City Spotlight: Exploring Seattle's Book Ecosystem
Last September, author Junot Diaz spoke to a standing-room-only audience at Town Hall in Seattle. Within the first few minutes, he gave the city props for approving a $122 million library levy the previous month. That’s how Seattle rolls.
It’s a book town and proud of it. Seattle always ranks at the top of the list of the most literary cities, dueling with Minneapolis and Washington, DC. Amazon and Costco are headquartered here. We thought we’d head to the Pacific Northwest and see what the publishing scene is all about. And what we found was a vibrant literary community with a lot of publishing options. It just doesn’t look like what you’d expect.
“I think there’s less of a publishing scene and more of a book ecosystem in Seattle,” says Gary Luke, Sasquatch Books’ President and Publisher. Rather than just editors and agents comingling, the publishing landscape in Seattle is more of a literary pastiche, and the result is a vibrant, active community of people and businesses coming together around books in all their various forms. “There are publishers here,” Luke said. “But along with that, I’d include bookstores, the Richard Hugo House, food bloggers, 826 Seattle, the libraries, Hedgebrook, Town Hall and, of course, Amazon.”
We’ll get to the others, but let’s start with the publishers. As the publishing industry as a whole transforms itself, so too is publishing in Seattle changing. Luke says Sasquatch, which was founded to publish the Best Places guidebooks, has found that there’s a lot more content and great ideas out there than just travel guidebooks. “We remain a regional publishing company. That’s our mark in the entire national book scene.” And those great ideas are print driven. Ebooks only account for a tiny percentage of Sasquatch’s book sales.
The Mountaineers Books is another regional publisher; it has launched Skipstone Books — a lifestyle imprint with titles like Urban Pantry by Amy Pennington — to appeal to a national market. The University of Washington Press has a robust publishing program as well; it’s been around since 1915 and has become the leading publisher of scholarly books and regional nonfiction in the Pacific Northwest.
Smaller presses dot Seattle’s literary landscape. Copper Canyon Press and Wave Books are dedicated to publishing books of poetry, and are both resoundingly respected by poets and publishers. Wizards of the Coast and Fantagraphics Books are leading publishers of fantasy and sci-fi games, and comics and graphic novels, respectively. Chin Music Press has a small list with high production values, focusing on crafting books about contemporary Japan and now New Orleans. Founder Bruce Rutledge worked in Japan in various media jobs. When he and his wife were looking to leave Tokyo and find a city to start their press, they set their sights on Seattle. “We were looking for an environment where we could do what we do, have a family, not be as cutthroat, and do it with modest capital,” Rutledge explains. “We needed to have lots of indie bookstores, people who like to read, and who go to readings.” Seattle delivered, and then some. “There are a lot of small, inspiring publishers here that form a supportive community,” Rutledge adds. “Copper Canyon Press, for instance, was so helpful to us. We may be a small group but we are fairly close, perhaps because many of us are distributed through Perseus.”
Collaboration and cooperation are recurring themes when talking to publishers, packagers and literati in the Emerald City. “I’ve been so delightfully connected by cross-pollinators who introduce me to other book-related groups. Seattle is really proud of its reading and writing culture, and I see so many people wanting to work together to promote each other’s books,” says Tegan Tigani, children’s book buyer at Queen Anne Book Company, as well as a ghost writer and editor with Girl Friday Productions.
Kelsye Nelson was so influenced by the networking in Seattle that she turned it into a business. “Writer.ly sprung from Seattle’s writing groups,” she said. “My co-founder and I were sitting with a bunch of writers talking about how hard it is and realized we’d get farther together than on our own. Part of the new paradigm is that the author is taking over a lot of the responsibilities that were once the realm of the publisher — marketing, website development, copy editing.” Writer.ly empowers writers by providing an online marketplace that connects writers with the services they need to create their books and get them sold. Writers post jobs describing what they need and what their budget is. Freelancers bid on the jobs, and the writer chooses based on price, portfolio, reviews and experience. It’s like Priceline meets Match.com for writers.
When the Modernist Cuisine project was first taking shape, Editor-in-Chief Wayt Gibbs looked to the generous spirit that infuses Seattle’s literary community. “A huge help was getting advice from Ed Marquand, who has produced gorgeous, small-run art books for many years,” he says. “We learned everything we needed to know about making deluxe, high-end editions. He was very free and open with his counsel, putting us in touch with prepress company iocolor. Both Ed and iocolor connected us with talent: copy editors, typesetters, proofreaders. We drew on their alumni.”
The result was the six-volume, $625 Modernist Cuisine set that set the foodie world on fire in 2011, and which could never have been published in its final form with a traditional publishing model. Seattle’s tech industry informs the nature of publishing in Seattle, and not just in terms of digital publishing. “If we had taken a traditional publishing route, we wouldn’t have had the freedom to scale up to this size. This view — that big payoffs come from big gambles — is not unusual for Seattle and the West Coast. If you’re going to do something new, you have to come out of the gate strong with your first effort. Go big or go home,” Gibbs adds.
Book publishing has been influenced by its surroundings in the Pacific Northwest. The weather contributes to the desire to hunker down and read, write and explore a rich inner life. What better to do on a rainy day than poke around the architectural marvel of the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library or go to a reading at Elliott Bay Books or take a writing class at Hugo House or Hedgebrook?
It’s not all sweetness and light, however. Like Seattle’s overcast skies, Amazon casts a long shadow over the city, but that’s not always a bad thing for the literary community. Independent bookstores continue to shutter, in large part due to the shift to online commerce and the rise of ebooks. (As the second-largest retailer in the U.S., Kirkland-based Costco has also played a part in shifting book-buying habits — getting your book onto pallets and into their warehouses virtually guarantees thousands of sales.) Amazon’s strong-arm tactics with publishers both large and small has not been lost on the literary community, either. However, Amazon does bring many positives to the city. With the onset of its publishing program, the online behemoth has drawn fresh publishing talent to the city. “Amazon has perked things up quite a bit. There’s a whole infusion of new people who moved here to work on their publishing program,” says Adrian Liang, associate publisher at becker&mayer!, one of the largest book packagers in the U.S.
“When I moved to Seattle in 2001, there was no publishing scene. Now, it’s completely different. [Seattle] is a player and we are taken seriously and there’s a network,” says Jenna Land Free, editorial director of Girl Friday Productions, a boutique editing, writing and publicity firm. “Agents, writers, and publishers come to Seattle to see Amazon and that makes us feel more relevant. And technology has helped — things don’t just have to happen in New York.” (And like Amazon, Costco draws book reps from every publishing house and distributor to pitch books for club selection.)
In addition to launching a new publishing program and providing self-publishing services through CreateSpace, Amazon’s reach is felt in other ways. Amazon’s Director of Author and Publisher Relations, Jon Fine, has done extensive outreach into the community, speaking at conferences and the Richard Hugo House, and financially supporting various local programs.
“Let’s be honest: We all benefit from more people writing and telling stories,” Fine said. “It’s incredibly difficult to write a book, let alone publish it. Then when you are published, it’s even harder. But it’s a golden age for authors. You can do things that you couldn’t do before. We are helping facilitate the creativity of others.”
“It’s a natural extension of our business to foster this type of creativity. We want to be in business with people who are already doing a great job,” he said, citing 826 Seattle, ACT’s Young Playwright’s Program, Artist Trust’s EDGE for Writers program and Humanities Washington as a few of the many organizations to which Amazon has given grants. He encourages nonprofits to ask for help at amazon.com/authorgrants.
That brings us to digital publishing. In addition to traditional publishing, ebooks are a viable and thriving option and Seattle’s avenues for self- and digital publishing are plentiful. Third Place Books and University Book Store have even taken an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy, setting up Espresso Book Machine stations in their stores to enable writers to quickly print on-demand perfect-bound paperback books. Writer.ly and Booktrope are helping writers find all the services they need to take control of their book project.
“The thing that is unique about Seattle and Portland is the DIY [do it yourself] culture,” says Jenna Land Free. “People are much more open to self-publishing and excited about it. If they have any kind of network that they can tap into, they often prefer to do it that way.”
“It’s obvious to everyone that publishing is going through throes of massive consternation,” says Wayt Gibbs. “In that context, it’s an advantage to not have a big staff that’s been doing the same thing in the same way. The new model is smaller and more flexible about what’s possible. It allows you to be a lot more nimble to take advantage of new opportunities rather than fixating on the process.”
Nimble is a word that comes up over and over when talking about publishing. Publishers, writers and everyone in the literary community have had to think quickly and creatively to survive and thrive through the publishing industry’s massive transformation. And Seattle is nothing if not nimble. Perhaps it’s the blue-sky thinking of the tech space or the way the large DIY community excels at thinking around problems, but the community here is finding a way to collectively co-exist and be greater than the sum of its parts.
“There is a collective need to get work out there. There will always be small presses and publishers popping up,” says Richard Hugo House Program Director Brian McGuigan, who observes that the book ecosystem that Gary Luke pointed to is not retracting but simply going local. “Like eating local, it’s the same with the publishing world. Big houses are publishing more Fifty Shades of Grey, so we have to be more realistic about traditional publishing.” For many, it makes perfect sense to look within Seattle’s growing literary community instead to find homegrown, quality producers to feed the publishing pipeline. BB
Jennifer Worick is the former editorial director of Running Press Book Publishers and becker&mayer! She’s the New York Times-bestselling author of more than 25 books and is also a publishing consultant. Her publishing talks and workshops with Kerry Colburn can be found at bizofbooks.com.
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