Publishing Gulf?

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

"Suddenly I'm consolidated under one active publisher, which makes me feel a lot better than having works with two or three dead publishers. And I don't think there's any way to dispute that going from a regional publisher to Simon and Schuster is anything but a good deal. So for me, it hasn't been a horror story," Griffith says. "It's been long and drawn out, and I'm glad that writing books isn't my full-time job, or else I would have been real hungry for real long. But other than Stephen King, there are not very many people that can make a living at it. It's always kind of something you do on the side."

To hear small publishers talk, there's not much way to make a living from publishing anymore either, especially on the literary side. And aside from subsidized university presses -- SMU Press, especially, is developing a reputation for its fiction list -- almost nobody is even trying anymore.

John Wilson:  "They accused me of not thinking big enough."
Deron Neblett
John Wilson: "They accused me of not thinking big enough."
Winedale Publisher Gabrielle Hale.
Winedale Publisher Gabrielle Hale.

Gabrielle Hale is one of those few, and her Winedale Publishing is an exceptional case. Hale launched the press in 1996, and her first titles were those written by her husband, Houston Chronicle columnist Leon Hale, whose partially out-of-print backlist she acquired from Shearer Publishing in Fredericksburg, which has since scaled back its business to a successful line of road atlases.

Hale's complaints about the trials of small literary publishing are the same ones echoed across the state: prohibitive up-front costs of designing and printing and distribution and promotion -- forget author advances -- coupled with hidebound arrangements that allow bookstores to hold books for a full 90 days before deciding whether or not to pay the publisher, or simply return the books for the cost of shipping. A publisher with a bad bet can spend tens of thousands on a title and wait three income-less months only to end up with crates of unsold books stored in a warehouse, on which rent is due.

Nonetheless, on the strength of Leon Hale's regional appeal and predictable sales, and by working a one-woman operation from which she takes no salary, Hale has managed to expand Winedale from a one-columnist pony into an increasingly diverse stable of authors as varied as well-reviewed fiction writers Laura Furman and C.W. Smith, Chronicle "humorist" Ken Hoffman, and first-time novelists like the University of Texas's Lynn Miller and former Houston Press writer David Theis, whose novel Rio Ganges is scheduled for publication next season.

If Hale is finding a niche where other would-be literary publishers are leaving only a void, it's partly because her marketing is heavily weighted toward book clubs (who buy multiple copies), and partly because she can afford to roll with some punches.

"Nobody gets rich in this business," she says. "You've really got to look at it more like a public service."

Still, she's beset by competition from the subsidized university presses (which have increasingly turned to literary fiction as smaller regional publishers fold or are submerged within larger companies). And at the end of the day, there's still the fight for quality manuscripts. They're out there, Hale says, and while there's an argument to be made for the specialized attention a small press can claim to lavish on an author, there's the larger argument to be made for the well-oiled distribution and publicity machines of the majors.

That's where Karl Kilian, owner of Brazos Bookstore, finds an explanation for the relative dearth of local and regional literary publishers:

"I think that if you get a writer who has some sort of ambitions, or some sort of sense of self-worth, I think most of them feel like they're really kind of consigning themselves to nowheresville if they don't get a national publisher. First they want to get a national agent, and then they want their work fed into the national magazines if possible…you get more money from a publisher who's going to have a bunch of field reps to introduce that work to everybody across the country."

Dave Hamrick is hoping that's just the kind of muscle that Rowman & Littlefield will bring to bear on the Gulf/TaylorWilson list it now finds itself stewarding. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, while not well known by name, published more than 1,000 titles last year under 20-plus imprints. In his 26 years at the helm, president Jed Lyons says R&L has consolidated 19 different publishers under its umbrella, and discovered regional publishing, with national distribution, to be a dynamic category -- especially in Texas, which carries a strong regional identity, even among foreign book buyers.

And Rowman & Littlefield didn't just become the country's largest publisher of Texana material when it purchased TaylorWilson and Dallas's Taylor -- it also purchased a significant amount of regional goodwill when Lyons hired Hamrick to come along for the ride.

Hamrick is busily setting up his home office in Austin, from which he will preside over the hopeful resuscitation of a combined Lone Star line.

"My strategy," Hamrick says, "would be to build on the strength of the Gulf and Taylor lists, continue to do those books and those categories, the field guides, the travel and outdoor books, cooking, gardening -- we'll probably have one of the strongest regional gardening lines in the country with the combined list -- but then to expand on that and do some photography, possibly do some classic Texas fiction reprints, some serious historical work, and also contemporary works about Texas."

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