49 Writers Publisher Interview: Alaska Geographic

“Niche publishing will likely stay stronger than national publishing companies and Alaska has its own special appeal that works to our advantage.” That’s the good news from Lisa Oakley, Projects Director at Alaska Geographic. Continuing our series on independent and regional publishers, Oakley explains the special niche and unique opportunities associated with Alaska Geographic.

Tell us about your company. Who started it? Why? Which books were among the first you published? What niche do you hold in the marketplace?

Alaska Geographic does not fit the typical publishing model. We are a non-profit organization that partners with land management agencies to connect people to Alaska’s parks, forests, and refuges. Everything we publish is produced in collaboration with our agency partners. In addition to our publishing program, we operate 48 bookstores at public land visitor centers across Alaska, offer hands-on education programs and field courses, and provide financial support for our partners’ interpretive programs.

Alaska Geographic was incorporated in 1959 by National Park Service employees in what was then Mount McKinley National Park (today’s Denali National Park). At the time, visitation was on the increase yet little information was available about the park or its natural and cultural history. Alaska Geographic was created to fill that information gap. Our first publication, Mammals of Mount McKinley by Adolph Murie, was released in 1962. Since then we have published hundreds of Alaska books, maps, films, and other interpretive products for public land locations throughout the state.

Our publications focus on the natural and cultural heritage of Alaska’s parks, forests, and refuges. Many serve a distinct need for the visitors and neighbors of public lands, helping fill information gaps that might otherwise be neglected due to the limited commercial market for such titles.

Many of you might confuse us with the old Alaska Geographic Society, who published a series of quarterly journals for nearly three decades. Sadly that organization ceased to exist in 2003. Around that time, our organization (then known as the Alaska Natural History Association, or ANHA) was looking for a more memorable and meaningful name that better reflected the increasingly broad scope of our mission. We were lucky to acquire the trademark for Alaska Geographic. In 2008 we re-branded ourselves as Alaska Geographic with a new name, look, and website.

Our mission is very similar in spirit to that of the old Society and we are proud to carry it forward into the future. Just this year we entered into an agreement with Alaska Northwest Books to re-release old Society journals under the Alaska Geographic brand. The first, Secrets of the Northern Lights, was released in spring 2009. We look forward to working with the Alaska Northwest team to re-release more titles in the future.

We primarily sell our titles through our own bookstores, though in 2009 we contracted with Taku Graphics to act as our sales rep for other venues. We’ve seen a nice response to their marketing efforts and are steadily expanding the broader distribution of our titles beyond just our stores.

What are some of your best-selling titles? Has there been a shift in what readers expect and which Alaskan authors/books do well?

Titles that do well for us are typically either site-specific or topic-specific publications. For example, our newest release—Silent Storytellers of Totem Bight State Historical Park by Tricia Brown—has been flying off the shelves at our store at Totem Bight. No other park-specific publication exists and visitors are eager to learn while they’re on location. Topic-specific titles like Sculpted by Ice: Glaciers and the Alaska Landscape by Michael Collier also do well due to their broad appeal; we can sell them at most of our bookstores due to their more general coverage of Alaska topics.

How many books do you typically publish each year? In which genres? Over the years, what kinds of changes have you made to your list?

We release two to four new titles annually. Most are site-specific publications written for an adult audience. Almost all are maps, guides, natural history books, or general interpretive publications, though we have added a few broader topical titles and children’s books to our line in recent years.

Prior to 2000, most of our content and material was developed by the relevant park, forest, or refuge and typically written by an agency staff person. In the past decade, however, we have centralized publishing efforts in our Anchorage office and now think more strategically about future titles. For example, we have developed series that connect different parks, forests, and refuges with a common look and format. Our trails series—Sitka Trails, Juneau Trails, and Kenai Trails—is a good example of this new direction.

Describe your ideal author. In other words, if one of us wanted to wow you with a proposed project, how would we do it?

We rarely publish proposals received from outside our agency relationships, and evaluate any proposed titles using several key criteria. Is it relevant to a specific park, forest, or refuge or to Alaska’s public lands in general? Is the proposal a developing idea or a complete manuscript? Proposals that include a manuscript and/or fully designed publication are difficult for us to accept. Everything we publish is done in collaboration with our agency partners and we need to work closely with them in developing—and approving—any publication project. Authors need to be willing to work within that partnership model and be responsive to agency needs, requests, and feedback.

Most of what we publish is done as a work for hire rather than royalty-based. Our ideal authors meet deadlines, but also communicate when they need more time or have a concern with the project. They do their research and write from knowledge. They have a beautiful way with words, but aren’t offended at being asked to change their carefully crafted text. They understand that their work will be reviewed and scrutinized by our agency partners. And they understand that it may take years before their book is finally published.

The economy has hit publishing hard. Are you seeing any encouraging signs? What is the future for small and regional publishers?

Niche publishing will likely stay stronger than national publishing companies and Alaska has its own special appeal that works to our advantage. I do think that we are on the edge of radical change in publishing world as digital delivery devices become commonplace and consumers increasingly demand and expect information in other than print format.

What do you most want to communicate to readers about your books and to writers about submissions?

If an author has a great idea and is willing to go through our rigorous review process, we would love to hear about it early in the creative process so that we can develop it in full partnership with the appropriate agency. Writers interested in future opportunities should submit a resume and writing samples.

Scroll to Top