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Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: The Little Publisher That Could

September 22, 1989|JOCELYN McCLURG | The Hartford Courant

When eminent Southern literary critic and writing teacher Louis D. Rubin decided to start his own publishing company seven years ago, he did not adopt any airs.

The woodshed in his back yard would do just fine. A hand-painted sign on the shed door said: "Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill Editorial Offices: Please Keep Gate Closed Against Dog."

What Rubin cared about was helping good young writers--writers who did not have agents, who did not have New York connections--get published. His ambition did not stop there.

"I realized I didn't just want to put people into print," Rubin said recently from Chapel Hill, N.C. "I wanted to launch them."

And so he has. Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle and Larry Brown are among the literary lights of the '80s who call Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill--now housed in a real office--home.

Acclaimed Novels

"Dirty Work," Brown's searing novel about two Vietnam veterans, has just been published to critical acclaim. Gibbons' prize-winning first novel about a 10-year-old foster child, "Ellen Foster," was followed up this year by the widely praised "A Virtuous Woman."

Many of its authors are Southern, but Algonquin is not exclusively a Southern publishing house. It publishes a small number of new books every year--between 16 and 20--and offers nonfiction titles, including a new series in military history.

"Generally speaking, we try to publish books in areas we're interested in," Rubin says of Algonquin's nonfiction. "Military history, outdoors and sports, baseball. I like books about places."

But from the outset, it has been Algonquin's serious literary fiction--usually printed in small, distinctive hardcover bindings--that has drawn the most attention. The publisher's very first book, "Passing Through," a collection about farm life in Kentucky by Leon V. Driskell, was praised by the Washington Post.

"But what we didn't really know very much about was how to sell books," says Shannon Ravenel, Algonquin's senior editor.

Wonderful, Poor Time

Ravenel had been a student of Rubin's at Hollins College, and she and Rubin had remained in touch over the years. Ravenel, series editor of Houghton Mifflin's annual "The Best American Short Stories" collection, eagerly agreed when Rubin asked her to join forces with him to form Algonquin. Ravenel works out of St. Louis, where she lives. It was Ravenel who approached Driskell and asked him if he would publish with Algonquin.

"For the first five years, Louis and I didn't get paid," Ravenel recalls. "We put money into it (Rubin says he put about $50,000 into keeping Algonquin afloat) and paid our own expenses. We didn't get paid, but we had a wonderful time. Poor, but wonderful."

By 1987, Algonquin had a cash-flow problem, so it contracted with a Texas company, Taylor Publishing, to produce and distribute its books. But Rubin still did not think Algonquin was getting the sales and marketing support it needed.

"We had the anomaly of so many of our books getting marvelous reviews, and then not being able to sell them very well," says Rubin, who retired in June from teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

So Algonquin looked around for a buyer who knew how to sell books, and in January this year the company was purchased by Workman Publishing in New York, an independent publisher best known for its calendars and huge nonfiction sellers such as "The Silver Palate Cookbook" and the B. Kliban cat cartoon book.

Working Arrangement

There was the added advantage that Rubin and Ravenel were friends of publisher Peter Workman. Algonquin retains editorial control of all its books and continues to operate from Chapel Hill and St. Louis.

For its part, Workman has been sending Algonquin authors on publicity tours and advertising their books--doing the kinds of promotional activities the Algonquin staff of seven was never able to handle or afford.

"We also have our salesmen pushing Algonquin books more aggressively," Workman publicity director Andrea Glickson said. "Instead of an order for 4,000 books from bookstores, we may aim for 7,000. We don't have illusions that we're going to sell 50,000 copies of Algonquin titles, but we just want to build up to where they naturally should be."

Algonquin is pleased with what Workman can offer, and with the fact that Workman (which itself prints only about 10 to 12 new books a season) likes Algonquin's small size.

"If we get too big, then we can't offer the kind of personal editing we can do," Rubin says. "And I think editing is really what's given our company the success it's had. . . . We don't ever want to get to the stage where we're publishing 'A' books and 'B' books. We don't want to get to the stage where you're putting all your money on one or two books and letting the others take care of themselves, which is essentially what most major publishing houses do."

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