receiving nominations for numerous state book awards.
Publisher Asia Citro, herself an award-winning children’s author, said that COVID impacted every part of their business. “From authors and illustrators struggling to keep up with deadlines, to childcare issues (online school, school closures, quarantines), to backlogs at the printer, to increasing printing and freight costs, and trouble finding staff at our warehouse,” Citro said. “For me as a working parent I think the hardest thing to navigate has been my own work availability,” Citro discloses. “For around 20 months my children were home full time and since we've started back at in-person school there have been quarantines and closures and outbreaks to deal with. It's been a real struggle to maintain focus and a schedule.”
School and library closures and budget cuts have also impacted purchases. Yet, Citro says, Innovation Press has continued to grow, despite those challenges, and fact gives manages to donate thousands of their award-winning titles to children and schools libraries in need each year, particularly targeting help to title one schools and public libraries that serve low-income neighborhoods.
The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is a nonprofit publisher dedicated to using technology to enhance education. They publish books and guides to assist teachers in their practice. Not surprisingly, Covid-19 impacted ISTE substantially, moving their large annual conference to virtual delivery. However, the book publishing arm of ISTE experienced solid growth during the pandemic.
“This pandemic has hit two main industries hard—Health and Education. As we serve the latter, we have been trying to give teachers tools to help them move to blended classrooms and to focus on both their students and their own emotional well-being,” said Colin Murcray, Director of Books and Journals. “I'm proud we were able to get some key resources out for them quickly to help them navigate the changing educational landscape created by the pandemic.”
IT Revolution is a nonfiction publisher that publishes multimedia content in the information technology business genre, everything from books, to white papers, articles, event presentations, podcasts, and courses. But because IT Revolution has always sold best in physical print format, the closing of bookstores and the cancellations of in-person events has taken a toll on the company. Likewise, IT Revolution’s audiobook business was hit by the lack of commuters listening to books as they travel.
But there is “camaraderie in the craziness,” says editorial director Anna Noak, citing how the press has worked together with their freelance editors, designers, and printers to get through Covid-19. “Overall, IT Revolution has been able to pivot and meet the challenges produced by Covid-19 in part because of an early decision to think of the disruption as an opportunity to try new things.” For IT Revolution, that meant pivoting to larger print runs, virtual events, a video library subscription service, a podcast, and offering courses. “Our goal wasn’t just to survive the turmoil,” Noak says. “but rather to see how we could grow and thrive in it.”
“The Pacific Northwest literary community is tight-knit and supportive,” says Jon Gosch, publisher of Latah Books. “Some of our recent publications have had great reviews and publicity and sales. But I’ve been most surprised and delighted by the large crowds at our launch parties. An outdoor launch event for Kacy Tellessen’s Freaks of a Feather: A Marine Grunt’s Memoir drew 200 folks to the tiny town of Spangle on a smoky, 102-degree afternoon. That’s supporting the arts!”
Latah (pronounced LAY-taw) is a Nez Perce word and the name of a local tributary of the Spokane River. Latah Books, per its regional identity, works to represent rural, small-town, and BIPOC authors and historically marginalized voices. For example, C. Matthew Smith’s thriller Twentymile “features an investigator of Cherokee descent,” Gosch says, and “Spokane Arts recently awarded us a grant that has enabled us to take on a couple important memoirs that we otherwise might have had to pass on”—a work by Leslie Absher, a queer writer from Oakland, Calif., and another by Paul Luu, a Vietnamese American surgeon living in Seattle.
Gosch acknowledges, however, that more challenges lie ahead. “The printing and distribution sectors of this industry are in turmoil, partly due to Covid-19 but also due to factors that predate the pandemic.” But Gosch says the press will fight through, adding that he feels “determined to sustain the strength and fortitude to keep doing the difficult things that we know we must do.”
Established in 1998, the nonprofit, independent Lost Horse Press in Sandpoint, Idaho, offers poetry and contemporary literature. Their categories include a New Poets Series, Human Rights Series, and Native American Series—and especially timely, a Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series garnering particular attention: Serhiy Zhadan’s A New Orthography, translated by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin, won the 2021 Derek Walcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for a PEN Translation Award.
With Russia now attacking Ukraine, people are eager to read more about Ukraine—including Ukrainian poetry, says Christine Holbert, publisher at Lost Horse. “Many of our titles deal with the war with Russia in Donbas and eastern Ukraine, so our books have been popular,” she says. “I pray things de-escalate soon.”
For technical and financial assistance during the pandemic, Holbert reached out to the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP). “They were extremely helpful in getting us through Covid-19 by offering tutorials for Zoom, as well as other suggestions for getting through the pandemic financially,” she said. In addition, CLMP helped guide the press through the application process for a grant from the Literary Arts Emergency Fund, aimed at keeping nonprofit literary arts organizations and publishers afloat.
In 2021, Portland-based Microcosm Publishing released Danny Caine’s How to Resist Amazon and Why: The Fight for Local Economics, Data Privacy, Fair Labor, Independent Bookstores, and a People-Powered Future! But what many people don’t know is that Microcosm founder Joe Biel “broke up” with Amazon and his trade distributor in 2019, to focus on self-distribution.
Some three years later the move has paid off. Microcosm’s $3.449 million in earnings in 2021 was more than triple its 2019 earnings. Microcosm has since added thousands of books from other small presses to its distribution roster, and Biel purchased a warehouse in Cleveland to accommodate the increased demand. He also managed to double his staff during the Great Walkout, without losing a single employee. Microcosm operates at a break-even basis, reinvesting profits into worker wage increases (33% in 2019; $3/hour/employee in 2021). After five years with the company, employees can join an employee ownership program. Microcosm welcomed its seventh employee/owner in 2021.
Among his publishing successes, Biel acquired and developed what would became the press’s runaway success: Unf*ck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-outs, and Triggers. The book has outsold the other 49 books in Microcosm’s top 50 combined for five years running, spawning dozens of workbooks, superpacks, and sequels in Microcosm’s product line.
Looking ahead, Biel is close to launching WorkingLit, a subscription cloud service designed by Biel and built with Nellie McKesson, CEO of cloud-based book production and design platform Hederis, to help indie publishers manage their workflows. “As the industry continues to conglomerate,” Biel says, “we want to give our fellow indie publishers the freedom to market and sell books, understand their business, and painlessly pay royalties.”
With a staff of 23 and 650 titles in print, Mountaineers Books, the nation’s leading independent publisher of outdoor recreation, lifestyle, and conservation books, is a Seattle force to be reckoned with. “We are something of a glorious anachronism, in that our editorial and marketing offices share a building with our full-service wholesale and retail distribution center,” says publisher Tom Helleberg. “This is a great advantage when we need to rush an order to a local bookstore. But it also means we have directly experienced the effects of Covid-19 at every link of the chain.”
Most Mountaineers Books staffers shifted nimbly to remote work during the pandemic, but the distribution center remained open sometimes with “a single staffer on-site to fill critical orders,” Helleberg said. “We have furloughed staff. Staff missed time due to Covid-19 symptoms or because they were taking care of family or waiting on a test,” he says. “We’ve had a forklift broken down for three months with no parts to be found. We’ve seen shipping costs quintuple, and we’ve had new titles and reprints delayed by months due to supply chain breakdowns.” But in spite of all these obstacles, against all odds, and “both expected and totally out of the blue,” Helleberg says Mountaineers Books sales grew by 40% from 2020 to 2021.
“We took a leap together with our new authors, releasing their books into an unknown market with many bookstores shuttered and many publishers delaying or canceling seasons,” Helleberg says. “It was a situation that was ripe for dissatisfaction and second-guessing. But mutual trust prevailed.” Among Mountaineers’s successful publications are David Guterson’s Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest and Seth Kantner’s A Thousand Trails Home: Living with Caribou.
For Helleberg, Mountaineers Books’ biggest success is that the press has come through the pandemic so far with all staff safe and employed. “After that, I think our biggest achievement was releasing all titles as announced, even when facing longer production schedules and when bookstores were closed and there were no venues for readings or signings,” he says.
But Helleberg refuses to get comfortable. “Purely as a business concern, I worry about how long the sales trends will continue,” he concedes. “When people start to feel safe, will that lead to a decline in reading and outdoor recreation? It’s a total unknown, but the outcome I’m hoping for is that when we get back our prior freedom to roam, there’ll be more outdoor enthusiasts and they’ll be happy, healthy, and well-read.”
Consumption of kids’ comics is surging nationwide, and publishers like Portland-based Oni Press—possibly best known for publishing the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series—has done well given their strong list of comics and graphic novels for early, middle grade, and YA readers. Also driving the publisher’s success: the explosive growth of webcomics.
“It’s a welcome trend,” a rep for Oni Press says of the surge in webcomics, pointing to the “innovative talent and stories” enabled by digital publishing.
But even with its wide national reach and connections, the press remains firmly rooted in the Pacific Northwest community, which Oni reps say was key to getting through the challenges of the pandemic. “As a long-standing member of the Portland comics community, we offered support throughout the city, and received it in return.”
When lockdowns interrupted the launch of Overcup’s Ground Truth: A Geological Survey of a Life, timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington state, Overcup co-founder and VP of Marketing & PR Rachel Bell had to get creative. She co-branded an online event with University of Washington Press author Eric Wagner. She participated in a “Read Independent” book bundle with eight Portland publishers. Appealing to Portlanders’ desire to buy local, the bundle as a symbol of cooperation and resilience landed them coverage in the The Oregonian.
Bell credits local downtown Portland business consultancy Pregame for “helping us think through pivot moves” during COVID. “Our weekly engagement through the Pregame Hometeam accountability sessions kept us moving forward,” she said. This reliance in the Portland small business community forged community and shared purpose during a time of isolation.
The loss of trade shows and Amazon’s decision to distribute only essential items during the beginning of the pandemic prompted Bell to use the online book distributor Faire to move titles in 2020 and 2021. And the shift impacted “where and how we sell to non-trade stores in a positive way,” Bell says. “I appreciate how they are disrupting trade shows and giving small stores the ability to bring in books.”
Pomegranate publishes books, puzzles, games, calendars, stationery, and gifts. “I'm most proud of the Pomegranate team adapting and navigating the pandemic with grace,” said Cory Mimms, Publisher. Pomegranate is a company of about 25 employees, including their distribution center, customer service team, and creative department.
“Everyone has learned new skills, adapted to new norms, and solved problems the company never faced in its more than 50-year history before the pandemic. We didn't just wait for the problems to pass, hoping for a return to normal, either,” Mimms notes.
Despite the challenges of the last two years, Mimms says Pomegranate published hundreds of items, found new markets, launched a new website, expanded their marketing capabilities, onboarded new employees, and “delivered to our customers what Pomegranate has promised them since 1968: access to art and information that will inspire them and enrich their lives.”
Acquired by Penguin Random House in 2017, Sasquatch Books in many ways reflects the spirit of the Pacific Northwest publishing community, exhibiting a regional sensibility that appeals to a national audience. Comprised of three imprints—Sasquatch Adult, Little Bigfoot (for kids), and Spruce Books, which the company describes as “giftable, highly visual books”—Sasquatch focuses on works that “nurture reading culture, from independent bookstores to organizations that provide books and learning opportunities to the underserved,” says publisher Jennifer Worick.
Sasquatch strives to amplify diverse voices, both in the subject matter of its books and in the authors, illustrators, and designers they hire to create them. For example, Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim was recently extolled in the New York Times for reflecting the nuances of growing up in a Korean American family. And the publisher’s nature and outdoors titles—a long-standing specialty—sold briskly as families looked for inventive ways to get outside during the pandemic. Their classic evergreen backlist title The Encyclopedia of Country Living, now in its 50th anniversary edition, was the #9 bestselling House & Home book in the United States in 2021.
Like many Pacific Northwest–based organizations, Sasquatch includes a land acknowledgment on its website’s about page, and Sasquatch invites readers to think about Native Peoples’ land stewardship and present-day Indigenous cultures by linking to a map where people can learn more about the Indigenous communities in their own region. “We’ve strived to surface and tell these important stories,” Worick says.
Spokane-based Scablands books is a “very tiny boutique publisher” that “is an enormous labor of love,” says managing editor Sharma Shields. “We publish, and are inspired by, people within both the Pacific and Inland Northwest writing communities. It is our lifeblood.”
Shields says support from arts organizations is key to their work. Among their supporters, Spokane Arts, a local nonprofit, “has been tremendous,” Shields says, providing a grant to help publish Native author Emma Noyes’s graphic narrative Baby Speaks Salish: A Language Manual Inspired by One Family’s Effort to Raise a Salish Speaker. Artist Trust, another nonprofit that supports working artists, was instrumental in the Scablands anthology Evergreen: Grim Tales and Verses from the Gloomy Northwest, coedited by Shields and poetry editor Maya Jewell Zeller. Shields also cites strong support from the indie bookstore community and local press.
“We could not do what we do without local independent bookstores, including Auntie’s, Wishing Tree Books, Atticus, and From Here,” she says. “They are our direct contact with the public.”
Timber Press, an imprint of Workman Publishing (recently acquired by Hachette), publishes books in gardening, science, and natural history to share the natural world with readers. And with increased interest these subjects during the pandemic, the press has seen sales grow over the past two years. “The Pacific Northwest has always been a region filled with natural wonders, and we are inspired by it in every aspect of our publishing program,” says associate publisher Kathryn Juergens.
Among Timber’s recent successes and accomplishments are the New York Times bestseller Nature’s Best Hope by Doug Tallamy, and its rebranded Field Guide Series. The flexibility of the press has been key during the pandemic. “We have become more nimble and expanded both the categories that we publish in and the markets we sell to,” Juergens notes.
One of the region’s best-known indie publishers, Portland-based Tin House has garnered significant acclaim over the years, including major national and international literary award winners like Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, which won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award. Publisher Craig Popelars credits his “collaborative, adaptable, tenacious, dynamic” staff for creating great books—even under Covid duress.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have long been core acquisitions values, evident in Tin House’s deep backlist of titles by BIPOC, queer, and other marginalized authors. Tin House was also very early to podcasting, and its Between the Covers podcast, hosted by David Naimon, has been hailed by Book Riot, BuzzFeed, the Financial Times, and the Guardian. And Tin House’s coveted workshops and residencies emphasize craft and the building of great conversations. It’s a lot to keep track of.
“I typically wake up at 3 a.m. to email myself a list of tasks, from the mundane—throw out that old yogurt in the office fridge—to ideas, inspiration, new writers I’ve seen in magazines and journals, marketing ideas, and just anything and everything to do the best by our program,” Popelars says. “Some of it can get you down—printer backups, delayed shipments, paper shortages, rising costs. But at the end of the day, I love what we do at Tin House and feel fortunate to be part of something pretty damn special.”
The largest publisher of scholarly and general interest books in the region, the University of Washington Press has seen “a large increase in both print and e-book sales” in recent years, says director Nicole Mitchell. “We’re fortunate to be at the center of a vibrant regional book culture that supports and values our books and authors,” she says.
Like many presses, virtual author events drew audiences to UW Press, which not only saw an increase in local attendance but garnered a national and even international appeal, Mitchell says. “Our authors connected with readers to help make sense of the current moment and changing context, especially following the racial reckoning and uprisings of the summer of 2020.”
Native and Indigenous Studies is a burgeoning specialty area for UW Press. “While Native and Indigenous communities were hit hard by the pandemic, it was also clear that intergenerational learning and traditional knowledge about how to survive and thrive during times of crisis has been especially valuable,” says editorial director Larin McLaughlin.
About the Authors
Kathi Inman Berens is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, former Annenberg Innovation Lab fellow, prize-winning author, and Associate Professor of Book Publishing and Digital Humanities at Portland State University.
Rachel Noorda: is a book publishing researcher ( Immersive Media & Reading), Cambridge University Press author/editor, and Director of Book Publishing at Portland State University.
Nathalie op de Beeck is PW's West Coast correspondent and an associate professor specializing in children's literature and environmental studies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.