Two years before Gibbs Smith died in 2017, at age 77, he gifted his eponymous publishing house to its 45 employees, transitioning it to an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan). “We’re all shareholders,” said Suzanne Taylor, publisher and chief creative officer of the company. Reflecting on the state of the company now, she added, “Our mission statement remains ‘planet, profits, people,’ and we seek to embody that everyday.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Gibbs Smith, which was started as Peregrine Smith in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969, after Smith was encouraged to start the company by his mentor, Alfred A. Knopf. The company moved to Layton, Utah, in 1973; changed its name to Gibbs Smith Publisher; and stayed there ever since.
Fifty years on, the company is best known for its books on design, crafts, and cooking, as well as regional-interest titles and children’s books; it also has a textbook division that publishes supplementary materials and history texts. Gibbs Smith’s backlist now runs 500 titles deep and includes several million-copy bestselling authors, such as Jennifer Adams, author of the BabyLit Primer Classics series, which has sold more than two million copies; Stephanie Ashcraft, author of the 101 Things cooking series, which has more than one million copies sold; and Bart King, who has written numerous children’s and humor books for the publisher.
The education publishing imprint has also been successful, having sold two million units. Thirty states in the U.S. use Gibbs Smith’s curriculum for their elementary and middle school social studies programs, Taylor said, explaining that, overall, the trade business brings in more revenue, but the education side continues to expand.
“We are always changing and refining our lists, congregated around certain categories,” said Taylor, who joined the company 21 years ago. “When I started, there were no kids’ books or cookbooks on the list, and it was much more eclectic. But we saw an opportunity, and since then we have chosen to push strong on the kids and cooking categories, and they have become our bestsellers.”
Gibbs Smith is keen to differentiate from New York publishers. “We like to surprise readers with books that enrich and inspire,” said managing editor Madge Baird, who has been with the company for 45 years. “This might be books like 98.6 Degrees and When All Hell Breaks Loose, both by survivalist Cody Lundin; Talk Southern to Me by YouTube star Julia Fowler; or our bestselling series of titles on vintage travel trailers.”
Often, Taylor said, the authors come to the house not knowing that the company is in Utah. “They get in touch after they have seen some of the books we produce,” she said. “They like the quality and design. They like the fun, high-end look.”
Taylor explained that though being out West can mean less attention and media coverage, the locale has numerous advantages, not least of which is a beautiful setting at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, north of Salt Lake City, where the majority of the company’s employees work out of several buildings decorated with bookish graffiti (“Reading is Rad!”) on a working farm. A small flock of sheep, as well as chickens and cats (all profiled on the Gibbs Smith website), vie for attention with the orders coming into the warehouse.
“One time, I had to get off the phone with an author to attend the birthing of a lamb,” said Baird, who first joined the company as a typist working on an IBM Selectric.
In spite of their relative remove from the coasts, the team at Gibbs Smith see themselves as anything but isolated. “We export culture from this pastoral environment all over the world,” said Taylor, citing Oliver Lutz Radtke’s series of humor titles, Chinglish, as books that have been popular overseas, as have been the company’s sidelines, which are stocked at such stores as Waterstones in the U.K. and the American Book Center in Amsterdam.
“Our colophon, a Peregrine falcon, is symbolic of our spirit,” Taylor said. “It’s a bird that goes beyond borders.” It is also symbolic of Gibbs Smith’s commitment to remaining a publisher that flies solo. “It hasn’t been easy—there have been offers to acquire us—but we have always chosen to stay independent.”
So, several years after his death, the legacy of Gibbs Smith lives on. His widow, Catherine, remains on the board of the company, and the employees he left as the custodians of his life’s work stand vigilant, sustaining the values he embodied. “We are a group of explorers and entrepreneurs, curious and saucy salespeople, and marketers, full of great ideas, who love what we do and love being part of something high-energy, clever, and creative,” Taylor said. The consensus at the company, she added, is that there has been no better time to be in publishing. “Now that we have so many tools and so much tech that we can pair with instinct and chutzpah, there are going to be many more surprises coming from us and great times to come.”