49 Writers Publisher Interview: Epicenter Press

Continuing our series of 49 Writers Publisher Interviews, we check in with Kent Sturgis, president and publisher of Epicenter Press, Inc. Sturgis is a two-term former president of the Independent Book Publishers Association, a national trade organization. He was born and raised in Fairbanks, where he edited the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner during the pipeline boom. He has edited dozens of books and written two of his own.

Who started Epicenter Press?

Lael Morgan and I incorporated Epicenter Press in Fairbanks in 1988. We are a home-grown book press that sells Alaska stories to the outside world.

Lael Morgan forced me get into book publishing. No kidding. She didn’t hold a gun to my head, but she might as well have. If you know Lael Morgan, you know how persuasive – “relentless” might be a better word – she can be.

I was taking a sabbatical from journalism after twenty years working the Associated Press and later the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “Let’s go into book publishing and buy Alaska Northwest Publishing Company from Bob Henning,” Morgan suggested in a telephone call in 1987. We had not seen one another for twenty years since working together on the Daily News-Miner during the Fairbanks flood. Henning’s company published books about Alaska; including the Milepost, and two magazines, including Alaska magazine. We went to see Henning in Edmonds, Washington. He introduced us to three other prospective buyers who had approached him. But even after the five of us combined our financial resources, we couldn’t raise enough cash to make a deal.

After the group broke up, Lael and I went back to Henning thinking we might buy the books only. At that time, Alaska Northwest had two to three hundred titles on its list. Henning was encouraging. I remember going home one weekend with a huge stack of sales and inventory reports. I discovered that the company had lots of inventory in the slow sellers, and not much stock in the best-sellers. A light went on in my head. This meant that in addition to raising money for the sale price, which apparently included the dubious value of the slow sellers, we would have to raise additional money to reprint the bestsellers.

We backed off, deciding it made more sense for us to start a book-publishing enterprise from scratch–one book at a time. And that’s what we did.

Which books were among the first you published?

The first year, 1988, we published four titles. Lael and I each contributed one.

Lael wrote Art & Eskimo Power: The Life and Times of Alaskan Howard Rock. This is an absorbing and important biography of the Eskimo journalist who founded the Tundra Times and helped fight for settlement of the Alaska Native land claims. Although we got a very nice review in Publishers Weekly, leading us to believe, falsely, that national reviews would not be difficult to get in the future, I wish we had held off publishing this book until we knew more about book promotion and marketing and had better distribution.

I contributed Four Generations on the Yukon, a pictorial biography of the Binkley family in Fairbanks, which had been running riverboats on Alaskan waters for four generations (five, now). We also published Reaching for a Star, a history of the Alaska Constitutional Convention by Gerald Bowkett, and Steamboats on the Chena, a history of the riverboat trade into Fairbanks, by Basil Hedrick and Susan Savage.

At the time, crude e-mail was just coming into use, but there was no such thing as an “attachment,” and not yet available was the software that ultimately leveled the playing field for independent publishers to compete with the big New York houses. It cost a dollar a minute to telephone the Lower 48, and FedEx was nowhere to be seen. There was no book-publishing infrastructure in Alaska — no book editors, designers, marketers, and certainly no book printers. I moved to the Seattle area to learn how to publish books.

What niche do you hold in the marketplace?

We are a regional trade publisher specializing in nonfiction titles about Alaska. Within this regional “niche,” we publish all varieties of nonfiction. Although most of our titles relate in some way to Alaska, we do occasionally publish titles from elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

What are some of your best-selling titles?

Each publisher has its own definition of what constitutes a best-seller. In our realm, we consider a title to be a best-seller if it is reprinted on a regular basis and has sold mid tens of thousands of copies.

Four titles come to mind:

1. Two Old Women by Velma Wallis. We published the original cloth edition of this unusual story based on an Athasbascan Indian legend. The book won a Western States Book Award and later won a book award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. We sold paperback rights to HarperCollins and, through agents, licensed translation rights worldwide. Two Old Women has been published in eighteen languages.

Even going on fifteen years after its original publication, this amazing little book continues to be a bestseller in Germany, where five editions have been published. The book has been read in its entirety on the German version of National Public Radio. In Italy, the owner of a chain of hotels was so taken by the book that he published a private edition, placing a copy in every one of his hotel rooms. Our standing joke for a while with Velma Wallis was that her book was competing with the Bible in Italy. And the Two Old Women story goes on and on. One of these days it will be made into a movie.

2. Lael Morgan wrote Good Time Girls, the charming history of prostitution in Alaska and the Yukon. This book was on the LA Times best-books-of-the-year list after its publication and Lael was named Alaska historian-of-the-year by the Alaska Historical Society for this work. We have sold about 50,000 copies of two editions of this book, and it continues to be a bestseller year after year.

3. It was a pleasure working with Governor Jay Hammond on his autobiography, Tales of Alaska’s Bush Rat Governor, which was a huge success due to the governor’s immense popularity and because the book was so well written and entertaining and received glowing reviews. The book was published after Hammond left office. But he loved to interact with people and made more than one hundred public appearances on behalf of this book.

Shortly after its release, we scheduled a signing for the governor at Hearthside Books in Juneau. It quickly became apparent that the bookstore would be overwhelmed with Hammond fans, so the event was moved to the Juneau community center. Instead of running the scheduled hour and a half, the event continued for more than four hours, with lines of people circling the block waiting to get in. Hammond signed 900 books!

4. And, then, of course, there was Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment Upside Down, by Kaylene Johnson. Predating the 2008 presidential election, Sarah was the first and only book in print about Sarah Palin when Republican presidential nominee John McLean selected Palin as his running made. The cloth first edition and two paperback editions sold nearly 200,000 copies. Two of the editions appeared on New York Times bestseller lists on the same weekend.

Has there been a shift in what readers expect and which Alaskan authors/books do well?

Fundamentally our market in Alaska is one part local audience and one part visitors. At the heart of this market is interest in Alaska adventures, lifestyles, the Alaska dream, and personal stories about unusual aspects of living in Alaska. Still, we have seen a few shifts.

Individual titles about sled-dog racing, mainly the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, don’t seem to sell as well as they once did. There are many mushing books in print.

In recent years, we have ventured into the true-crime genre, thanks to the work of Tom Brennan. This content sells well, and may be bringing young and new readers into books. Books about the “unexplained” such as Strange Stories by Ed Ferrell and Haunted Alaska by the late Ron Wendt are popular year after year.

History can be a tough sell, but a recent bright spot has been North to the Future: The Alaska Story, 1959-2009, by Dermot Cole. Publication of this absorbing history was made possible by the Alaska Historical Society.

Literary nonfiction, which is difficult to define, has been a mixed bag for us over the years. But we have been pleased to discover in recent years that these titles have found a place in the literary nonfiction market outside of Alaska and help sell some of our other titles to a broader market. Two titles that come to mind, which I strongly recommend for the quality of the stories and fine writing, are Surviving the Island of Grace by Leslie Leyland Fields and Moments Rightly Placed, the Aleutian memoir by Ray Hudson.

Our 2009 year-to-date bestsellers:

1. The Spill, by Sharon Bushell & Stan Jones
2. Good Time Girls, Lael Morgan
3. North to the Future, Dermot Cole
4. Haunted Alaska, Ron Wendt
5. Amazing Pipeline Stories, Dermot Cole
6. Jon Van Zyle’s Alaska Sketchbook (new edition)
7. Alaska Blues, Joe Upton
8. Sarah, Kaylene Johnson (cloth First Edition)
9. Cold Crime, Tom Brennan
10. Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon, Ed Ferrell

How many books do you typically publish each year?

This varies depending on our financial situation and the number of promising proposals we have in hand. Some years we publish as few as two new titles. In busy years, when sales have been strong, we have published as many as a dozen.

Recognizing that not every book idea or project will fit on our list, we also have begun to reach out to authors, self-publishers and private and public entities through Aftershocks Media, a subsidiary enterprise that offers editing services, consulting and mentoring, book packaging, print brokering, and distribution of titles other than our own.

In which genres?

Within the Alaska category, we publish memoirs, history, humor, true crime, books about sled dog racing, Native American stories, and books by and about strong Alaska women. We’ve also published a few guides, although generally we do not publish travel guides, and a couple of self-help titles. We call all this our “Alaska Book Adventures.” As a rule we do not publish fiction, children’s books, or poetry.

Over the years, what kinds of changes have you made with your list?

With the availability of on-demand digital printing, we now can keep in print indefinitely titles that otherwise might have been dropped from our list in the years past as sales slowly declined. Even when we print on an offset press, we tend to do smaller printings now, knowing that we can get a reprint delivered from most North American printers in about 30 days. At the same time, we have been moving away from color gift books and so-called “coffee table” books. The main thing we look for now is the quality of the story.

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

The dream author is a marketing-savvy, self-promoting individual living in Alaska who comes to us with a tight, well-written, skillfully self-edited work with strong commercial potential that makes us shout “Eureka!” when we read it, and who has access to photos scanned at the proper density — if we need them. I’m grinning as I write this. I have never met such an author.

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

You have to be an optimist to be in this business. Even when the overall economy is in decent shape, book publishing is a challenge for all the reasons you can imagine – declining literacy, disappearance of many independent book stores, returns, increased reliance on the web, and a growing array of e-reader formats and devices. Meanwhile, there are too many publishers printing more paper books than can be sold.

E-books comprise the fastest-growing segment of the book industry, yet the percentage of the total is still very low. But this is the wave of the future.

I believe the small, independent niche and regional publishers may find it easier to survive than the large national trade publishers. But “easier” is a relative term. A lot of trade publishing companies are going to fail if they do not adjust to changes. But others will rise behind them, more attuned to the new technology and changing needs of the reading public.

Meanwhile, we all can take solace in this: content will always be needed, no matter what the delivery system.

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

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway–start with original material. No matter what your topic, fiction or nonfiction, tell a story that will entertain as well as inform.

Maintain high standards for your work. In dealing with agents and publishers, share only your very best effort. Unless asked to do so, do not submit any draft material. Seek objective criticism of your work. Take with a grain of salt praise from your family and friends.

The cover letter should be the best letter you’ve ever written. Slave over it.

Often I am surprised to receive nonfiction proposals from authors who have spent a great deal of time researching their subjects, but little time researching prospective publishers.

If you are considering self-publication or have interest in publishing as a business, join the Independent Book Publishers Association (formerly the Publishers Marketing Association).

The best book I have seen about the publishing process for prospective authors is How to Get Happily Published by Judith Appelbaum.

Kent Sturgis can be contacted at kent@epicenterpress.com.

2 thoughts on “49 Writers Publisher Interview: Epicenter Press”

  1. Thanks for a detail packed interview, Deb and Kent.

    In describing the ideal author Kent mentioned "access to photos scanned at the proper density".

    Kent, can you elaborate on the proper density? Thanks very much.

  2. kent@epicenterpress.com

    Epicente Press looks for photos in gif or jpg formats, scanned at full size to a resolution of 400 dpi (we will accept a minimum of 400 dpi). I should mention, too, that EP requires formal permissions for use of photos not taken by the author, and in some cases may require a signed release from people who appear in the photos.

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