Regional Publisher Celebrates its 50th Along With Alaska: Interview With Sara Juday of Alaska Northwest Books

Sara Juday is associate publisher for Alaska Northwest Books, an imprint of Graphic Arts Center Publishing, and the Alaska sales representative for Ingram Book Company. She has worked for Alaska Northwest Books since 1986.
I was eager to hear from Sara about the future of regional publishing, the long history of Alaska Northwest Books, and their decision to publish John Straley’s THE BIG BOTH WAYS, which we’ll be discussing here at this blog on November 1. Writers take note, Sara has some optimistic views to share with us, which is a nice change from the usual doom-and-gloom stories about publishing.

Happy upcoming 50th birthday, Alaska Northwest Books! Who started the company and what was the first book published?

Sara Juday: We haven’t been able to determine an exact date, but we know that the first copyright date for the company is 1959. That first book is I AM ESKIMO, which is actually still in print. There was a brief time when it was out-of-stock in recent years, but we issued a new edition in 2004. Alaska Northwest Publishing Company was the original company. It was created by Bob Henning a year after he and Bob DeArmond purchased the Alaska Sportsman (now Alaska magazine), a publishing venture that grew to include The Milepost (purchased in 1962), Alaska Geographic (started in 1968), and the Alaska Journal (started in 1971).

Andromeda: What were the top bestselling Alaska Northwest Book titles of all time? Has there been a shift in what readers expect and what Alaskan authors/books do well?
Sara Juday: THE ALASKA ALMANAC will come out in its 32nd edition this November. It sells amazingly well year after year and if you totaled all sales of all editions, it would rank up there with the top sellers for the company. ALASKA BEAR TALES and COOKING ALASKAN are long-term top-selling books. ONE MAN’S WILDERNESS has outsold everything, even if you only count sales since we issued the new edition in 1999.
MR. WHITEKEY’S ALASKA BIZARRE probably wins the award for selling the most copies in the shortest amount of time. When that book was first released, we sold 12,000 copies in 18 days. RECESS AT 20 BELOW is our best-selling book for children. It has become part of several curriculum programs and that seems to be propelling sales. Among our most recent top-sellers are the DOUBLE MUSKY INN COOKBOOK (2006) and THE KIDS FROM NOWHERE (2006) and THE BIG BOTH WAYS (2008).
We seem to be moving away from guide-type books, not just travel guides, but information-based guides to plants, animals, etc. to more narrative nonfiction. People seem to be interested in stories and books that entertain as well as inform.

Andromeda: The most exciting change I’ve seen at Alaska Northwest Books is your recent decision to add fiction to the list. How and why did this happen?

Sara Juday:
Maybe you could call it our midlife crisis? We were looking forward to our 50th birthday and decided it was time to do something new. Actually, Alaska Northwest had published one novel in 1978 by Slim Randles, but we hadn’t done any other since. We stayed away from fiction, partly because we didn’t want to open that Pandora’s box of submissions. But as we entered our new relationship with Ingram Publisher Services, the timing seemed right. The idea was that we would selectively publish quality Alaska-based fiction that further our mission of helping people better understand the real Alaska.
I had talked with John Straley for years about possible nonfiction projects but nothing seemed to work. On a sales trip through Southeast Alaska, I was having coffee with Ray Troll in Ketchikan. I admitted to Ray that I had just come from Sitka and had wanted to call John, who is a friend of Ray’s, but I was too shy to call him. Ray gave me John’s phone number and encouraged me to call. So, while waiting for my flight at the Ketchikan airport, I dialed John’s number and we started talking about what might work. He told me about a historical fiction book he had that might fit for us. A couple more meetings and readings of the manuscript among my coworkers at the head office and we had a deal to publish THE BIG BOTH WAYS.
We don’t intend to do LOTS of fiction, but we want to develop a core collection of quality books with staying power. John’s stature as Alaska’s Writer Laureate sets the standard for the quality we are striving to achieve. And, we were thrilled that THE BIG BOTH WAYS received starred reviews in both Publishers Weekly and Booklist, key book trade review sources, validating our own feelings that this was top quality work.

You’ve met John Straley, I imagine. We look forward to featuring him and his newest book on “49 writers.” Tell me something interesting about him that others might not necessarily know, just to give us a first taste.

Sara Juday:
John could so easily be a character in his own television show—not that he would EVER want that. The show would be this mix of sweet comedy and poignant drama. He’s a real private investigator in a small town where pretty much everybody knows everyone, but there is still enough work to keep him busy. He is a dyslexic writer who writes both poetry and mystery novels and reads everything. He’s married to an accomplished marine biologist. He and his son Finn produced a radio show for a time. These are things many people probably already know, but I just find fascinating. I will say that I found him to be one of the most humble and generous writers I have worked with. I was so touched when he sent me flowers after he returned from his grueling book tour. Many writers might have sent me a lump of coal, but he sent me flowers.
Andromeda: Describe your ideal new Alaska Northwest Books author. In other words, if one of us wanted to wow you with a proposed project, how would we do it?

Sara Juday:
Talented, timely, tenacious, (can you tell I like alliterations?), and tireless as a promoter—that is my ideal writer. Great storytelling—nonfiction or fiction—will wow me, and if it is a fresh perspective or topic, even better. Know the market and how to reach it…Be willing to be an ongoing partner in the promotion process.

As I recall, 9/11 struck Alaska Northwest Books hard, as it affected many regional publishers. Has there been a rebound? What is the future of regional publishing?

Sara Juday:
The impacts on the economy and travel did hit us. The line of travel books from our parent company was hit hard. The Alaska tourism companies discounted trips to record low amounts, that meant that the total number of visitors coming to Alaska didn’t drop that much, but many of the travelers were not big spenders, so sales of books and all gift items suffered in 2002. Unfortunately, it was just the perfect storm of change occurring at that time, not just the effects of 9/11. Competition in Alaska publishing has been growing as self-publishing becomes easier. The Internet as a source of travel information makes some books less necessary. And, the overall economy has been soft for several years, which hit sales of our large coffee table books.
The bookselling industry also went through changes. The independent bookstores that were king in the 1990s, were hammered by the large chain stores. And, outside of the industry, video games, DVD releases all began competing for dollars and time that were once spent on books.
Regional and small publishers have always been seen as innovators, places where new ideas and new looks emerge. It’s tough to compete with the large houses, but I think some authors are getting a tad disillusioned by New York. John Straley’s other books had been published by New York houses. Big publishing is getting squeezed just like everyone else, so they are willing to take fewer risks and if your book is different or they can’t find a suitable book to compare it to for forecasting sales, well, that book probably won’t get published. And, if it does get published, it has a relatively short time on the shelf to prove its selling potential. With so many books being published now, the stores have to replace books that don’t sell at a certain level with something new to see if it will sell at that level.

Regional and small publishers generally know their niches/markets and we invest the time up front to pick books we believe in and can sell year after year. Some of our titles take a little longer to reach their top potential but we also want to publish books that have long-term sales potential. These backlist titles are truly the titles that keep us in business.

I have always said that anyone involved in publishing is a bit of a gambler. Recently I heard a commentator on NPR talking about publishing. He described publishing as a legalized form of gambling. We do look at what other similar titles have sold; what the author’s works have sold in the past. We measure how active the author will be promoting the book. We try to stay on top of trends. In the end, though we are simply playing the odds, making our best, most educated guess about what will be successful.
With Alaska Northwest Books firmly planted in Alaska, including our editorial selection, sales, and public relations efforts, we have a deeper connection to the needs of the state than Outside publishers. That close connection has given us what you might call a home field advantage—one way we improve our odds.
Alaska Northwest Books published 6 new titles in 2008, including updated revised editions of
Guide to the Birds of Alaska by Robert Armstrong
The World-Famous Alaska Highway by Tricia Brown
Alaska Almanac, 32nd edition
Also new are:
The Big Both Ways by John Straley
Thunder on the Tundra: Football Above the Arctic Circle by Lew Freedman

So far for 2009, we have more than double that number planned, so we definitely have lots to celebrate in our 50th year.

(Note from Andromeda — with so many titles mentioned above, I decided that rather than hyperlink each one, I’d toss them all into Shelfari, where its easy to read summaries by rolling over each book. Check them out!)
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