In a preface to its debut catalogue of four titles dated Fall 1983, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill announced its mission as "publishing books of quality... designed to be of nationwide appeal." That was written by Louis D. Rubin Jr., a University of North Carolina professor who founded the house the preceding year with Best American Short Stories editor Shannon Ravenel and backing from a group of investors. Rubin retired in 1992, three years after Workman acquired Algonquin, but his statement of intent has remained Algonquin's polestar.
But some things at the company have changed since 1992. Algonquin is no longer a small, Southern-flavored literary house notable for introducing such writers as Larry Brown, Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons and Jill McCorkle; now it's a general-interest publisher with a wider focus and a staff of nine in Chapel Hill plus three in New York City. "The main differences between the 'old' Algonquin [pre-Workman] and the 'new' Algonquin have to do with our having the opportunity and impulse to expand in two ways," noted Elisabeth Scharlatt, the former Random House editor who is now Algonquin publisher.
As part of Workman, Algonquin has been able to shed the perception of being a regional house publishing mostly Southern fiction. "It's impossible to think of us as just Southern," said Scharlatt, an assertion she backs up by pointing to "writers like Julia Alvarez, a Latina writer from Vermont; Esmé Raj Codell from Chicago; Joan Druett, an Australian nautical historian; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist; Amy Stewart writing about earthworms from California; Marlena de Blasi writing A Thousand Days in Venice at her Italian castello; William Kornblum exploring New York from the water's edge in At Sea in the City."
In addition to broadening its list, Algonquin has moved deeper into nonfiction. "Our association with the Workman sales force is particularly helpful," she said. "They know how to sell a certain kind of popular nonfiction book very well, and we want to take advantage of that." Indeed the association has helped shape the nonfiction list, which Scharlatt divides between "narrative nonfiction and a sort of gift book." Her strategy is for sales of successful books like My Old Man and the Sea by David and Daniel Hays, plus an array of cookbooks as well as "literary" gardening and travel books to offset those for "riskier" titles.
A heightened emphasis on nonfiction does not mean that fiction has been forgotten, but four to five first novels per season is a thing of the past. "We still have a commitment to first novels, but now we do one each season," Scharlatt noted. "Of course, many of the writers whose first novels we published are established—we've done Jill McCorkle's and Clyde Edgerton's eighth books, Jim Grimsley's sixth, Julia Alvarez's fifth—and our hope is that those whose first novels we're publishing now will be with us for their fifth, sixth and seventh books."
Although some authors have left for other houses, the mutual loyalty and greater selectivity Scharlatt refers to has resulted in an active backlist of 200 titles, expanded sales and a growing trade paperback line without continuously enlarging seasonal frontlists. "By keeping the list to 20—25 books a year," she said, "we're able to do as much as possible for every book. So we've grown with the same number of books, which means we're selling more of every book."
While subsidiary rights, contracts and some editorial acquisitions are handled in New York—where Scharlatt is based—marketing and publicity is done from the Chapel Hill office headed by associate publisher Ina Stern, with design and production split between the two; accounting and warehousing are handled by Workman. But there are also two acquiring editors in Chapel Hill, including Ravenel, who continues the annual New Stories of the South series she began in 1986 and was given her own imprint three years ago when she stepped down as editorial director. There are now three to four Shannon Ravenel Books per season, predominantly fiction.
According to Stern, who worked in Workman's educational sales before moving to Chapel Hill in 1991 to manage Algonquin's marketing, inter-office coordination is insured by frequent conference calls, e-mail and periodic visits by Scharlatt. "When I talk about Algonquin," she said, "I'm talking about Chapel Hill and New York together." Or in the words of Scharlatt, the house's de facto editor-in-chief, "It's a good marriage."