In 1964, Robert Cameron became well known in San Francisco when he published The Drinking Man’s Diet, the original low-carb diet allowing ample booze consumption. Initially going for a dollar a piece, The Drinking Man’s Diet has sold nearly three million copies over the last 50 years, and its success turned Cameron + Company, which previously focused on products unrelated to books, into a publisher and book packager. Robert Cameron went on to produce coffee-table books of aerial photos of cities. His first such book, Above San Francisco, was published in 1969.
In 2008, Cameron’s granddaughter Nina and her husband, Chris Gruener, discussed the possibility of taking over the business. “I started to talk with Bob,” said Chris Gruener. “He was 97 at the time, fully blind, but sharp as a tack.” The Grueners decided to buy the business in 2009, the same year Robert died. At the time, the company was mostly relying on several books that were backlisting well. “When we took it over it wasn’t a sustainable, salary-producing business by any means; it was a hobby business,” said Gruener.
Gruener wasn’t a complete newcomer to the industry; he had worked at Nolo Press in Berkeley, Faherty & Associates, and as the Western regional sales manager at Baker & Taylor. He even owned a copy of Above San Francisco before he met his wife. To revive the company, the Grueners moved the publisher from San Francisco to Petaluma, Calif., where they had bought a home, and started to publish more books, including a children’s line. To support the push into children’s publishing, Gruener brought on freelancers Sarah Gillingham, as children’s book designer, and Amy Novesky, as children’s book editor. Within the next few years, the company dropped their aerial-photography books altogether and concentrated on books in traditional photography, art, food and wine, and regional/history categories, as well as children’s.
In 2012, Cameron + Company ramped up the business even further, bringing on well-known book designer Iain Morris, who had worked on the Star Wars books for Lucasfilms, Insight Editions, and Charles Shultz’s Peanuts. He oversees all the art direction and has become a partner in the business; Gruener called his contributions “pivotal” to its success. Also in 2012, the company moved to PGW for distribution.
Gruener acknowledged that though Petaluma is not considered the epicenter of the publishing world, it is a terrific place for their business, and a community filled with amazing artists. “Petaluma is a unique spot—a lot of people are moving up here because they are getting priced out of San Francisco. We have a terrific network of local talent here. Once, Nina wanted to do a book with these two different artists, and when she read their bylines, she discovered that both of them were based in Petaluma. There’s a very cool scene here.”
The Grueners’ goals are to continue growing the business and build a backlist that performs well. They also want to produce books for artists and acquire books that could branch out into other areas, such as film. Last year they published eight titles and plan the same number for 2015, as well as continuing to package books for publishers and other clients. The company’s tagline is, “Books that need to be books.” Gruener said, “I really feel that there is a renaissance of appreciation for finely printed books, with high attention to detail, design, and production quality. Every book that we do, it’s a book that really needs to be a book.”
It’s been 50 years since The Drinking Man’s Diet came out, and while Gruener acknowledges that publishing isn’t the easiest business in the world, he has no regrets about taking over the family business. “There are certainly better-paying gigs out there, but there are very few industries where you can touch, feel, and show off a finished product.” One of those finished products is their latest book, Panorama, a fully illustrated coffee table book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1915 International Exposition in San Francisco. It’s a timely book, one that echoes the celebration of the company’s own 50th anniversary. “It’s cheesy and a cliché,” Gruener said, “but it’s really beautiful to hold a finished book and smell it. There’s not a whole lot of jobs where you get that satisfaction.”