Mark Bailey and Kirsten Allen, the duo behind Utah-based Torrey House Press, have had a steep learning curve, including moving from a print-on-demand model to a traditional distributor of product through Consortium. Since 2010, when they launched Torrey House Press here in Utah, they’ve kicked out seven titles beginning with Maximilian Werner’s slim but powerfully lyrical Crooked Creek. More are on the docket. When 15 Bytes’ literary editor David Pace caught up with Mark, by email, they were in Colorado meeting with a new author.
15B: You once remarked that the number of books being published in a year in the U.S. exceed one million. How does a small press in Utah find a viable place in all that?
MB: You are right. Publishing has an aspect of a one in a million. But it’s not quite that bad. Most of those million titles are self published and won’t be seen by much more than the author’s family. And it was long odds too for Wasatch Advisors, the successful investment management /mutual fund firm I retired from. At one point while we were still trying to get on the map, I noted to my partners that there were more mutual funds out there than there were stocks to choose from. But Sam Stewart, the founder of Wasatch, would always remind us that there was always room in the market for the best. Torrey House hopes that by establishing a niche with high quality literary fiction in the West, and with lively, topical, environmental nonfiction we can build a brand that gets our authors books into readers hands. As the crazy publishing industry consolidates, Torrey House benefits in that there is a growing number of mid-list authors that are being abandoned by their big publishers. We are finding that these established authors and their agents are happy, or at least willing, to talk to us.
15B: Who would have guessed that a small, independent press would benefit from the turmoil in commercial publishing? Is that also true with distribution?
MB: Sure. Bellevue Literary Press, a sister publisher also at our distributor, Consortium Books Sales and Distribution, published Paul Harding’s Tinker for instance, the last Pulitzer prize winner for fiction. It’s not a landslide, and the distributor is hurt like everyone else by the predatory practices of Amazon and the generally shrinking sale of books all around, but without distributors like ours, mid-list authors would be having a harder time getting published.
15B: I know you’re particularly concerned about how the cattle industry is decimating the land. What role does that cause play in your selection of books? Is there a litmus test for what a manuscript has to have to be published by THP?
MB: As you noticed, our mission has expanded beyond the Colorado Plateau to quality fiction from the West and topical, environmental nonfiction from anywhere. But the CP will always be special. You mentioned grazing. Kirsten and I have a special concern about public land grazing in the West and the degradation it causes that we all seem to accept as normal today. There may be no one thing on the Plateau that causes more environmental damage. But it is boring to talk about, and so we say, why not wrap the subject up in a good story? I’d love to see a manuscript that takes on the cowboy myth and the special interest nature of the cattle industry.
15B: Your experience founding Wasatch Advisors (a venture capital firm in Salt Lake City) must inform what you’re doing in your new venture at THP. Can you talk about that?
MB: As a new publisher and an old investment guy, I am keenly interested in the economic health of local communities. I’m appalled at the lack of economic diversity forced on us by the likes of Amazon, Walmart, the chains and big box stores, and I worry about it the same way an ecologist worries about biodiversity. Sustainable community and the benefits of buying local are good examples of topical nonfiction that I hope Torrey House can support.
15B: Related to this, western writers/authors (especially those of us writing prose) often complain about the bias of the New York publishing juggernaut–that editors and publishers just don’t get (and don’t want to get) the “voice” and the issues of the western writer. Is that true in your experience? And what part of that on-going disconnect is the fault of those of us writing out of our western experience?
MB: Jana Richman is the author of our recent title The Ordinary Truth, a novel with the controversial Las Vegas pipeline set as a background. Jana was told by her New York agent and her previous publisher, HarperCollins, that they just “didn’t get the whole water thing.” Of course, water is a big deal in the West and makes for a great backdrop to create conflict and resolution. The disconnect is part of the reason we were able to pick up Jana. But…I don’t think it is that big of a deal any more, and writers from the West shouldn’t worry about it much. Wallace Stegner plowed the ground for the idea of quality literature and the West, and there is a national, even international audience today for good literature, Western or otherwise. Write what you know, be open, sincere, honest, and go ahead and be from the West.
15B: I noticed that THP has recently announced a call for what you’re calling “topical nonfiction,” that is, nonfiction that addresses environmental issues more directly. Can you tell me the thinking behind this shift away from fiction/narrative nonfiction? What’s the strategy?
MB: When Kirsten and I started Torrey House Press we said that by the time we were done with it we wanted there to be more grass on the mountains and water in the streams. We thought we could help the environmental cause by telling stories via pertinent literary fiction and lively, narrative nonfiction. The only problem with those routes remains getting a reasonable number of books into readers’ hands. We can’t make a difference, or stay afloat for that matter, if we don’t sell enough books. Selling fiction by relatively unknown authors and published by a small press like ours is always going to be a challenge. We think we might be a little more effective if we can find some environmentally-relevant topical nonfiction for which there is a ready-made market of folks already on the lookout for work about their interest. Take, for example, The Straw Bale House, published by our admired competitor, Chelsea Green Publishing Company in Vermont. If you search online for “straw bale house,” their book shows up prominently. It is hard to do the same for a fiction title. Unless you know the author or the title or both, you will be long in the search and growing dusty before one of our fiction titles shows up. Chelsea Green has sold over 100,000 copies of The Straw Bale House, a lovely number. Torrey House will continue to do fiction and narrative nonfiction, but we have also put out a call for proposals about such subjects as environmental health and economics, renewable energy, the importance of wilderness, public land management, the local food and business movement and other ideas of enlightened, environmental, sustainable living.
15B: What’s the most exciting part of publishing in the midst of the so-called “Great Recession” and during an era when the publishing world is convulsing? Any small victories you want to mention?
MB: Kirsten likes to say we will look back and say we got started in the days “when things were weird.” I can’t help thinking of the old gem that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. But here we are with 7 titles out, 9 more scheduled in the next 12 months and contracts underway for several more. The Great Recession still has readers a little reluctant to buy books, but that will slowly get better. In the meanwhile, when we get a bunch of our authors together to talk about ideas, or I read a manuscript that raises the hair on my arms and makes me cry, we experience the little successes that provide the psychic income to keep us going while we work and wait for the green kind.
15B: Psychic income? Sounds like what a lot of writers survive on these days. Which leads me to ask: what can writers do to kick the can down the road themselves? Playwrights need a theatre. Artists need galleries. Other than the obvious (a publisher) and the occasional reading somewhere, what’s the equivalent space/mechanism for literary types?
MB: Oh boy, great question. There is a lot authors can do. Authors, we have found, are pretty good at supporting each other, but there is always room for more. Don’t hole up in front of your keyboard, as nice as that may be. Join a writers group, get to know your fellow authors, buy their books and review them online at places like Goodreads, Barnes and Noble (even Amazon). Reader reviews are precious. Comment on the author’s and publisher’s websites and hook up with them often in social media. And most of all, support your local independent bookseller. Buy your books there, go to readings there, mingle there. The local, independent booksellers are a tremendous support to small publishers and new authors. Support them back and get to know yours on a first name basis! When a new writer gets their own work out, they will find all the love gets returned and then some.
Torrey House Press has published seven titles to date, including Jana Richman’s The Ordinary Truth, which will be the subject of an upcoming review in 15 Bytes. We we also be reviewing Maximilian Werner’s Evolved: Chronicles of a Pleistocene Mind in a future edition.