Once considered a small Southern house that specialized in literary, coming-of-age novels by Southern writers, Algonquin has pulled a neat trick: it's come of age itself while retaining the qualities that made it such a lovable youngster. Algonquin is now a national publisher boasting a range of writers from around the country and abroad; it has its own paperback program; it nurtures and promotes its titles in imaginative, entertaining, effective ways; and it has created strong bonds with booksellers. At the same time, as it has since its founding, Algonquin continues to offer a solid mix of fiction and nonfiction and a standard of writing and storytelling that is remarkably consistent from distinctive book to distinctive book.
"Algonquin is the model company of what's right in the industry," said Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, Pa. Besides having a good list, he said, "They're exceptional at publicity, advertising and personal sales--creating buzz and handselling."
Becky Anderson of Anderson's Bookshops, Naperville and Downers Grove, Ill., concurred: "They create relationships with us and help us create relationships with our customers. They value what we think and want to know what works for us and what we want to try. They make buying books very attractive with extremely competitive terms and margins. It all goes a long way to building a great business for them and in turn builds a great business for us."
That business began in 1982, when Louis Rubin and Shannon Ravenel founded the house in part because Southern writers had trouble breaking into New York publishing. Authors published in the first years included Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle and the late Larry Brown. In 1989, Algonquin was bought by Workman Publishing. It maintains its Chapel Hill, N.C., office, although it has some operations at Workman headquarters in the heart of Yankeeland, aka New York City.
Algonquin publishes some 30 titles a year in two seasons, split about evenly between fiction and nonfiction. Offerings include some literary fiction, a debut novel or two, memoirs, cookbooks, a collection of essays and more, on average two books a month, and "each has its own audience and constituency," publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt said. Becky Anderson commented, "It's a small list, but they do so much." (For more on the fall list, see below.)
There are many advantages to having a relatively small list. For one, the staff of 16 knows the list well--not always the case at other houses. "We're contained enough so we can do what we want to do and need to do," Scharlatt said. "We make every book work."
Work them, they do.
In early times, however, some of Algonquin's bestsellers were helped by others, beginning in 1995, when on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote of My Old Man and the Sea: A Father and Son Sail Around Cape Horn by David Hays and Daniel Hays: "The account of the passage, related in alternating sections by father and son, will be read with delight 100 years from now." After that, My Old Man and the Sea had full sales.
In 1997, Oprah picked Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman, both by Kaye Gibbons, for her book club--and of course huge sales followed. In 2000, lightning struck again: Oprah picked Gap Creek by Robert Morgan. And Good Morning America helped boost Lee Smith to fame, picking The Last Girls for its book club.
But who needs Oprah when your company has developed the kinds of relationships that make some booksellers seem to be an extension of the publishing house?
In the past several years Algonquin has had three homegrown bestsellers: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. And in the past year, Algonquin placed six books on the New York Times bestseller list. These achievements--and increasing sales throughout the list--come "from the momentum we create early on for a book," marketing director Craig Popelars said. Or, as publicity director Michael Taeckens noted, "We never stop talking about the books. We never stop promoting them."
"Once the manuscripts come in, we all read them, and Craig and I strategize and figure out how to run with these different titles," Taeckens continued. "We're always trying to think of something that's new and fun and different that will attract people's attention. We can't always do giveaways with galleys, but we always try to inject some personality into the press materials and avoid bland corporate speak."
"Peter [Workman] and Elisabeth have never been constrained about how we promote a book," Popelars added. "The philosophy is that if you feel it will sell books, just do it."
The other important aspect of promotion is having fun. As Popelars said, "If we're not entertained, who will be?"
Becky Anderson, whose stores have done many programs with Algonquin, attested to the approach's effectiveness. "They're always successful," she said. "We always have fun and our customers have fun. And we sell a lot of books. There's nothing like the humor they bring to our business."
Among the company's typical and amusing promotions and marketing efforts:
In 1998, the house promoted Running North by Ann Mariah Cook, about a New Hampshire family's entry into the Yukon Quest, by hosting a dogsled run between two New Hampshire bookstores.
For An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, the 2007 novel by Brock Clarke, Algonquin staged a letter-writing campaign about house torching that led police to make inquiries--and had to be shut down quickly. Despite "a little bit of negative attention," as Taeckens put it, "we got an amazing outpouring of review attention, probably more than for any other novel we've published. I heard from so many people who thought it was a hoot."
Taeckens's all-time favorite campaign, he said, was for Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond, "a funny and nostalgic memoir" about smaller candy companies and their history that was published in 2004. Algonquin contacted the seven companies profiled in the book and received "hundreds of boxes of candies" to give as samples with galleys to the media. "It went over extremely well," Taeckens said. "People reminisced about candy bars" that had either disappeared or were hard to find. "I heard from so many people."
Not only does promotion start long before it does at many other houses, it continues long after. For example, Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell from the Sky was published at the beginning of the year, but she is "still on tour, still getting publicity," Taeckens said. "We're getting requests for interviews and appearances. We're still promoting it as much now as we were in January."
In the same way, Algonquin continues to pay attention to backlist. "Peter Workman is a pitbull about backlist," Popelars said. "Once he sinks his teeth into a book, he doesn't let go. A given title might be backlist, but we treat it like frontlist and pound and pound away."
"It's a lesson from Workman," Scharlatt said. "Don't give up on a book. It's not just for this season."
Among Algonquin backlist gems, Scharlatt cited Educating Esme by Esme Raji Codell, the diary of a teacher's first year teaching in inner-city Chicago. When the MS arrived, Scharlatt remembered, "I thought, 'Just what the world needs. Another teacher memoir.' " But she "laughed and cried," and now, 11 years, 200,000 copies and three editions later, "It's one of the classic books about teaching."
Popelars called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv--which argues that exposure to nature is essential for a child's healthy development--"the most important book we've published. It changed the way people think about raising their children."
Just as Algonquin might change how people think about raising its book children.