Publishing Gulf?

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.

Around the same time, Gulf purchased the Pisces line of diving and snorkeling guides.

"It was quite a growth spurt for us," says Calk. "It really made us probably the largest for-profit publisher of Texana in the world."

Even at its high-water mark, Gulf was only secondarily a publisher of trade books. Most of its business still came from the core oil-field journals, along with engineering, management and reference books, including a large Las Vegas-based publisher of computer books acquired in 1997. But by the end of the line, Gulf's trade titles were accounting for nearly $4 million annually in sales, according to Calk -- about half of the book division's revenue. Gulf had kept close to 200 trade titles in print, and introduced between 25 and 30 new titles a year, making it a rare, and profitable, midsize player in an industry increasingly dominated by merging conglomerates and specialized niche publishers.

"Basically what happened," Tim Calk says, "was we were dot-commed. They came in and, to make a long story short, were going to take one of the oil and gas products" -- the World Oil Catalog -- "take it on-line, an e-commerce type of thing. There are IPOs dancing in everyone's heads. And in about four months they realized this isn't going to work, and they pulled the plug, but by that time it was already too late, they'd already decided to sell all the books. They were digitally oriented and they weren't paper-and-ink-oriented. The entire book division was cashed out."

"They" were Houston's SCF Partners and Massachusetts' Battery Ventures, who jointly purchased Gulf in January 2000, marking the first ownership change in the more than 80-year history of the family-owned company. Gulf president Rusty Meador announced that the book division would remain intact, and the purchasers anticipated just a few layoffs before a hiring spree to ramp up the company's new on-line component.

Those predictions went the way of the NASDAQ.

Calk eventually was adopted into the oil-field magazine division but says that "out of 30 or so employees in the book division, I'm really the only person left. We used to do our own in-house book design, typesetting, proofing, editing -- everything was done in-house. When they decided to get rid of the books, all that operation started to wind down."

Enter John Wilson, a sales manager at Gulf who had briefly, in the job shuffling, been director of Gulf's book division. When Gulf's books were put on the block, Wilson teamed up with Houston entrepreneur Larry Taylor, a marketing and management consultant, and the TaylorWilson team purchased Gulf's trade line for an undisclosed amount in June 2000. The partnership put up a Web site touting what it foresaw as a two-pronged publishing and marketing business.

Under a Web-site heading of "Content Publishing," TaylorWilson promised to "work with authors to create useful, relevant content that can make a difference and is valued by the end user." Under "Integrated Marketing," TaylorWilson wrote that "we regard the author not as a person who delivers us a manuscript, but as a marketing partner who can be branded through a disciplined and aggressive integrated marketing effort."

There was talk of "allowing end users to access the information in the method of their choice. It may begin as a book, but the content may be extended into a Web page, CD-ROM, DVD, video, cassette, speech or workshop."

TaylorWilson clearly wasn't aiming for business as usual.

Chairman and CEO Larry Taylor and VP Amanda Dewey were pictured on the site in bohemian black turtlenecks.

In August, Dave Hamrick was hired as marketing director, but quickly set about using his connections to squeeze out the Graves letters book, long a pet project for the ardent Graves fan and friend.

And then the whole enterprise went to hell, for reasons that, if anyone truly understands, no one wants to explain.

Larry Taylor declined to elaborate on TaylorWilson's untimely demise, and claimed to not even have a phone number for John Wilson.

John Wilson, still reticent, is more forthcoming.

"I put together a group that bought the trade books, although 'putting it together' makes it sounds like I was in charge of it. Basically I got the ball rolling, and then it rolled over me. We had big plans, but I left TaylorWilson in November of last year. We purchased the assets in June, and by September or October, we'd hired new people and suddenly the direction had shifted in a way that I didn't want to go…I wanted to do relatively conservative publishing. Basically they accused me of not thinking big enough…There were plans, it was just underfunded. I really want to be careful about this -- I hate these kind of things where people cast aspersions. I just had a philosophical difference with Larry Taylor as to how a publishing company should be run…Let's put it this way: I learned what it means to be a limited partner."

Dave Hamrick, who may or may not be the new hire who helped shift TaylorWilson's direction, says diplomatically, "Whatever they said, I'll stand by that and won't comment further."

Tim Calk, meanwhile, watching from Gulf Publishing's new Greenway Plaza offices (the historic Allen Parkway building was demolished, to the jeers of preservationists, in May of this year), came to this conclusion:

"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."

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.

"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.

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."

He'll have close to full autonomy, Hamrick and Lyons agree, to get the list back on its feet and begin the expansion that TaylorWilson planned but failed to pull off.

"The one thing I would say about TaylorWilson," Hamrick says, "is that anytime you acquire another publishing company, you are essentially starting over, you are a start-up company. And TaylorWilson was certainly a small start-up company that just happened to acquire a prestigious and well-known backlist. We're in the same position at Rowman, except we're going to be bigger."

The other difference is that the Lone Star list under Rowman & Littlefield won't have the Graves titles. Because of contracts, every time those books are sold to another company, the new company has to go back and relicense the rights from Graves's original publisher, Knopf. And this time, for the first instance in six go-rounds, Knopf declined to license the paperback rights to Goodbye to a River. It's keeping them, with reported plans to reissue its own paperback under the Vintage imprint.

Ironically, it may have been Hamrick's efforts to jump-start TaylorWilson with his letters book that pulled Graves's flagship out of reach.

"I questioned them," Hamrick admits. "Why now? You've had six opportunities. They've never published it in paperback. It's tough for me to comment on it, and it's hard for me because of my love for [Graves's] work, and my fondness for him. But I think it would certainly seem like the attention that the letters book was getting…I mean, I think it brought it to their attention. I've asked myself the question, If we hadn't done the letters book, would we have lost Goodbye?"

There's no solid answer to that question, of course, and no definitive reasons -- aside from dancing visions of IPOs and insinuations of over-reaching -- for the uncertain out-of-state future of Gulf's printed heritage.

But Goodbye's farewell does point up one seeming truth about small publishing in Texas: You can hardly win for losing.

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