Publishing Gulf?

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

"I don't know if it was poor planning or they didn't realize how much it was going to cost, but they just couldn't make it go. And also, frankly, there were some personality problems between the two folks, which happens. There was a falling-out, for whatever reasons."

Add to the mix Hamrick, who seemed clearly to be edging TaylorWilson into literary waters uncharted by Wilson and Gulf.

"I think that may have been their problem, frankly," Calk says. "I think they lost touch with what made that line, and I think they tried to be a literary publisher, and that takes a whole different mind-set. That takes a whole different kind of thinking and marketing and connections. Dave Hamrick may be able to pull that off, I don't know. We know how many copies of Camper's Guide to Texas or Field Guide to Texas Snakes are going to sell. We have a good idea. But when you start trying to sell fiction and novels and that sort of stuff, things get a lot more dicey."

Brazos Bookstore's Karl Kilian: For ambitious writers, it's national or nowheresville.
Deron Neblett
Brazos Bookstore's Karl Kilian: For ambitious writers, it's national or nowheresville.
Bringing it all back home:  Dave Hamrick in Austin.
John Anderson
Bringing it all back home: Dave Hamrick in Austin.

When John Wilson left the operation back in November, Larry Taylor was left holding the bag. "He wanted to be publisher," Calk says, "but he really wasn't equipped to run it himself. I don't think he was ever involved in publishing. He couldn't make a go of it, and things ground down and ground down, and finally he found a buyer."

That buyer was Maryland's Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, primarily a publisher of scholarly titles, and owner of National Book Network, the nation's second-largest distributor of independent trade presses.

"The sad thing about TaylorWilson," Calk thinks, "is this whole project was shooting fish in a barrel. It was a no-brainer. They should have made it go, but the personalities got in the way. And it's a sad, sad thing that it didn't fly. I'm just disappointed, and I'm sure a lot of folks who worked on those books were disappointed that it didn't work."

Steve Griffis is a sales rep for Texas A&M Press, a consortium of some dozen small and university presses around the state, and he's familiar with the Gulf line.

"It's a great line. I wish we had it. I wish Gulf Publishing was still around. Unfortunately a lot of people, a lot of good people in the industry, lost their jobs when they went under. That's the bad thing, because the expertise, the knowledge of their salespeople, of their editors and businesspeople, that's all lost, because those publishing jobs just don't exist out there."

As to why TaylorWilson lost its handle on the Gulf line, Griffis can only speculate, but generally speaking, he suspects the infant company just got swamped.

"You're looking at royalties, every contract has a little bit different clause to it, especially in the age of electronic publishing now. It's a boondoggle, and if you buy that huge of a list, and having all this stuff come to your office at the same time…I think they were on the right track. I just think that they were overwhelmed."

The seven months that TaylorWilson was a going concern was hardly enough time to set up office space and rush the Graves book into print. What suffered in the meantime are the details that make publishing far less glamorous than the cocktail-washed memoirs of prominent gentleman publishers often make it seem: reprinting perennial books, updating guides with fresh information, getting royalty checks in the outgoing mail.

While TaylorWilson was inventing Zen koans to describe an apparently nonexistent business model -- "We will create a value-added difference by avoiding the traps of conventional wisdom" -- its books were stuck in the warehouse.

"I call on various accounts throughout the state of Texas," Griffis says, "bookstores and museums and such, and of course they were all scrambling trying to find the books, and the books couldn't be had. Stuff was in limbo going from Gulf to TaylorWilson."

Authors also were in limbo.

"The writers are really hurting" is the judgment of Alan Tenant, Big Bend resident and author of the Field Guide to Texas Snakes, one of Gulf's perennial top sellers. Bookstores don't have the books to sell, potential buyers walk away unsatisfied, and both expectations and contracted book projects have been in flux ever since June 2000, and will remain so while Rowman & Littlefield figures out what to do with its purchase.

Not all the writers are hurting, though. Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Dotty Griffith, author of eight Gulf-published cookbooks and contracted for two more, found an unexpected windfall in the confusion. Gulf, struggling, returned one of her manuscripts, a cowboy cookbook, claiming it couldn't afford to publish it, and Griffith subsequently expanded the idea into a larger book that she's now sold to Simon and Schuster, which plans to issue it in June 2002. She's been told that her tenth cookbook, Celebrating Barbecue, eventually will be published by Rowman & Littlefield.

And by coincidence, about the same time that Rowman & Littlefield purchased TaylorWilson, the Maryland house also bought the trade book division of Dallas-based Taylor Publishing (no relation), which had published, 15 years ago, Griffith's Gourmet Grains, Beans and Rice.

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