Wrting of the exurbs and the increasing decentralization of the U.S. population, David Brooks, in the New York Times last week, described an American heartland in which "the publishing infrastructure is spare" and people buy books, like The Purpose-Driven Life, that urban literates have never heard of. In doing so, he raised a tantalizing question: Is there a publishing corollary to the red-state phenomenon, a second America that the blue-state book industry ignores at its peril?
Looking at literary sensibilities in terms of geography is chancy. Praising Faulkner's imaginary Yoknapatawpha County is one thing, talking about the reading habits of the rural South is quite another, risking charges of patronization and oversimplification. But it's become increasingly evident that a growing number of houses based in the South, Midwest and scattered rural areas are flourishing by releasing exactly the kind of books that appeal largely to readers outside the country's urban centers.
Nashville's Thomas Nelson, despite a soft second quarter, is a powerhouse to rival Hyperion or St. Martin's. Kansas City's Andrews McMeel has capitalized on gift books and calendars with a Hallmark-influenced sensibility that no New York publisher, even specialist Workman, does in earnest. Good Books, the furthest northeast, in Pennsylvania, is a strong independent publisher with genteel cookbooks and similar nonfiction titles. Pelican, Longstreet, Peachtree and others are all among the publishers whose specialties could no longer be called niche—and whose reader bases are often larger than those of many New York houses.
The opportunities between the coasts are abundantly clear to New York—based Warner Books: in January, it will launch a division, Center Street, dedicated to reaching the same kind of readers who spoke about "values" in the recent election. And Center Street won't have a Manhattan address, but a Nashville one. "Heartland publishing," as publisher Rolf Zettersten calls it, "is not about being a morality and values publisher. I don't think anyone buys those books, frankly." It is, he said, "a lot more about the culture" and about the kinds of books readers with those values are likely to read.
Of course, some New York houses have individual titles aimed at these readers, and others have books examining the phenomenon of so-called values-voters from a distance. But heartland presses seek to reap the fruits directly. And while evangelical novels, conservative tracts and other forms of sectarian publishing are nothing new (Zettersten, who also runs religion imprint Warner Faith, also has some faith-related books on the Center Street list), these houses' books are almost never overtly religious or political. Instead, red-state publishing focuses on books that are mainstream, general-interest titles that originate far from the country's publishing centers of New York, San Francisco and Boston and may never get there.
For Center Street, a bold idea reminiscent in some ways of big record labels trying to market hip-hop on the street, this means country-music memoirs, an exercise guru named Leslie Sansone "most city folk have probably never heard of" and even some fiction. (This too is defined by what it's not: per Zettersten—"offensive books with gratuitous sex or violence"—as well as by what it is—books where "characters are probably a little more patriotic and more conservative and may have a simpler life.")
For Pelican, it's about bestsellers like Ozark Night Before Christmas and Cajun Night Before Christmas, holiday books with a definite geographic hook. Longstreet has as its staple the Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard and a WSJ bestseller, The Bowden Way by Bobby Bowden, the Florida State football coach. Good Books, which caught attention several years ago with The Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook, counts as one of its lead titles this fall a book about a method of sitting in circles to resolve disputes. Some of Rutledge Hill's best-known titles come from the inspirational hit series Life's Little Instruction Book. None of these books wear an ideology on their sleeve, but few would be taken for lead titles at Houghton Mifflin or Random House.
Still, even some who may be said to practice red-state publishing will insist that it's mostly a myth, and that, like values voters, a perception of difference based on geography is the product of an overactive media imagination.
"We're not that different from Random House," said Chris Schillig, editorial director for Kansas City's Andrews McMeel. In addition to its humor niche, the publisher has a strong gift and calendar line and also does some publishing that might be called inspirational, like a current lead title, the illustrated Peril of Magnificent Love, about "finding, loving and losing a mate," but Schillig said, "the niche is not defined by geographic market."
Others acknowledge some geography-based differences, but don't necessarily see a sub-industry. "It does help us out in some ways," said Bryan Curtis, marketing director for Rutledge Hill, of the house's Southern location and bent. But he also argued, "I don't think we're different from New York houses in a lot of ways. Jeff Foxworthy [You Might Be a Red Neck If... This Is the Biggest Book You've Ever Read] is on Letterman and The Tonight Show. He's popular on the coasts, too."
The difference is that Foxworthy didn't come from the coast—and moreover, like these publishers, bases his appeal on that fact. "We've always said the trends start on the coasts and make their way into the middle of the country. What we're trying to do is identify the trends that start in the middle of the country and then work their way to the coasts," said Zettersten. (This could lead to some comic inversions. The day after the Country Music Awards, a member of the New York office of Warner called its sister office in Nashville with an urgent question: Had the house thought about discussing a deal with any of the artists? Zettersten laughed and said of course it already had.)
Is this a kind of publishing regionalism writ large? Or just a different sensibility? Probably a little bit of both, said those who practice it. And if New York houses' recent embrace of religion books and politically conservative publishing is any indication, experts say heartland publishing, too, will eventually spread outward. "It's a question of time," Zettersten said, then added, only half-joking, "We'd like to fly under the radar for as long as possible."