North Carolina is home to a growing number of independent presses that publish in diverse subjects and categories. Perhaps the best known of these is Chapel Hill’s Algonquin Books, which has been publishing literary fiction and narrative nonfiction since 1983. Algonquin’s biggest book to date is Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which was introduced to booksellers at ABA’s first Winter Institute, in 2005, and went on to sell five million copies. The press, part of Workman, now publishes 12–14 adult titles and about 10 children’s titles each season. Even though it is only one month into 2015, marketing director Craig Popelars reported that Algonquin is experiencing one of its strongest showings in recent years.
PW once described John F. Blair as publishing “Southern books with an occasional oddity.” Founded in 1954 in Winston-Salem, the press is renowned for its nonfiction list focusing on the history, culture, and cuisine of the Southeast, as well as for its travel guides—although one or two fiction titles are usually included among its 10 annual releases. John F. Blair also distributes for 20 micropresses that publish books complementing John F. Blair’s own list. “It’s helpful to all of us,” publisher Carolyn Sakowski said. “It creates a critical mass with one catalogue. Buyers are more willing to look at us.” Sales have held steady for the past three or four years at around $1 million. Its bestseller, My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk About Slavery, edited by Belinda Hurmence, has sold 134,000 copies since 1984.
Lookout Books is a five-year-old boutique press that is also an imprint of the publishing laboratory in the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s M.F.A. program. Lookout was founded by publisher Emily Smith in 2009 to publish “underrepresented voices, as well as overlooked gems.” One of those 20 micropresses distributed by John F. Blair, Lookout garnered national attention with its debut release, Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. The short-story collection has sold more than 40,000 copies. Lookout’s sixth release, Honey from the Lion, by debut novelist Matthew Neill Null, will be published this fall with a 5,000-copy print run.
While Algonquin, John F. Blair, and Lookout fill distinct niches, they share one important characteristic that’s not surprising in a region in which establishing and maintaining personal relationships has always been an essential cultural ingredient: each press nurtures its partnerships with indie booksellers. “It’s not social media; it’s not marketing plans,” Popelars said. “You can’t just sit there and send out 1,000 galleys. You have to make those phone calls. It’s about being able to connect with an honest engagement. Our success is linked to [indie booksellers’] success.”
Sakowski agreed, noting that John F. Blair routinely sends authors on tour to indies around the Southeast. “They know we’ll support them with publicity,” she said. “We have relationships with all these stores.”
Smith recalled writing personal letters early on to select indies to introduce Lookout. “I remember writing to Square Books,” she said. “And Richard [Howorth] wrote back, congratulating me on the ‘new publishing venture.’ I immediately felt welcomed into and allied with this community of booksellers, writers, and publishers.”
For more about publishing and bookselling in North Carolina, see our Winter Institute 2015 supplement in this issue.