Publishing Gulf?

How Internet pipe dreams and literary ambitions dismantled one of Texas's largest publishers

November 2000 must have seemed, to Dave Hamrick, like an awfully good time to be getting into the publishing business in Texas. Hamrick, a longtime regional community relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Austin, was on a roll. Widely known and respected among Texas's literary set, he had been invited just a year before to become a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, only the second bookseller (after Brazos Bookstore's Karl Kilian, of Houston) to be so honored. And now, in November, Hamrick was at Austin's annual Texas Book Festival not as an honoree, and not as a bookstore employee, but as the marketing director of the newly formed Houston publishing house of TaylorWilson.

He'd been hired just four months before, in August, and in that brief time had managed to edit and publish a book he had always wanted to do: a collection of letters by and to John Graves, author of the Texas classic Goodbye to a River. John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River: Selected Letters, 1957-1960, published in an arty limited first edition of 3,000 copies, made its debut at the festival in November, and the timing seemed auspicious. Texas Monthly magazine -- which had published many Graves essays in the late 1970s, later collected and published by Knopf as From a Limestone Ledge -- already had run prepublication excerpts. The year marked the 80th birthday of the author, whose transcendent regionalism has made him a sort of deity. It was also, happily enough, the 40th anniversary of Goodbye's original publication, and the Texas Institute of Letters would take advantage of the occasion to honor Graves with the Bookend Award for lifetime achievement. First Lady Laura Bush served as the festival's honorary chairperson, and there was hopeful talk of the attention that the former librarian and literacy advocate would bring to bear on the relative backwater of Texas letters. (The first lady, who has publicly lauded Goodbye to a River -- "arguably the best and most beloved book ever written about Texas" -- as one of her favorite reads, also penned a foreword to the letters book.)

All that synchronicity seemed a promising omen to Hamrick, who viewed the letters book as part labor of love and part high-profile launching pad for Houston-based TaylorWilson Publishing, a previously unknown entity that had only recently purchased the trade book assets of Houston's venerable Gulf Publishing Company, giving it a large and profitable backlist of nonfiction books upon which Hamrick seemed set to build an increasingly literary future.

The high hopes were palpable, maybe even giddy, and were reflected in TaylorWilson's mission statements.

"In a world defined by apples-to-apples comparisons," one statement read, "our core business strategy is to be an Orange." And "We want to stand out by being outstanding." And "We are purposefully different, not just to be different, but to make a difference." An aggressive schedule of 20-plus publications annually was forecast.

In all the hoopla surrounding the letters book, it seems no one thought to ask just what, if anything, statements like that might mean. And there wasn't much time to wonder afterward, either. By November, partner John Wilson had jumped ship. In February, the fledgling company's titles were on the sale block again. And in June of this year, after about seven operative months, one slim published book and another half-year of static limbo, TaylorWilson unloaded its 200 or so titles to the Maryland-based Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. All of a sudden, out of more or less nowhere, the state's largest collection of home-published books, many on Texas-specific topics, didn't live here anymore.

Gulf Publishing Company was always a sort of accidental, and conservative, publisher of trade books. Founded in 1916 by Ray Dudley, who commissioned the landmark Spanish-style Gulf Publishing building on Allen Parkway in 1926, Gulf built its business and reputation as a publisher of oil-field journals, including the industry bible World Oil Composite Catalog of Oilfield Equipment and Services. In time, Gulf became the world's largest publisher to the energy industry, returning consistent dividends to the company's family stockholders.

Tim Calk, a Gulf employee for more than a quarter-century, remembers the launch of Gulf's book division in 1960 as a "logical extension" of the numerous technical articles the company published in its industry journals, concentrating mostly on management books.

Trade books - books designed for general consumption and sold through traditional bookstores -were the next logical step, and Gulf eased into the market with local and regionally oriented gardening books.

It wasn't until the early 1980s, though, that Gulf began developing its Lone Star imprint of trade books, which eventually came to encompass a series of camping and hiking guides, field guides to the state's flora and fauna, and Texas-oriented nonfiction like Ray Miller's Eyes of Texas guide to Houston and the Gulf Coast.

During the '80s Gulf made sporadic attempts to expand its regional base with guides to Florida and California, some of which worked, some of which flopped. Why Stop: A Guide to Historical Roadside Markers in Texas was a rousing success, but a similar book for California tanked.

It was in 1989 that Gulf took its biggest trade leap. Texas Monthly had established Texas Monthly Press in the '80s as a synergistic companion, publishing its own line of guidebooks and Texana, including novels and nonfiction collections by such magazine luminaries as Bud Shrake, Stephen Harrigan and Gary Cartwright. Texas Monthly also acquired from Knopf the paperback rights to John Graves's flagship Goodbye to a River, making the upstart press an ahead-of-its-time literary force in a state -- like all states -- long bowed under the thumb of the New York publishing establishment. But in 1989 Texas Monthly unloaded its book publishing operation -- "They realized that book publishing is different from magazine publishing" is Calk's assessment -- and Gulf snapped up the division's 130 or so titles. Gulf in turn spun off most of the literary fiction holdings but kept about half the list, including cash cows like the Hank the Cowdog series of children's books. The prestigious Graves title was licensed, and Gulf folded TM's guidebook series into its own Lone Star line.

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