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The Best Press Money Couldn't Buy

December 23, 1990|CHRIS GOODRICH | Goodrich is a contributing editor of Publishers Weekly and author of "Anarchy and Elegance: Confessions of a Journalist at Yale Law School," to be published by Little, Brown in February.

For 10 years, North Point Press published books from what was once a church in Albany, Calif., just a few blocks west of the Berkeley city line. The spire was replaced by a weather vane long ago, and, in any case, says editor-in-chief Jack Shoemaker, North Point's settling into the former home of the Church of the Nazarene in 1980 was purely accidental; the location was convenient, being just across the street from a bookstore that Shoemaker owned. But many in the book business found significance in the fact that Shoemaker's press operated from once-hallowed ground, for if any modern publishing house can claim to have been doing the Lord's work, at least in literary terms, it was North Point.

The publishing world was stunned, consequently, when North Point announced in late November that it was discontinuing publication of new books. The financial troubles of the house were an open secret--it had never made a regular profit, and had been on the market for two years--but the end came just when the press seemed to have reached critical mass. North Point had recently published a national best-seller in Barry Lopez and Tom Pohrt's "Crow and Weasel," thriving movie tie-in editions of Evan Connell's "Mrs. Bridge" and "Mr. Bridge," and widely reviewed reprints of works by A. J. Liebling. A long-awaited novel by Connell--whose "Son of the Morning Star" became North Point's second best-seller, the first being a reprint of Beryl Markham's "West with the Night"--will be out in May.

But today North Point is on the verge of becoming a historical artifact, millionaire owner and publisher William D. Turnbull seeing that it never would reach the break-even point without a significant--and philosophically damaging--change in editorial direction. Having come close to selling the press intact a half-dozen times--among the rumored serious buyers were Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Grove Weidenfeld investor Anne Getty--Turnbull and Shoemaker finally determined to pack it in. "We were all weary" of the sales process, Shoemaker says. "It could have gone on literally forever."

The outpouring of sympathy that North Point has received since the announcement of its suspension--the office logged more than 100 calls the following business day--is unusual in publishing, and testimony to the special place that North Point has held in the literary world. "I'm shocked, dismayed to hear about it," said Ted Solotaroff, an editor at HarperCollins, when informed of the news. "North Point filled a tremendous hole in the publishing field."

Many booksellers agreed. William Koki Iwamoto, owner of Chatterton's Bookshop in Los Angeles and one of 40-odd stores that have carried all of North Point's titles, said: "That's the worst news I've heard in publishing in a long time. The kinds of books they published were just the sorts of books we wanted to present." Perhaps hardest hit of all were North Point authors; some had passed up more lucrative offers from New York publishers to stay with the house, and others now must wonder whether they will be published in book form again. Says novelist Anne Lamott: "For North Point to want you really meant something. They were like family to me--there was none of this 'honey-baby-cookie' stuff. I was shocked, stunned that nobody wanted to buy them."

So what, exactly, went wrong at North Point? It's a depressing tale, and a familiar one--the conflict between art and commerce, which commerce usually wins. "The kind of publishing we do is very labor-intensive, and it was too expensive to do with routine sales," says Shoemaker. "There was no quick fix, and there may have been no fix at all. The buyers just weren't out there: This is an aggressively illiterate culture, and the number of serious, literate readers is infinitesimally small. If we had been able to pull the sale of the average book to about 6,000, 7,500, we not only would have survived, we would have thrived."

In some ways, it's extraordinary that a nation of 250 million couldn't support a literary house seeking so few readers, especially since an enormous percentage of its authors have won distinguished writing awards--James Salter, Gary Snyder, W. S. Merwin, Guy Davenport, Wendell Berry, Lawrence Weschler . . . the list goes on and on. But North Point swam decidedly against the current; mass-merchandising has become the norm in the book industry, many houses now finding it uneconomic to publish any book in the quantity to which North Point, ironically, only aspired.

And being "author-driven," as Shoemaker describes the press, North Point kept all but eight or 10 of its nearly 300 titles in print . . . thus pleasing its writers but greatly increasing the number of books adding nothing to, and often subtracting from, the bottom line. The fact that no publisher bought North Point after seeing its account books indicates that while the press' backlist was priceless in literary terms, its value in hard dollars could indeed be calculated--and was found wanting.

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